STARING INTO THE ABYSS
Imagine yourself standing in front of a small, circular pool. The opening is big enough for one or two people to jump in at a time. The water is near black, and there’s no telling how deep it goes. It’s seemingly bottomless and there could be anything down there. An undiscovered cave system. Treasure. Thalassophobia-triggering sea creatures. Mer-people. The thought of diving into this pool may be thrilling, sure, but it’s certainly not for everybody. The appeal is narrow. Entry points are limited.
The pool, and what lies beneath, represent the alternate-reality games (ARGs) of marketing yesteryear. An ARG is an “interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform and employs transmedia storytelling to deliver a story that may be altered by players’ ideas or actions.” Players don’t know where or how far the journey into the abyss will take them, and in more cryptic cases, don’t even know what the experience they’re participating in is actually promoting. Again, the water is dark and deep and you don’t know what you might encounter once you dive in.
It makes sense that ARGs peaked in ambition and popularity as a marketing tactic some time last decade (2007-ish?) given the media landscape and consumer habits at the time. ARGs are niche almost by definition. The level of sustained participation and accumulated knowledge required on the part of the player can be so high that often the “better” the ARG is, the greater the barrier to entry and the fewer people it will draw. ARGs are typically only seen now as part of promotional efforts for video games, a tech-forward medium that touts passionate fans desirous of greater immersion with the properties they love. For instance, try to catch up on everything that happened in the ARG for the video game The Binding of Isaac. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Don’t get me wrong, ARGs can be super cool. And by all means, if you think a next-gen ARG is right for your IP or product, hit me up because I’d be happy to geek out over what one might achieve for you. But since few of us have the bandwidth or devotion to see an ARG-like experience through (even factoring in the isolation brought on by the pandemic) let’s keep the aqueous analogies rolling along and look at another kind of transmedia experience.
THE WATER PARK
You’re standing in front of another body of water. You’re already standing in it, actually, because this time the water is only waist deep at its deepest point, but it stretches out to the horizon. There’s room enough for everyone to jump in and splash around. Also, there are slides, water cannons, buckets of water balloons, a lazy river; plenty of stuff to do, and it’s all quickly accessible.
This water park experience represents “Get Your Cut,” a gamified transmedia experience and sweepstakes that Lionsgate and the agency I work for, AvatarLabs, created for the film Knives Out. The experience invited fans to find clues and solve puzzles hidden within the film’s marketing campaign; each mystery solved earned another entry into a $250,000 sweepstakes and a shot at instant-win prizes.
Like the water park, “Get Your Cut” was designed so that everybody could jump in and play quickly. The basic idea was simple: clues and mysteries would leverage as much of the traditional marketing as possible, so by playing a participant would be exposed to a wide spectrum of promotional material. One moment they’re peering behind a family tree in augmented reality to discover a scrambled word, the next moment they’re on Twitter watching a video of Rian Johnson delivering a cryptic riddle, and so on. Just hop in the slide (a hub site) to splashdown and be directed to some new part of the campaign — social, A/V, print, paid media, AR, etc.— to find the clues to solve the mysteries.
Each mystery was self-contained, so no knowledge of previous mysteries was required to solve them. The experience was only one layer “down,” so instead of a bottomless abyss, it was a breezy, but challenging experience that people could keep coming back to with new mysteries (and chances to win) shared a few times a week. Grab a water gun or hop on a slide, and go. In this approach, you’re losing the kind of immersion an interactive, networked, player-driven narrative that an ARG can deliver, but gaining broader appeal, and greater participation and retention. Lose depth (of experience), gain breadth (reach).
And with that reach, we got the user’s attention and held it. Participation and engagement numbers far exceeded expectations. Over 160,000 unique participants. Over 200,000 entries. The average session time spent on the campaign site exceeded two-and-a-half minutes.
