Published: March 12, 2001
It all comes first to Usenet. While web-based discussion boards continue to grow in popularity, the fastest, most up-to-date information about new trends in computer games is still best found on the old Usenet text discussion boards, especially those clustered under the comp.sys.ibm.pc.games group. While they've taken a blow recently with the sale of the popular web usenet interface Deja.com to Google, the boards still provide the rawest buzz about games, game bugs, and new demos.
So it was no surprise back in September when Monolith released its "technology demo" for the soon-to-be-widely-acclaimed No One Lives Forever, that comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.action soon filled up with the opinions of people who've tried it, both positive and negative. But something seemed not right with some of the glowing reviews... soon posters were accusing each other of being shills, or God forbid, maybe even employees of either the game designer, Monolith, or its producer, Fox Interactive, sent in to subvert the open forum to their own nefarious purposes. Entertainment executives call it viral marketing: it's one of the most contentious, and yet most promising ways of generating sales for computer games, music, and movies today.
What started the fuss? Well, the posts-in-question just hyperbolic in their praise for the game, but it was a pretty good game, after all. More suspicious was that none of the posters had much of a history on Usenet: they had no "pedigree," in other words. No one had heard of them before they showed up to sing NOLF's praises. And when freelance writer Andy Smith investigated, he found they were all posting from the same posting host from the same California ISP, Newsdawg.
"So were all of these people, coincidentally posting from the same $10-per-month Usenet provider, so impressed by the NOLF demo that they felt compelled to post their first ever Usenet message to sing its praises?" wrote Smith. "It seems unlikely, to say the least."
Other posts from the suspicious, anonymous, never using the same name twice source also quoted confidential emails between Monolith and Fox, giving the location of the NOLF demo before it was "officially" announced. Did someone really hack into company computers to retrieve game emails, Smith asked? Or was this an intentional leak?
All the signs pointed to a ham-handed viral marketing attempt by Fox, he concluded. "The people at Monolith would know that the hardcore aren't going to fall for some stupid fake hype campaign on Usenet, but would Fox? Would some marketing drone at Fox realise that "those dumb kids in newsgroups" can spot this sort of thing a mile off? Would he realise that you have to do more than change your name and e-mail address to disguise your identity? And if the marketing drone in question has a background in movie marketing -- which he may well have, working at Fox -- then I think that's another nail in the coffin."
Whoever was behind it, the attempt at creating an artificial buzz was a failure. Monolith CEO Jason Hall was forced to issue a public denial. "I seriously doubt that Fox is planting messages of any sort. If they are, well then there is nothing I can do about it. If anyone at Monolith is doing it, which I seriously doubt anyone would be that stupid here, then they are doing it behind my back."
What is this "viral marketing," exactly? While the term itself was coined for the internet, it's really just the new-media way of saying "word of mouth." E-commerce consultant and viral marketing guru Ralph Wilson has defined it in a widely reprinted article from Web Marketing Today as "any strategy that encourages individuals to pass on a marketing message to others, creating the potential for exponential growth in the message's exposure and influence."
The term itself was coined by Hotmail co-creator Steve Jurvetson. Hotmail became the best-known free webbased email service largely by word of mouth, with all Hotmail messages their growing numbers of users sent to their friends having information on how to get a Hotmail account of one's own appended to the end of them.
Jurvetson, whose wife was a physician, recognized how much the manner of Hotmail's spreading resembled how communicable diseases operate. "We would notice the first user from a university town or from India, and then the number of subscribers from that region would rapidly proliferate. The beauty of it is that none of this required any marketing dollars. Customers do the selling." Hotmail would collect 12 million users in its first 18 months, and was later sold by its owners to Microsoft for a tidy profit.
Another big viral marketing success was ICQ, the Mirabilis instant messenging software distributed for free. The value was so evident, the service itself so convenient, that Mirabilis could rely almost exclusively on users convincing other users to join them, and forego any traditional marketing whatsoever. The approach garnered them a user base of 12 million, before AOL bought the creators out for $300 million.
