The Allure of Alternate Reality Games

In this month’s edition of Wired, writer Frank Rose does an excellent job describing the marketing power of alternative reality games.

What is an ARG? Basically, it’s a game that crosses traditional medium, the digital world in a variety of forms and can even take place in a number of real world locations – like bars, concerts or back alleys.

One of the best examples of a successful ARG is called the Audi Art of the Heist. At a New York auto show in 2005, Audi had planned to unveil its new A3 but the night before the event, a video surfaced from an Audi dealership with two thugs stealing the coveted A3. They get into the car, hot wire it and smash through the front window – gunshots follow and the security tape quickly made it’s way online.

At the car show, the spot that the A3 occupied simply stood empty for the entire show. A security force was hired to help find the A3 and bloggers / web users began to find clues around the web – on car sites, security and gossip sites, etc – about where the car might be and who the culprits were.

TV ads were made spreading the word about the missing Audi and the game continued to grow – characters were developed, fake romances and stories and many people were still on the hunt for the missing A3.

All in all, the Heist ARG lasted for months – generating millions of impressions and spreading awareness around the new A3.

My guess would be that unless you work in advertising / digital marketing, you’ve never heard of the Art of the Heist. It’s no “King of Beers” or “Priceless,” but it was a campaign targeted at car enthusiasts and early adopters. As an advertiser, rather than run mass TV ads that generate awareness but not necessarily interest, Audi decided to create a game for it’s core audience and let the word spread.

The Art of the Heist has started a strong trend for some brands and ARG specialist companies, like 42 Entertainment (profiled in the Wired article) are specifically designed to create games that are interesting and alluring for hardcore consumers to play.

Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Resnor recently worked with 42 Entertainment to create one of the most elaborate ARG’s ever. Through a series of complex clues (from graphic treatments on select tour shirts to hidden USB cards in washrooms with clips of exclusive NIN tracks), the ARG generated a huge amount of interest from the loyal NIN fans.

Some lucky fans even got an exclusive invite (after completing a number of stages within the game) to gather at an empty parking lot in LA and enter boarded up buses to be taken to an undisclosed location. At the location, they were guided into a back room that was full of amplifiers. Suddenly, NIN started playing songs that had never been played in the US and the loyal ARGers were rewarded for their gaming abilities.

The planning required to create a successful ARG is immense. Not only does it take time to come up with a compelling mystery for the consumers, but continual monitoring must occur to ensure that they are moving in the right direction (Ever played a game and gotten nowhere? Not very much fun…)

Still, many advertisers don’t see the value in an ARG – it seems too complicated, to much of a stretch to think that your consumers are that interested in your brand to follow it on a complex journey.

For many categories this is true and it certainly seems that the successful ARG’s have a base of consumers that are extremely loyal (Audi lovers) and always hungry for the next product (NIN fans).

But for some marketers, the prospect of an ARG is daunting because it gives control to the consumers (somewhat) to consume their own message and create their own story. The idea of no longer shouting your message but relying on your core audience to discover it seems backwards – but it’s not.

All marketers know that early adopters and influencer’s are key to long term strategic success. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point uses a number of different examples (the rise of Hush Puppies, the spread of sneezes, the decline of NYC subway graffiti, etc) to highlight how important these influencer’s are.

It seems that as media (traditional and digital) becomes more fragmented, ARG’s will help to target a brands core base.

Just something different to consider during the brand innovation discussion’s of 2008.

– Another neat blog about the NIN campaign

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