Are you having a laugh? The secret to a good ARG

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The internet has bought us some pretty wonderful things in recent years: the ability to find an answer to a question within a nano second; the freedom to transcend physical borders and connect with like minded people wherever they are; the opportunity to buy a book on Northwest Regional Mongolian Throat Singing Techniques and have it delivered to your door a couple of days later, are just a few.

All pretty mind blowing stuff, when you think about it. And brands have been pretty adept at using these great digital channels to positively connect with their customers.

Now there's a new channel making its way into the mix of the cutting edge, customer centric brand armory – the ARG.

An ARG (Alternate Reality Game) is an interactive narrative that uses both the digital and real worlds as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions. (Wikipedia)

Coca-Cola have used this method to ignite engagement and interest within its customer base. Now we're seeing many more brands starting to look seriously at such ‘game play' to create customer connections and drive interest and intrigue.

But what makes a really good ARG?…

Story Time

Following the premise of any good book or movie there's a beginning, middle and an end. The best of them are interweaved with a multitude of interconnecting plot lines, mixed messages, miss direction and engaging narratives, that hooks their ‘consumers' and leave them wanting more.

It's the discovery of a good story told well that engages the reader or the movie goer. What makes the captivating beauty of a good story in its ‘journey' of the plot – often more gripping than the final revaluation. The excitement of the exploration, the anticipation, the emotional participation, that's what makes us attracted – if not addicted – to a good yarn.

Stories make us who we are, they help us to connect with our past and shape our future. Stories have always been with us, they frame strong cultures, run through the life blood of families and build strong brands.

Lost the Plot?

For those who are are unfamiliar with the TV series Lost (where have you been?) – it was a pretty long running drama, about a bunch of people who 'survive' a plane crash but get stranded on an tropical island. The story unfolds over several seasons, and along the way the plot thickens, with numerous interconnected and mysterious storylines involving the characters, secret organisations and hidden ‘happenings'.

In his great book – The On-demand Brand, Rick Mathieson interviews Mike Benson of ABC Entertainment, who's innovation and creative spirit led to one of the early significant examples of how a good ARG can be run.

Mike was face with a problem. It was the end of the first season of Lost, and the show had been very successful by all accounts. His problem – how to keep interest high for the complex drama in what was going to be a long break between seasons.

Mike's solution was to build an interconnected set of clues, utilising the whole of the web, that would: further the back story; its characters and mysterious controlling organisations; feed the most avid fan's need for more information and ‘participation'; and create and real and ongoing buzz about the show throughout the seasons break.

A labyrinth of faux websites for the fictional organisations and individuals mentioned in the show were launched, many with ‘Easter-eggs' that would offer up clues to the next step in the mystery – some pointing to simple games, others containing coded messages complete with complicated encryption schemes.

To further the ‘game' Mike ran television commercials that would flash up hidden passwords for ‘Sub-Lymon-al' websites. The series sponsors got involved, posting YouTube videos and populating their corporate sites with 'special' Lost content. Billboards popped up in various global cities giving clues to the ‘initiated'. Mike even posted job listings on for positions in the Hanso Foundation (one of Lost's secret organisations), that contained anagrams with secret messages.

All in all, a lot of content spread far and wide across an interconnected network of websites, TV and physical locations.

The results – interest remained high amongst the show's dedicated fans, people even started questioning the producer as whether the organisations within the plot were indeed fictional or whether they were actually real! The activity and attention received a healthy amount of free publicity, and the season opener saw record viewership numbers.

Well worth all the hard work from Mike and his team, and great for the network and the Lost ‘brand'.

Yes, this type of content works for an entertainment show, but would it work for a brand? Well, I believe it would – for the right type of brand. We're already seeing big brands trying these techniques with Cola-Cola's ARG for example. And the brand that play the game right will win big when it comes to connecting with their passionate customers.

A Tapestry of Life

The really engaging thing about Alternate Reality Games is that they start to tap into the real possibilities of the convergence of digital and real life, in a very brand centric way.

Created to use the full spectrum of modern living – an ARG transcends both the digital and the physical – they use the full tapestry of life to build positive connections. The concept of combining both geographical and pixel based locations, to further a brand story, is truly immense – especially for those brands who what to not only engage with their customers but physically connect.

The idea that a brand story can be so compelling, to a potential customer, they physically gravitate towards specific geographical locations, to follow an ongoing plot, is a very powerful prospect for any marketeer.

In today's on-demand society people are demanding increasingly more creativity from the brands they choose to engage with. They want to be part of the brand, to go deeper, to be more immersed, more engaged. And there's no better way to engage with something than to journey to its very heart – the classic treasure hunt.

A powerful asset to any brand is its ability to initiate its followers – to give them tasks for completion before the prize is revealed. Great brand can hold just the right amount of pain (anticipation), before delivering their goods. Make things too easy and people get bored – but be careful, make things too hard and they give up and go somewhere else.

Start the Game

So what makes a really good ARG? A really good idea.

As with any great story – it's the idea that's the key. Without a big idea you don't have a narrative, and without a narrative you can't connect with people.

A great ARG starts with a big brand idea. From that idea is built an engaging and relevant narrative that will really connect with its target audience. That narrative is then translated into many digital and physical forms: maybe and YouTube video; maybe a Facebook profile; maybe a job posting; maybe a TV spot; maybe a outdoor poster; maybe even a simple sign on the door of a nondescript building. Once the seeds are planted the game is on.

Once your great game is won – deliver a great prize. If the idea is the meat then the prize is the sweet. A great prize is essential in rewarding all the efforts your customers have put in. The prize must be worth it!

Play the game right and your reward is a dedicated, enthused, fully engaged audience ready to purchase and wanting to shout your story – the near utopia for any marketing communications.

Let the games begin.
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