Viral marketing is also closely related to the concept of interactive marketing, where consumers are given a place for their own reviews of products they have bought. Considered by some to be fairer than reviews by professional reviewers, user reviews were crucial to the success of booksellers Amazon.com. Other firms like epinions.com, and Cnet.com have also built their reputations by offering consumers a chance to hear honest, uncensored opinions, sometimes even building in mathematical methods of giving the unpaid reviewers' average rating of the product on some kind of point scale. The model is successful not only because the reviews themselves cost these websites next to nothing to write. They also essentially make the same kinds of frank opinions that could be found in a newsgroup accessible to a larger audience not inclined to spend the time needed to search for them through seemingly endless threaded posts. In the case of a particularly attractive or unattractive product or book, these kinds of sites offer "concentrated buzz."
No one knows the importance of this kind of buzz better than moviemakers. Of course, the big success everyone connects with internet marketing was The Blair Witch Project. Filmed for $35,000, the film made $150 million in the U.S. alone, making it the most profitable movie project of all time. Artisan Entertainment, which bought the distribution rights from the independent filmmakers, generated the hype entirely online, with the help of the mega-popular news/gossip website Ain't It Cool News, which gave the online trailer its first big exposure and its first glowing reviews as well. But movie makers have also found the internet to be a two edged sword: the recent Uma Thurman remake of The Avengers tanked, largely due to negative internet buzz before its release.
And there is growing suspicion that many of the viral marketing success stories were more engineered than they seemed. Usenet, the traditional first line of commentary for the latest computer hardware and software news, frequently sees episodes like the Fox incident, where posters are accused of being secretly in the pay of some company or other. Alternately, people can be attacked for subverting the easy flow of banter and commentary the newsgroups provide to some devious purpose of their own.
PZCommunications is an example of a site that originated much of its early traffic through Usenet spamming by its creators. In November of 1999, Wired magazine noted how founders Peter Katz and Glenn Rosenblatt were posting messages about new computer viruses, with a link to their own site's (often plagiarized) information on the topic. The pair then profited by the increase in page views this brought their banner ads, Wired reported.
Movie promoters have also come under increasing criticism for stimulating the growth of word-of-mouth with fake fan sites. Fan sites for movies like Blair Witch and American Pie sometimes seemed too polished, too possessed of insider information (or information that only insiders would consider interesting) to be the real deal. Abigail Marceluk and Eric Alan Ivins, the creators of one popular Blair Witch fan site, also made an appearance playing bit parts in a movie-backstory TV special: so were they still, as their site claimed, "just very dedicated fans?"
The fact is, consumers of youth-oriented products like video games, music, and movies, are so web-oriented, now, that it seems likely they would judge an offering more harshly if there isn't one or two fansites out there. After all, if it can't inspire a suitable measure of fanaticism, is it even worth buying? If an entertainment marketer can't create enough buzz to inspire a suitable number fansites to emerge, are they really doing a very good job? Under that kind of pressure, the incentives to create "fake fans" must sometimes be extreme. In Hollywood, it can get even more confusing: Wild Wild West director Barry Sonnenfeld, among others, has not only publicly accused marketers of writing glowing anonymous reviews for their own products for the newsgroups and gossip sites, but writing bad reviews of other studios' movies.
Encouraging word of mouth is one thing. But other forms on online marketing can be more forceful, often closely resembling the tactics of traditional multi-level marketing.
Multi-level marketing approaches (the detractors sometimes call them "pyramid schemes") rely on the customer to "name names" of other potential customers, in return for discounted or free merchandise for themselves. In web terms, this can mean providing the email addresses of people you thought might also be interested in a product you're buying. In the computer game world, this approach was tried recently by Cognitoy, the makers of Mind Rover. The game allows players to build their own robots and compete with them on a Jovian moon. When it was first released in 1999, early buyers were offered a $5 discount for every friend's email they supplied to Cognitoy (to a maximum of 6) off the original purchase price of $45 for the game. If this sounds intrusive to you, you're not alone. Cognitoy had to somewhat scale back its plans for using those emails when the complaints started coming in from the unaware linkees.
This particular approach may not have been ideal. Still, in theory games like Mind Rover that rely on online play would seem to be almost require some attempt at these kinds of community buzz-generation. For a multiplayer game to succeed, after all, a dedicated group of players and mod-makers has to spring up around it: the game company obviously can't just sit back and hope this somehow happens on its own. Indeed, these new internet techniques seem to have worked best for products that benefit from having a community or network of users, ICQ being the classic example. The program became more valuable as more people used it: there was a natural incentive for users to, as the old shampoo commercial put it, tell two friends, and so on. It's even possible future online multiplayer games could successfully propagate themselves the same way, perhaps offering the game itself for free download, and making up its costs solely through monthly renewal fees.
