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Alternate Reality Gaming 101

Joyce Schwarz
Alternate Reality Gaming 101 Joyce Schwarz

Do you recall the scene in "The Matrix" when Morpheus says to Neo, "I imagine that right now you're feeling a bit like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole."? As fans know, if Neo takes the red pill, he stays in Wonderland and Morpheus shows him how deep that rabbit hole goes.

In an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), the rabbit hole is the first puzzle-piece or event signaling the beginning. ARGs are becoming increasingly popular as platforms today for "alt-marketing" gurus. Major brands such as Microsoft, Hasbro, Jet Blue, American Express, Sharp, Audi, Song Airlines and Stella Artois beer are staking out space in the ARG arena.

March 26 to 28, 2006 in Lake Las Vegas, NV
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Alternate Reality Branding (ARB)

I bet you're familiar with lots of ARGs, and maybe you've even played in one or two and participated in an ARG offline event without even knowing who was sponsoring it, since that's one of the key tactics of ARG marketing or ARB (Alternate Reality Branding), as it's starting to be called. Often lumped into the term "all-inclusive campaigns," or "cross-platform promotions," ARBs are finally becoming a category of their own. Remember "I Love Bees," which looked like a small beekeeping business at first glance, but turned out to be a campaign to launch Microsoft's Halo 2 game? Or what about Audi's "Art of the Heist" designed by McKinney-Silver for Audi's A3? But unless you were part of the target audience, you may have missed Sharp Electronic's "The Legend of the Sacred Urns," and if you weren't in London last fall, you may not have seen Hasbro agencies' Tribal DDB and Tribal London use ARB tactics to turn the city into a "living" Monopoly Board to celebrate that board game's 70th anniversary.

Many more agencies and brands are starting to adapt ARG tactics of stealth marketing, microsites, big stakes contests and real world special events in a hybrid campaign to capture the cache of Augmented Reality Branding and encourage pull tactics that encourage players to tell the story to other players versus outdated "push" campaigns.

Blurring the lines

So just what is this 21st Century phenomena? Wikipedia.com explains-- an "Alternate Reality Game" is a cross media game that deliberately blurs the line between in-game and out-of-game experiences often being used as "a marketing tool for a product or service." Designing ARGs is both an art and a science. It can take months to a year to  just design. It launches almost out of nowhere and then takes off, propelled seemingly only by WOM. In reality it is strongly supported by a well-planned infrastructure of cross-media. Before you delve in, you'll want to master the lingo: PuppetMasters-- the secret group that controls an ARG are behind the Curtain-- the layers of plot, technology and social contract between the players and the PuppetMasters. Players use a Guide-- a narrative of the experiences of gameplay, to discover clues and solve puzzles along a Trail-- a reference list of sites, clues and other items found during gameplay.

This is NOT a game!

During the adventure, avid followers and often innocent lookers are swept away on wild chases and quests across convincingly "real" but actually "faux" websites and real life (RL) locales. A multimedia mix of emails, microsites, text messages, IM, billboards, print and electronic ads draw the player into a fictional universe and virtual community. Thecrucial precept in Alternate Reality Games is the perception that "this is not a game." You don't want to tell the story; you want the players to tell it to each other.

New ARGs are launched almost every month, but few can match the success of Microsoft's ARG "I Love Bees," with three million players and a price tag of one million dollars. The campaign propelled the X-box video game Halo 2 into one of 2004's biggest hits. The designers of "I Love Bees," 42 Entertainment, are quoted as saying that they soon found that they weren't building games for individuals but for a "hive mind" composed of millions of walking, talking neurotransmitters that fast became a community online and off. The buzz lives on, and so does the website at www.Ilovebees.com. Last year, two years after the launch, players organized a Hivemeet in Chicago to relive the experience. A DVD compendium of "I Love Bees" was also released leading merchandisers to rethink how to "productize" other campaigns.

Alternate Reality Games may find their roots in role-playing from old text video games like "Zork" or in real-life geocaching GPS technology treasure hunts. Others point to improvisational theatre or performance art for inspiration. Film fans mention Silent Movie melodramas and modern magical realism tales like "Being John Malkovich"as sources. Jordan Weisman and Elan Lee (founders of 42 Entertainment) say their inspiration to create  "The Beast," designed to expand on the themes of Steven Spielberg's "AI: Artificial Intelligence," was both Dungeons and Dragons and the Michael Douglas cult classic "The Game."

Dissect an ARG, and you'll find elements of immersive gaming, viral marketing, interactive fiction, social communities, virtual worlds and real-life publicity stunts that would make P.T. Barnum blush. Agency and brand budgets for online and new media continue to grow, but there is no source chronicling the rise of ARG advertising and sponsorship because the funds are often dispersed across such silos as special events, promotion, guerilla marketing and sweepstakes budgets. One indicator that there is plenty of opportunity for growth in the ARG space and evolving spin-offs is the growth of experience marketing. According to the Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship surveys, North American companies spent an estimated $5 billion of their $11.1 billion events budget on experiential marketing in 2004 with a projected 25 percent increase forecast annually beginning last year.