Of course, the sweepstakes component and instant-win prizes certainly helped fuel participation, but I’d contend that even without the prizes GYC had an infrastructure built for success. Why? Let’s look at some takeaways, and see how those learnings might be applied to other transmedia campaigns.
- Plan! Test the plan! Also, plan! You try to anticipate human behavior as much as possible, but once the experience is live you’ll want to have a robust plan to fall back on and guide your decisions. We playtested different mystery types to see how long it took people to solve them. We established naming conventions, a copy and tone guide, and best practices for how mysteries would function and best leverage the film. This allowed us to stay responsive to any new or unplanned marketing element, able to craft and turnaround a new mystery for client approval very quickly.
- Be everywhere… with a map. Think (and then think some more) about how people are going to navigate through the experience. Use cases and UX diagrams are a must. As I’ve established, every marketing element was an opportunity for a new mystery or clue in GYC, and therefore, another opportunity for engagement. The sweepstakes necessitated a website to log submissions, so it made sense in this instance for the site to drive people out to the various marketing elements; it was a simple, effective funnel. With technology and social media creating new touchpoints all the time, there are countless ways to reach people and route them to the next experience, but there’s no excuse to not be (thoughtfully) in as many places as possible in 2020. Take full advantage of the infrastructure available to you. Be smart. Map it out. Reach and route with purpose.
- Instantly fun… for everyone. We devised game mechanics that rewarded everyone from casual players to expert puzzle-solvers. With a variety of puzzles and difficulty levels available at launch, no one had to stay stumped on a mystery they couldn't solve. We weren’t creating an ARG here, so we lowered the barrier to entry and delivered something compelling and comprehensible. Momentum and retention should be your goals.
- Match the experience to the property. Duh, right? Head-scratching puzzles, murder mystery-inspired riddles and wordplay, and a large sum of money left behind in a will (to tie the sweepstakes in) made sense as an extension of the plot and themes of Knives Out. Tapping into those core elements creates authenticity and buy-in.
- Know, and share, how it ends. People may be reluctant to jump into an experience not knowing when or where it may end. Again, we’re not catering to the niche divers of the abyss, and time is a precious commodity. As a sweepstakes, GYC had a definitive end date, prizes, rules, and FAQ communicated from the beginning. Don’t be afraid to let participants know and anticipate the end; they’ll be more likely to dive in.
- Plan! Reiterating this just in case you’re thinking about winging it.
Let’s take a big, big, way-too-big step back here to look a little bit ahead. Cool? Cool.
The world is changing, evolving on multiple fronts. Our attention spans aren’t shrinking, they’re evolving. Globalization isn’t dying, it’s evolving. Everything is freaking evolving. A great technology wave is cresting, and the rate of change itself is accelerating. Look, this is an essay for a different time, but all this means is that we’re soon likely to enter into an era where technology transforms huge swaths of society, at a pace that will be difficult for most of us to keep up with. The Age of Change is coming.
That can seem scary or overwhelming, but to me, it’s exciting. Okay, let’s step forward again.
In entertainment marketing, we’re feeling these evolutionary impacts now. How we consume content is changing, rapidly. There’s an explosion of choices and on-demand services fighting for their piece of the pie. The rise of AI, everywhere. Social media drives awareness, activism, and change like never before. Quibi is… well, a thing. (Note: There will be missteps.)
Transmedia campaigns are evolving, too. I’m not spending my days thinking about a campaign that mimics “Get Your Cut;” I’m thinking about what those next steps in transmedia marketing are, and the possibilities that come with them. What comes after the water park? More touchpoints, greater (human) connectivity and (technological) interconnectivity, and better, new kinds of experiences that are already here, or soon on their way.
The ways in which we can reach people, and get their attention, are evolving. The question then is: what do you want to do once you have it?
Hit me up if you’d like to chat transmedia marketing and storytelling, or want to learn how to stretch an analogy to its breaking point. Visit the Avatarlabs site to see more of our work.
Knives Out is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.