New Rules or No Rules in Social Media Marketing?

Triggered by Forbes’ Magazine article listing the “20 best social media campaigns of all time” but ultimately motivated by his love of the film itself and a tinge of ghoulish excitement leading up to Halloween, Chad Freeman, social media specialist for MassMedia Corporate Communications examined “The Social Media Lessons from the Blair Witch Project“.

online social media buzz blair witchI dug this post but don’t agree with everything that was written. While trying to add potency to his theory that the technique and execution of the campaign were more important than the film itself, the author attempts to rebuke two commonly held assumptions about what products can be successfully marketed virally:

1) products that are of great quality and essentially sell themselves
2) products that are new and novel so people talk about them naturally.

I will agree with the author’s and Rotten Tomatoes’ assessment that the film was not great. However, I would challenge his second assessment however that faux documentary films had been done before. To me, other than hearing stories of the War of the Worlds radio hysteria, for most of the BWP’s target audience, university and college students, it would have been the first time such an eerie but plausible story was presented to them in a way that lead you to believe it was authentic. And also, the larger Blair Witch story (which was the true product of the campaign as identified by the author) that three students had disappeared under mysterious/supernatural circumstances and that their experience was documented would have been novel and remarkable at any time.

Chad goes on to do a solid job of identifying 5 key learning’s that come out of evaluating the Blair Witch campaign and I won’t go into those here. He especially draws a cool analogy between how the social media campaign built engagement by like a good horror film, always leaving a little to the audiences’ imagination.

Sometimes you gotta bend the rules, or maybe the rules weren’t written yet.

What struck me while reading about what the Blair Witch’s filmmakers and film-marketers did to generate a “real” back-story and related buzz for the film is that it could be seen as a toxic strategy if slavishly observing today’s call for authenticity in social media marketing. Have the rules changed since 1999 with all the egg-in-the-face campaigns like “All I want for Christmas is a PSP”? Should no one ever again attempt to build Blair Witch style buzz?

What made BWP’s marketing so successful was the very fact that far from being authentic it made an art-form out of misinforming and misleading the public. Fake missing person posters and video testimonials from the police were some of the strategies used to market Blair Witch. While the mantra these days is “be authentic”, those who promoted BWP aggressively and intentionally erased the line between fiction and reality. They gave their story an online history and deliberately targeted at the people who would be most likely to be interested in, and most likely to believe that story.

In comparison to the level of misdirection used to market the Blair Witch Project, the creator of the much maligned “All I want for Christmas” campaign looks like the president of the Better Business Bureau.

For me the contrast stirs up a few questions:

1)    Was 1999 a kinder and gentler time when netizens had yet to develop a substantially sensitive SMBS (social media bull-shit) filter to sniff out a rat as they did with Sony’s PSP campaign?

2)    Because it was so well done and fun did the public not mind being duped by the Blair Witch?

3)    Why is one “inauthentic” campaign viewed as the best of all time while to other is seen as the worst?* I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Perhaps what is made most clear by comparing the Blair Witch project to failed Social Media campaigns is the truth of the unwritten rule of marketing: if it works it is genius and if it fails it is idiotic. Even if “it” is the same thing.

*In related news www.alliwantforxmasisapsp.com was taken down to minimize any additional damage. The PSP campaign creators Zapatoni have re-branded themselves as Rivet to escape their tarnished name. The www.blairwitch.com website lives on virtually unchanged as a monument to the best social media campaign of all time.

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