ARG Spin-Offs Growing

Inspired by the success of Alternate Reality Games, new spin-offs are capturing attention and funding. Most of these "mash-ups" include some elements of ARGs, but the curtain and the puppetmasters are often visible so ARG purists will insist they are outside of that box. The new "categories" that I see evolving include experiences that might be better termed Extended Reality, Mega-Reality, Alternative Reality, Collective Reality and Faux-reality. Here are some examples:

Extended Reality Games (ERGs) extend the drama, excitement and characters from films and television shows with a combo of online and offline experiences and adventures that span far beyond the norm. Some ERGs are created by entertainment brands or networks and studios while others are designed by the sponsors. The remake of the 1963 "Pink Panther" film opened the door for European smart car to feature its smartfortwo in a leading role as Inspector Clouseau's police car. Pink Panther aficionados are invited to "Pick up the Trail" and hunt for the stolen diamond at www.smart.com/pinkpanther. Online a lavish internet special draws players into a 3D and photo realistic experience where Inspector Clousseau personally greets them. Smart says that players are spending an amazing 10 minutes driving through the interactive indoor and outdoor scenes from the film gathering clues and tracking the thief and win a chance to be a finalist in a Paris smart fortwo road rally to track down the "diamond" in real life. What's so amazing is that the site continues to draw long after the American premiere of "Pink Panther," extending both the smart brand and feeding the post-audience appetite for even more Clousseau as a prelude to the European movie launch. In this case smart, not the studio, created the ARB experience.

Television is fast recognizing the value of Extended Reality experiences. One of the classics is the campaign for Sci-Fi Channel's "5ive Days to Midnight" mini-series that wowed even sage New Yorkers when something called the Buck Naked bar, featuring a young woman dancer gyrating on a silver pole, turned up in front of a Union Square shop window. Turned out it wasn't a scene from a movie or a lingerie promo but rather a live billboard designed by Seattle-based creative marketing shop Neverstop to recreate the opening scene of the upcoming "5ive Days to Midnight" mystery.

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The demand-side platforms (DSPs)
Demand-side platforms have risen to help advertisers manage all of their exchange campaigns through a single interface. These DSPs utilize the ad exchange's data connection via application program interfaces (APIs), which provide the same functionality as working on the exchanges' own systems. Some agencies and holding companies have built their own DSPs, and many third-party DSP providers have popped up, such as Turn, Invite Media (Google), [x+1], MediaMath, DataXu, and Triggit.

DSPs provide more features than just letting advertisers manage all of their buys in one spot. By aggregating the entire exchange buying process into one system, advertisers can utilize the high-powered algorithms of their DSPs to optimize their bids. These algorithms can be tuned to target a specific cost-per-click, cost-per-sale, return on investment (ROI), or other business goals. They can also provide integration with various third-party data providers to allow for simple access to purchasing inventory. Another recognized benefit to running everything through a DSP is that advertisers can enable universal frequency capping across all of the exchanges they work with.

Because an ad needs to load quickly, DSPs have service level agreements (SLAs) that set how long they have to return a bid for the impression. The standard time frame for a DSP to return a bid request to an exchange is around 50 milliseconds, or one-twentieth of a second!

The bid
Bids are generally handled at the cost-per-thousand (CPM) level, and advertisers can choose to vary these bids based on the value of the users each placement is targeting. A common targeting choice is contextual, as exchanges classify their inventory by categories (i.e., sports, entertainment, news, finance, etc.) and sub-categories (entertainment - movie; entertainment - music; etc.). It's probably safe to say that an advertiser involved in promoting a new film would be willing to pay more for to users on movies sites than on financial ones.

Another common targeting option is geography -- by country, region, state, DMA, etc. And because you can mix targeting directives in a placement, you could, for example choose to create a campaign that just targets users on automotive-related sites in California and bid accordingly for that traffic.

It's important to note that advertisers are not manually bidding on every impression in real-time -- not even Superman could keep up with 150,000 ads per second. Rather, advertisers choose targeting settings and a maximum bid for what they would pay for an impression that meets those parameters. As with paid search, analysts can continuously optimize their choices by changing bids and targeting settings to ensure the best possible ROI.

The data layer
The piece of the puzzle that seems to most accentuate the value of exchange buying is the various data that can be leveraged in order to target users. By tagging user browsers via anonymous cookies, advertisers can retarget to their website's visitors on publisher sites by bidding more for those users than their competitors; reaching shopping cart abandoners with multiple ad impressions in the first few days after leaving the site has become a smart way to utilize this feature, for example.

Third-party data providers tag users and then sell advertisers access to identify those users later on an exchange. These companies (such as BlueKai, eXelate, and Experian) can provide user segments such as male or female, age bracket, income bracket, etc. How do they do this? There are various ways. There are data providers that tag users online who are registering product warrantees; they can provide exchange visibility to audiences based on the types of products they own. Other data providers make deals with travel aggregators so that advertisers can (anonymously) target users who have searched for Caribbean vacation deals or European hotels. Some data providers work with social networks that have registration data on millions of users and can help find audiences with specific niche interests.

The most valuable data seems to be that which can help identify in-market users. For example, a data provider signs a deal with a top-tier automotive review site to allow it to tag its users on key portions of the site. Days later, a major car manufacturer is able to buy impressions on other sites to target those same users who were looking for specific car-related information.

Ultimately, advertisers are going to pay more to reach the most desirable audiences to their business. Data empowers the advertiser to be able to better judge the value of each impression as it is passed to them.


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