What are ARGs and why are they useful in marketing?


Give your customers the opportunity to play detective by marketing your products with ARGs.

Have you ever heard of Slenderman? A tall, thin figure with no discernible features wearing a black suit lurking somewhere in the forests, ready to kidnap unsuspecting people? At one point in internet history, Slenderman was a horror staple featured in several real-life horror series (also known as alternate reality games) on YouTube as the main antagonist.

Alternate reality games, or ARGs, are a form of storytelling that combines digital and real-world elements to create an immersive experience. Due to their immersive nature, ARGs are not only great for story building, but also very effective marketing tools. That said, here’s a breakdown of the ARG elements, why they’re effective for marketing, and some unique marketing strategies created around them.

Understanding ARGs

Before we take a closer look at ARGs, it’s important to understand the difference between “augmented reality” and “alternate reality” games. An example of an augmented reality game is Pokémon Go, where you’ll have to travel to real-world locations to find and collect Pokémon through your smartphone. However, ARGs do not augment or add to reality; instead, they give you the opportunity to experience a new and different reality. In an ARG, you would watch something on YouTube, and through it you would find clues that would lead you to another part of the internet in search of more information.

Most ARGs use unique ways to interact with their audience, such as video subtitles or tags, and have elements of horror or mystery. While there are countless amounts of ARGs out there, the one that best explains what I’m talking about is the Twitter ARG”The sun has disappeared”. This ARG documents the life of a man in a world where the sun no longer shines and the extraterrestrial life that now occupies the Earth. What separates this ARG – and all other ARGs – from typical fictional stories on the Internet is the use of multiple media to tell a story. Not only does the protagonist of The Sun Vanished post tweets but also news from his world, videos and photos of what’s happening outside his house, and text messages between survivors.

Why ARG Marketing Works

Keeps the audience hooked

While this might seem like a new concept to those not particularly interested in horror media, ARGs have been used quite frequently in marketing. The most crucial reason ARGs work is that they connect the consumer to the product or service being marketed. It gives people a mystery to uncover by searching every nook and cranny for clues with their critical thinking skills.

A great example of ARG marketing is the “I Love Bees ARG” used to market the video game Halo 2 in 2004. The game’s trailer contained clues that led viewers to the I Love Bees website, which had been taken over by artificial intelligence (AI). By solving puzzles left by the AI ​​on the website, players could gradually learn more about the history of Halo 2. It was so successful that the website received over three million unique visitors at its peak.

If your ARG has a great concept, you might end up with loyal fans who engage with everything you post. One of the real parts of the “I Love Bees” game experience was that players got contact information for payphones in different parts of the United States and had to answer them for information. The fact that a Florida player went to answer the payphone in the middle of a hurricane should give you a good idea of ​​how far loyal fans go for the ARGs they care about.

Keeps viewers coming back for more

In a world where more and more businesses are popping up every day, it keeps getting harder and taking up space in a client’s mind and budget. This is precisely why an ARG is such a great marketing tool. If ARGs are a good fit with the product or service you’re trying to sell, they can help create a lasting positive brand image in the mind of the customer.

An example that illustrates the power of ARG marketing is the horror movie franchise The Blair Witch Project (1999). Although the film never used the word “ARG” in its marketing tactics, it had all the essentials.

In 1997, they released a promotional reel of the film’s concept on the American television show Split Screen, where the showrunner ended the segment by saying, “Haxan guys too. [the film studio behind The Blair Witch Project] pulling our leg or is there really a witch in the woods of Maryland killing film students? Go to SplitScreen.com and let us know.

In 1998, a year before the film was released, the team created a website – blairwitch.com – to share their legend, including interviews with supposed experts, photographs of police evidence and a message board allowing people to participate in the resolution of the mysteries of the film.

All of this, coupled with the documentary-style production, made the viewer’s experience more immersive than other horror films of the time. It had such a big impact on people that some started their own websites to browse the clues. Moreover, after its release, other films reproduced The Blair Witch ProjectARG style marketing, and an example is Artificial Intelligence (2001).

While ARGs do work for some projects, it’s essential to remember that they’re not for everyone. Make sure your target audience is genuinely interested in online interactive scavenger hunts before spending your marketing dollars on them. Another problem with ARGs in marketing is that they tend to appeal to a niche audience, whereas a typical advertisement would appeal more to the general public. Be sure to consider these factors before deciding to leverage ARGs for your brand’s next marketing campaign.

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Header image courtesy of Freepik


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