I’m a big fan of ABC’s hit TV show Lost which thankfully returned last week breathing much needed fresh air into an environment stale from the writer’s strike. The second episode for Season 4 airs tonight but for the most passionate fans of Lost, the season started over a month ago. That’s when the marketing machine at ABC kicked the buzz into high gear with the launch of an all new Alternate Reality Game (ARG)
The Lost Experience, first introduced in Season 2, was is an extensive entertainment/viral marketing campaign centered around an ARG. This time around, the game is Find815. The campaign started with a series of billboards advertising the fictional Oceanic Airlines placed in cities around the world. The cities selected were those where the characters from the show come from. Predictably, word of the billboards immediately popped up on fan sites and blogs along with the URL for the Oceanic Airlines website. Visitors to the website discovered that it had been hacked by a new character named Sam who left a video message about his plan to search for his girlfriend who was a flight attendent on the doomed flight 815. The video occasionally flickers displaying another URL (Find815.com) which is where the rest of the game takes place. Find815.com was subsequently painted as graffiti on many of the billboards.
Throughout January, new levels of the game were released. Successful completion of each new challenge rewarded the player with new video from Sam revealing new information from his search. The Lost Experience continues even as Season 4 gets underway with more new websites, phone numbers ((818) 460-5520), Lost references in Marvel comics, a partnership between Oceanic and Microsoft to give away XBoxes and probably some other stuff I’m not even aware of. During the season premier of Eli Stone (following last week’s Lost premier) this commercial ran giving the larger TV audience the first teaser about the ARG:
Conventional wisdom around viral marketing falls into two camps:
- You can make something become viral by targeting influentials
- You can’t make something viral, but it can become viral if it is really good
Neither guarantees success, but applying both strategies, along with a healthy budget can go along way. Clearly, Lost co-creator JJ Abrams and co-producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cruse understand both their core audience and viral marketing. With and a healthy budget from ABC, they are playing the both sides of the viral game.
The product is excellent and innovative, regardless of channel, which sets the stage for real customer engagement . They understand that traditional advertising will not be very effective at attracting new viewers to a complex, continuing story starting it’s fourth season, so they smartly employ their most loyal customers who willingly help to market the show in exchange for an extended experience. These are their “influentials”; their “Advocates”. They understand that these fans are hungry for more of the mystery and will share their experiences broadly through blogs, websites and personal interaction. As a example of how they, as marketers, are engaging with their community, Jon Lachonis, who writes the Lost fan-blog The Tail Section, was given the opportunity to see the first four episodes of the new season prior to the premier and to share his review with the Lost fan community. Not even TV critics were given that opportunity. Needless to say, he wrote about it and the fans went nuts.
Halfway through it’s second season, Lost started to lose some of it’s heat with weekly viewership down roughly 20% from the first season. That downward slide continued halfway through the third season, but last week’s premier, bolstered by 4 hours of catchup shows and the buzz generated by the fan community, saw a viewership equal to the first season average. Whether it can sustain that popularity is uncertain given that the planned 16 episode season will likely be cut to 8 due to the writer’s strike.
So what lessons can you as marketers learn from Lost? Two concepts strike me as obvious:
- Make the necessary investments to insure that you offer a rich and engaging customer experience with your product or service.
- Reward your most avid customers with extended experiences. Give them more of what they come to you for. They will tell others about it.
What other lessons can be learned here?