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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Case study: WhySoSerious.com - offline and online viral microsite

WhySoSerious.com police report
WhySoSerious.com was a promotional tie-in to the upcoming movie, "The Dark Knight". It was also launched in conjunction with the ongoing Comic-Con International at San Diego. What proceeded was, to me, a unique off-and-online viral campaign that raised awareness for the Batman movie, which opens next year. And I was part of it for two hours last night.

The Set-Up
Warner Brothers had apparently opted not to make an appearance at Comic-Con, in spite of the huge publicity it would generate for "The Dark Knight". However, what happened was that some attendees were given defaced one-dollar notes (real or fake, I don't know), with the website stated clearly.

Visitors to the site found a defaced Uncle Sam recruitment poster with a countdown timer. They were told that the Joker was looking for new recruits, and those interested should show up when the timer hit zero at a particular spot... which was at the Comic-Con venue!

Offline event
Obviously, I wasn't there. But at the appointed time, WhySoSerious.com was refreshed with a link to something called "Surveillance". This was a photo gallery that was constantly updated to show what was going on (and was apparently operated by Gotham City's Surveillance Specialists).

Whoever turned up had their faces painted white, with black paint around the eyes and a large red smile over the lips. Yup, they were painted to resemble the Joker!

But that wasn't all. They had to go to certain checkpoints and fulfill certain tasks, maybe to prove themselves worthy to be the Joker's henchmen. At one point, they were also apparently treated to cookies from Gotham Girl Guides. That must've been a lot of cookies!

At the last checkpoint, attendees were presented to the apparent capture of the Joker, then left with goodies. I forgot what the latter were, but they were all Joker-related. And some of them also had their photos taken and posted on a page called "Wannabes" (as in wannabe henchmen).

The big question was: how did these people know where the checkpoints were?

Online event
That's where the website came in and the reason for my staying up into the wee hours of the night. It turned out to be an online question-and-answer game, with online visitors and offline attendees providing the answers. About half of these questions depended on the assistance of the offline attendees.

After answering each question correctly, online visitors could be presented with a map identifying the next checkpoint. They were then expected to notify the offline attendees.

There were (I think) 15 questions, and the first one already depended on help from the offline attendees. Later, in the Surveillance page, I would see that a plane had written a phone number in the sky. The message from that phone call was the answer. The other offline-dependent questions were interspersed throughout the game, perhaps to sustain momentum.

Finally, the last two questions depended again on what was going on offline. Remember the girl guide cookies? Yup, there was a clue in each cookie tin for the second-last question. And the answer to the last question was a licence plate number.

At the end, online visitors were treated to a high-definition teaser trailer for "The Dark Knight". Along the way, they were also given a first look at a picture showing the Joker (played by Heath Ledger) threatening Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). And also two creepy but cool audio clips: laughter and "Why so serious?" The laughter itself was a clue for an answer (it's in Morse code and the answer is "Mountebank", apparently a bank that the Joker robs in the movie).

Results
Firstly, the organisers were smart enough to reward both offline and online groups of people. Offline attendees walked away with their Joker paraphernalia and a chance to "witness" a movie-like scene. Online visitors had an exclusive first look at a promotional still and the teaser trailer (in HD no less!).

But did the event get the numbers? Obviously, I don't have access to site traffic figures. And I don't know exactly how many people went to the "recruitment drive". But I can safely say that there were a lot of people both online and offline.

From the photos, it was clear that this event had attracted hundreds of people. While it may have been a crowd control nightmare, it must also have succeeded in making bystanders more curious about the movie. The Joker's white-face-and-red-smile is almost as well known as Batman's bat logo. And with so many people bearing that look, it would definitely have made people want to know more, both about the event, and also the movie.

Online, the tons of people flooding to the site must have overloaded the servers. I should know. I spent two hours playing what should've been a half-hour game. Most of the time was spent waiting for new pages to load. (It didn't help that each page relied on a half-megabyte Flash file.) I'm sure Warner Bros. could afford a killer hardware and network, so the fact that everyone* was getting such slow response must be evidence of the incredible numbers of visitors.

* I was also at a forum thread where people were posting answers. And many of them were complaining about the slow server response.

Most importantly, the game never belittled online visitors' intelligence. One answer depended on Morse code (from a series of laughters!). Another asked for the name of the lawyer who got his client acquitted of murder in 1871 by shooting himself accidentally in court (answer: Clement Vallandigham).

The one that I enjoyed showed some playing cards in two spread-out piles. At first, I wasn't sure what to do. Then I saw that the cards in the top (and bigger sized) pile matched some cards in the lower pile. And there were 26 cards in the lower pile. *lightbulb goes on!*

Read all of the answers.

Summary
Who says that offline and online are mutually exclusive elements of a promotion? Not me, and this event is proof of it. In this case, both sides supported and depended on the other. Without one group, the other would be unable to proceed. (Well, that was the ideal scenario. People like me followed forum threads to find out the offline answers.)

Of course, the situation itself has to be exciting. Batman and the Joker are part of American folklore already, so there was no need to explain the scenario further. The game was intelligent and well written, with enough bells and whistles to captivate online visitors.

Finally, throw in the idea of a community: offline attendees felt like they were part of a movement (and who hasn't had a secret yearning to be on the other side of the law?), while online visitors banded together through forums and instant messengers to figure out the answer.

So yes, I'd put this under the "success" column.

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