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Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are a great way to tell your marketing story online

I love ARGs–or alternate reality games–as a marketing tool. I personally find them fascinating when used effectively. Two of my recent favorites have been the ILoveBees campaign from 42 Entertainment for Microsoft’s Halo 2 release, and the “Ethan Haas was Right” mystery currently marketing J.J. Abrams’ new movie codenamed “Cloverfield” online. If you haven’t seen either one, read about ILoveBees and Ethan Haas was Right on Wikipedia.

Part of the reason they are even more successful these days is the socialization of the Web. With an online ARG, one person who becomes fascinated with the hooks and mystery of the game end up sharing links virally through social networks and outlets like Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. The viral movement makes the scope of the campaign much larger than if you had to personally find and attract each person to the campaign.

The ARGs are also a great way to educate consumers and interest them in your product. The ILoveBees campaign leaked parts a side story of the Halo saga, and the Ethan Haas was Right campaign had a huge pull already because of the mystery surrounding J.J. Abrams new film and his background from Lost, the television series. ILoveBees ended up creating one of the largest media launches in history–until Halo 3 was released.

The Escapist highlighted an even more intricate campaign done by Lance Weiler to promote his film Head Trauma with a blog called Hope is Missing. The blog follows a storyline similar to the movie with the sole author logging his efforts to find the missing “Hope.” According to Weiler, with these types of games, the site feeds his creativity for the film and vice versa.

“They’re wild times right now in terms of storytelling,” says Weiler. “I’m approaching all my work in a new way – I’m creating a world. It’s not just enough to create a script anymore.”

The world is what end users and consumers cry out for these days.

The ARG isn’t Weiler’s first effort in the space. He experimented with promoting his films by integrating them with Web sites back in 1998 with his first film The Last Broadcast. His experience shows as he is smart enough to provide various levels of involvement for the passive observer or for the conspiracy theory junkie.

“Sometimes ARGs are dense and take a quite a bit of time to get into,” says Weiler. “With this we were doing media-integrated gameplay. You can enjoy it at multiple levels. You could dig as deep as you want, but you can just look at the web videos if you want. You don’t have to play the game.”

ARGs are one of my marketing passions, and while they take a great deal of effort and planning to execute, their effectiveness with the young, Internet generation has to be noted. Weiler is one of the bold few experimenting with ARGs and involving fans in the presentation of his films by interacting through cell phone text messages and remixing music and scenes live while the movie plays.

“We live in a remix culture, an on-demand culture,” says Weiler. “Media consumption is changing, and because of that media creation is changing. Everything now has become decentralized, controlled by the end user. When that happens it’s about discoverability. It’s all about empowering that user and finding ways to interact with them, and the language of that storytelling has changed.”

While Weiler focuses on the storytelling aspect of involving the fans in the ARG, the marketing aspect is visible in all parts of his site’s presentation.

ARGs can be as simple as a YouTube video or as complicated as a full-fledged puzzle site and email campaign like Ethan Haas was Right. In grassroots marketing, ARGs are cost-effective despite the effort required because of their large scope and conversational/viral value.

Be sure to consider an ARG next time you have a marketing story to tell, but make sure it’s properly introduced so as not to make a bad or scary first impression.

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