If the game industry wants to see what sophisticated viral marketing looks like, it needs only look at recent developments in the music industry. Perhaps the biggest success story of internet marketing since the Blair Witch phenomenon has been teen diva Christina Aguilera, whose promotional company Electric Artists successfully created an internet buzz around her using some apparently obvious, but still very sophisticated techniques.
EA achieved this by first lurking in pop music discussion sites, identifying fans who might be receptive to Aguilera's music, and approaching them (always identifying themselves as marketers, they promise), to pass on information, song tracks, and the like. Slowly, steadily, they cultivated relationships with a network of young people who could then aid them in that artist's promotion with their friends. It's a delicate juggling act: as CEO Marc Schiller told Shift magazine, the key seems to be always playing it straight with the fans about who they are, and what they were doing. "The second that the fans feel it's not authentic... is the day that not only the marketing stops, but the whole credibility of the artist stops."
"EA recognized that when today's youth reject advertising, they are not rejecting the entire consumer ethos," write's Shift's Chris Turner. "They still want to own the CD, see the show, buy the T-shirt. They just don't want to find out about it from a dumb TV commercial or an even dumber bulk email. They want to hear about it from a real person."
Most recently, online music marketers have made peer-to-peer file-sharing programs like Napster their latest focus. As Salon magazine's Janelle Brown reported recently, marketers for music artists like Aimee Mann have started using Napster in its dying days to locate fans with songs by the artist already on their hard drives. The approach then involved using the program's instant messaging capabilities to send those already-proven fans new information and songs by the singer, or a similar artist. Brown talked to Scott Ross from the music label Moonshine, who said the technique was proving remarkably effective.
"That's as targeted a marketing technique as you can possibly get," Ross told Salon. "This person is obviously a fan -- they've dedicated hard drive space to the artist -- so it's logical that they would be interested in this." And it's very effective, he says: "Everyone I've instant-messaged downloaded the song."
Other companies like Big Champagne use the same peer-to-peer-enabled hard-drive snooping to collect market research data, being able to answer to entertainment executives how many of the people who saved a copy of the X-Men trailer had also downloaded a copy of Quake, for instance, Brown discovered. (In the advertising industry, information on potential cross-over potential like this could be worth its weight in gold.) The information that was gathered, including new names for artist mailing lists and the like, was compelling enough to even convince a diehard anti-Napsterist like Mann to change her mind about the value of file-swapping.
The ideas embodied by these companies - that to promote a product you need to create a community around it - seem naturally suited to the internet, but they're really nothing new. At least that's what New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell argued in his recent book, The Tipping Point. Arguably one of the most important texts on the subject of branding in recent years, Gladwell's book offers the theoretical explanation for what the marketers behind Aguilera and Blair Witch are accomplishing. Gladwell's thesis, that social trends operate (have always operated) like viral epidemics, with a small portion of those infected doing the majority of virus-spreading. The spread of any new idea or new product depends on identifying and converting the highly "infectious" communicators, Gladwell argues. If you can target those people, the cost of spreading an idea drops to zero: rather than spending millions getting out the message to every person (through a fast-food cross-promotion or TV commercial, say), you spend a fraction of that in attracting and keeping happy a very few. Word-of-mouth has always been around, Gladwell, says, but the power of the internet in collecting and developing small product-focussed communities, regardless of geographical distance, makes it suddenly and stunningly more powerful.
When caught of course, fake marketing attempts can be harshly criticized. No one likes to be gulled. Whether Fox was involved or not in those NOLF posts, there's no doubt they did more harm than good (to a game that proved good enough to be more than capable of generating its own word of mouth.) But is it really more offensive than a traditional entertainment ad campaign, with television advertising, or action figures at McDonald's. That's hard to say. What is clear is that as the game industry, which already relies heavily on the internet for its promotion, has a strong incentive to try and adopt the techniques that are proving so successful for the other entertainment industries to its products. Successful gaming companies of the future may have to come to terms with the fact that gameplay, and graphics, and framerates, are all secondary to their larger and primary purpose: building a community of like-minded gamers. Whatever it takes.