Alternate reality: The gamification of marketing

On November 9, 2017

Telling your audience a story is a great marketing technique. Letting them live that story is exponentially more persuasive. This is the power of alternate reality games, a responsive kind of marketing that hides its sales pitches inside narrative puzzles.

Alternate reality = alternative marketing

What exactly is an alternate reality game (ARG)? It's a tricky question to answer, because each one is unique to its audience. But as a general definition, ARGs are multimedia experiences, based in the real world, that usually involve narrative and puzzle-solving. 

"Why So Serious?", the ARG used to promote the film "The Dark Knight", let players act as citizens of Gotham City. They received fake newspapers and voter registration cards, took part in flash mobs and scavenger hunts, solved puzzles and found written and recorded messages from the film's characters. Those that played the game were rewarded with information about the film and a first look at its trailer.

Alternate reality games have become respected works of fiction in their own right.

While ARGs often promote story-telling entertainment like the films "A.I." and "The Dark Knight", or video games like "Halo 2", they can be used to build interest in products or services. Companies like Audi and MSN have used variations on the ARG formula. Audi, for example, staged a theft of the first A3 model in America, then encouraged the public to help find the car and solve the "crime".

As a B2C marketing strategy, creating an ARG isn't the quickest approach, and it's certainly not the easiest. But the payoff is a campaign that grabs people and draws them in. And they're respected works of fiction in their own right – the team behind "", the ARG that ran between "Lost" seasons four and five, won an Emmy for Creative Achievement in Interactive Media – Fiction.

Perhaps what your next campaign needs is a murder-mystery?
Perhaps what your next campaign needs is some corporate espionage? Or a murder-mystery?

The power of a good story

Why are ARGs effective? Because people love a puzzle, and they love to participate. The challenge of an ARG encourages the audience to authentically engage with your content, your brand, and most importantly, your sales message.

Best of all, participants won't feel like they're being marketed at. Consumers who take part in ARGs see them as a valuable experience, rather than a sales pitch. 

"It's not really marketing anymore," Jim Stewartson, president of ARG design company Fourth Wall Studios, tells PCWorld. "What it really is – if it's done right – is extra content for the audience."

It's one thing to see the story on screen, but it's so much better to hold it in your hands.

How can direct mail tie in with an ARG campaign?

Direct mail works well with ARGs because it's so versatile. Mailers don't have to be postcards and standard letters – they could just as easily be treasure maps, confidential documents or physical objects like keys and puzzle pieces that can be used to play the game.

Not only are they versatile, but mailers give the game a tactile element that can engage participants. It's one thing to see the story on screen, but it's so much better to be able to hold it in your hands.

With a combination of social, online and direct mail, you can create a campaign that takes your potential customers on a journey, helping them to engage with your brand like they do with their favourite TV shows and video games. Talk to us here at The Prospect Shop about how you can use our mailing lists to reach your target audience and invite them to play.

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