4 online brand gimmicks that failed

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By now, marketers know that brands cannot fully control their own message anymore. Consumers now have a diverse set of channels through which they can interact with their digital world, and they've taken rightful ownership of their own destiny when interacting with brands through those channels.

In an effort to be heard and to increase engagement, brands are turning to new, innovative ways to approach the digital marketing landscape, from social environments such as Twitter and Facebook, to blogger outreach and global alternate reality games. Like anything else new and innovative, the risk of failure in these approaches runs high, and the payoff is unknown.

But failure, if done early and often, can be more instructive than success. Let's look at four new and innovative ways that brands attempted to engage with their consumers through digital, and see what lessons we can learn.

Lesson 1. Tell a story, but make it your story
In February 2008, 50 bloggers and gamers received mysterious packages in the mail containing clues to an online alternate reality game (ARG) with a clear call to action: Find "The Lost Ring." These packages kicked off a six-month effort across the globe by more than 150,000 players in seven languages to uncover a lost Olympic game. The game officially ended at the Beijing Olympics, and it generated more than its share of accolades in marketing circles.

But that's only half of the story. The game is a classic example of what's known as "dark marketing" -- a viral campaign in which the sponsoring brand (in this case, McDonald's) is barely, if ever, acknowledged. The theory is that mentioning the brand would turn potential gameplayers off when they realize that they're simply playing a part in a larger marketing campaign. In this case, it wasn't revealed that McDonald's was participating until months after the game began.

ARGs have proven to be successful in the past and are an incredibly viral method of participatory storytelling on a grand scale. Yet in most cases where measurable success was achieved, the ARG told a story that was at least tangentially related to the brand that sponsored it. Consider ABC's "Lost Experience" and "Find815" ARG campaigns, which gave rabid fans of the hit show something to do during its hiatus while simultaneously telling some of the show's back story -- all without diminishing the experience of watching "Lost" for consumers who didn't participate. 

BMW created an ARG surrounding a fictional town, "Oberpfaffelbachen," that built a huge ramp up to launch the BMW 1-Series in America. In each of these cases, the story of the game tied back to the story of the brand, even if the tie-in was slight or tongue-in-cheek.

Lastly, in order to measure the success of an ARG, it's important to understand how the brand is perceived before, during, and after the game. Using sentiment analysis tools to continually measure what people are saying about the brand can identify the baseline sentiment and the brand lift during the campaign, as well as any lingering effects after the game has ended.

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