What is in-character viral marketing?
An in-character viral marketing campaign is an interesting way to engage users with your products or services by establishing a fictional spokesperson who will represent your brand. This strategy requires that you create a personality behind your brand, which should be interesting and directly tailored to the target audience. In addition to demonstrating your brand's commitment to engaging users, a successful in-character marketing campaign will demonstrate your brand's imagination and that you are embracing social media.
Down the rabbit hole
Before diving into tips for creating this type of campaign, I'd like to illustrate the concept more thoroughly. Have a look at Disney's ongoing campaign for the upcoming film, "Alice in Wonderland." As part of its in-character promotion strategy, Disney created Facebook accounts for The Loyal Subjects of the Red Queen, The Loyal Subjects of the White Queen, and The Disloyal Subjects of the Mad Hatter, thus translating Alice's universe onto the social media realm.
The status updates on these three accounts are always written in character which, due to their idiosyncrasies and peculiarities, offers for a fascinating read and material that a user can engage with. At the same time, updates include promotional elements, also written in-character, which helps soften the pitch. For instance, Disney released some of the new posters on the Mad Hatter Fan page after fans complied with Mad Hatter's request to "like" a status update 9000 times. The campaign has been successful for Disney, with the Mad Hatter account gathering over 70,000 fans to date.
In another example, Samuel Goldwyn Films brought to life the Soul Storage Company from its comedy "Cold Souls," in which people can remove and store their burdensome souls. The film's marketers not only created a viral site for the fake company but also a Facebook fan page, and established Dr. Flintstein, one of the film's characters, as a spokesperson on the account. The movie had a limited release, and the viral campaign did not gather a lot of fans, but it did gain enough recognition to ean an OMMA award nomination in the Best Viral Campaign category.
How to make in-character work
There are three lessons you can draw from some of the already existing in-character campaigns. First, in their context, personality matters, and creating a captivating character is essential. Second, as counterintuitive as it might sound to some, the strategic priority for these campaigns should be to entertain the user, not to sell them anything. Social media strategists should be first entertainers, second marketers. Third, and most obvious, is that interactivity is the key.
Having established these three guideposts as a framework for the "in-character" campaigns, let's take a look at some tips for executing them successfully.
Before starting an "in-character" campaign, ask yourself if your product or brand generates an opportunity for you to actually create an interesting and relevant character. The character cannot be just a random person -- it has to be clearly relatable to the product you are advertising. At the same time remember that not all products or brands have the potential to generate such an "in-character" campaign. The Disney campaign is successful because the characters are derived directly from the story itself, thus are justifiable and logical choices.
Pay attention to your audience
Not all audiences will respond well to in-character marketing. In the case of the Disney campaigns, the audience is internet-savvy users looking for information about the movie and entertainment, which is supplied by the campaign. If your target audience does not spend a lot of time online, or if your product is "too serious" for such a campaign, you may want to avoid it. Most importantly, though, is that you should try an in-character campaign only if it does not compromise the values of your brand and your product.
When creating an "in-character" campaign, you are not aiming to deceive your users by remaining secretive about the origins of your campaign; you want to engage them on a deeper, more interesting level and make a solid connection with your brand. It's best to give users the choice to connect all the dots and decide whether they want to play along. For example, for the theatrical campaign for "2012", Sony Pictures always included information linking the multiple viral sites to the movie by adding a note saying that the site is a part of the "2012 Movie Experience."
Be at the right place at the right time
Depending on your goals, select appropriate social networks on which a character can live. If you want the profile to be informative and you have a lot of content to offer, choose Facebook, as it allows you to share your information easily. If you want to be mostly interactive but don't have a lot of content to share, pick Twitter. If you want to create a full-fledged universe in which your character exists, you may choose to create a blog for the character, as well as accounts across a variety of social networks. Depending on your audience, you might also want to remember that Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace are popular across different audiences depending on age, social status, income, education, or even gender.
Last but not least, remember that the content is the key to a successful "in-character" campaign. Unless your posts or profiles are interesting, entertaining, or useful to users, your campaign will fail. Always share unique, interesting information with your users as it will ensure that they will come back for more; if your ideas are weak, users will not participate. Moreover, whether you decide to be funny or only informative, remember to interact with users who have already expressed an interest. As in all of your social media endeavors, always remember that interactivity is critical to your success.