Spooky Spectacular Social Media – The Brilliance of The Blair Witch
How The Blair Witch Project pioneered Internet marketing and storytelling techniques still valuable to this day.
Yeah…this is totally normal. Not spooky at all.
’Tis my favorite time of year, the Halloween season! The spooks and thrills, taking the time to really appreciate the flavorful fun of fear …
Every year I celebrate with a series of scary movies all throughout the month, and this year seemed to have a theme. After a week of plowing through the Paranormal Activity series, I was struck with a desire to revisit the classic that first inspired them, one of my favorites to this day: The Blair Witch Project.
Just before the Halloween season of 1999, The Blair Witch Project shattered box office records using only a shoestring budget and a brilliantly executed Internet marketing campaign. At the time, I was a thirteen-year-old goth kid in Cleveland who spent essentially all of her free time on the Internet. What seem like normal Internet surfing habits for us today was a sort of weird and antisocial hobby back then, on par with teaching myself code, finding underground communities to engage with, and researching subjects like mythology, Star Wars, and crop circles. So naturally, when word got out that there was potentially some “lost footage” and a documentary about what could totally be a real witch in the woods somewhere, my geeky ‘net friends and I were all over it.
We managed to figure out, long before most of the world did, that it was, in fact, a hoax. However, I didn’t feel gypped, on the contrary, I felt impressed. These guys had gone the extra mile to create a three-dimensional experience for me that spawned an entire world and mythos. It rocked, and I paid my allowance money to see the movie twice.
Recently it dawned on me that The Blair Witch Project was one of my first examples of a brilliant and successful viral marketing campaign, and that even as a nerdy and somewhat socially awkward kid, I was fascinated by the power of people and the Internet, and their combined ability to help tell an incredible story.
And now, thirteen years later, with a career in social media fueled by the passion that began in my youth, I thought that it would be an interesting exercise to look at some of what made The Blair Witch Project - not only a raging success in the marketing world – but focus on how it left a lasting impression that influenced a whole new generation of storytelling.
5 lessons Social Media Marketing learned from The Blair Witch Project
1) One dark and stormy night…
Setting is everything. Create an engaging world, rich with detail.
The 1999 version of The Blair Witch Project website was as intricate and interactive as current technology would allow. You could read “actual journals” from the three student filmmakers, browse news articles from the supposedly haunted town and seemingly legal police documents detailing the case. Forums and chat rooms were set up to allow visitors to discuss their theories. The Blair Witch campaign was very much the grandfather of our genius marketing campaigns that spawned entire worlds of today – such as LOST, with it’s interactive DHARMA stations and webisodes – another fine example of creating a profoundly complex world and mythology, and using smart social media to get it’s audiences hooked on it.
The story begins.
2) It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.
Start your campaign plans long ahead of time.
The rumors of the “Blair Witch” began to surface on the internet months before the movie dropped that July. They knew that the process was a long and involved one – you have to plant little seedlings everywhere, and nurture them carefully. Tend to them daily and they will grow into the kind of big beautiful plants that garner $248M in the theaters, surprising everyone who wasn’t hip to the Internet yet. With time, Blair Witch went positively viral and before you could say “I’m so scared….” everyone had heard about it and was dying to see the phenomenon for themselves.
Just as your social media campaigning should start early, the planning should start even earlier. Have all of the phases for your campaign completed before you even begin. Team Blair Witch Project clearly had every piece of the strategy mapped out from the word go, and so should you! Create plans for marketing strategies with a beginning, a middle, and an end and make clear-cut branding decisions. Determine new tactics and strategies for each phase of the campaign. The only people who should be surprised by your next move is your audience.
3) We all go a little mad sometimes…
Start thinking outside of the box.
One of the key factors of the success of the Blair Witch campaign was its uniqueness. Nobody had really ever done anything quite like that before, either in the cinema world or the cyber world, and that contributed to a lack of defined “rules”. They cast nobodies, used their real names for authenticity, and made them hide from the public eye for the duration of the campaign to ensure it’s success. They essentially made up a huge lie and decided to try to trick the world into believing it, while running the risk that should it fail, they would be hated by everyone. Nobody knew if it was real or a hoax – all they knew was that they had to see it for themselves. People are always chomping at the bit for something new, which is part of what made TBWP so very enticing. It was something original among a swath of gray.
They say that nothing is original anymore, but even things that have been already done still have angles and facets just waiting to be discovered. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and take risks with your campaigns. You may fail at first, but at least you can be on the path to figuring out the perfect formula for you and your brand.
Is it real or a hoax? We must know more.
4) What the f*ck is that?!
Sometimes, less is more.
Often times in horror movies these days, we see the guts and gore splashed across the screen with such frequent vigor that we don’t even have the time to stop and be truly terrified. The Blair Witch Project built up to its climax with very slow, intentional beats that made a lasting impact. By the time you reach the final showdown, you don’t even realize how much faster your heart is racing and how much more engaged with the story and its characters you truly are. It sets the mood and leaves your imagination to fill in the blanks, delivering effective, psychological terror.
What you don’t see CAN hurt you.
Social media works along the same metaphor. You don’t want to get in someone’s face and yell at them about the message you are trying to send. You need to build up your relationship with them, have a couple of well-timed interactions, and then when the time is right, you go in for the kill.
5) We should split up…. right?
Wrong. Have a clear focus, and stick to it.
The Blair Witch Project had a very clear vision and execution plan from the beginning. Both movie and marketing campaign worked hand in hand to create the atmosphere needed to launch TBWP into its success. Your branding should be the same: clear and concise, with everyone in all departments on the same page, at all times.
When a brand uses this strategy effectively, and has all branches running like clockwork, you can literally see the success – as evidenced by The Blair Witch Project. However, when you have a lack of focus or direction, and miscommunications on how to market a product, you end up with the abomination that is Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Someone tried to take a once-great idea and deliver a sloppy sequel – and nobody was fooled. An abysmal film and a complete flop; if you’re lucky, you haven’t even heard of it. Ten years later, Paranormal Activity followed the formula for TBWP success and catapulted its own unique low budget project to cult fame via social media, becoming the most profitable film of all time and inventing it’s own world filled with lore. Clearly PA learned the lesson of needing precise focus, as they managed to maintain their consistency throughout the campaigns for their much more successful sequels.
Don’t go off on your own. Stick to the plan set up in the earlier marketing days and ensure that communication is crystal clear across the board.
This is what happens when you split up.
While these lessons work particularly well with horror movie audiences, whose appetites crave continuous thrills and chills that are fresh, new and exciting, these are valuable lessons that should be taken into consideration when designing any marketing campaigns today.
“OK, here’s your motivation. You’re lost, you’re angry in the woods, and no one is here to help you. There’s a witch and she keeps leaving sh*t outside your door. There’s no one here to help you! She left little trinkets, you took one of them, she ran after us. There’s no one here to help you! We walked for 15 hours today, we ended up in the same place! There’s no one here to help you, THAT’S your motivation! THAT’S YOUR MOTIVATION!” – Joshua Leonard, The Blair Witch Project
Halloween is the time of year to take risks and push people past their comfort zones. Find your motivation, test some limits and really get creative this season. Have fun and stay scared!
For more of my thoughts, you can follow me on Twitter: @teripanda <3