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Hidden ASCII Art Generates Buzz For Dante’s Inferno

Dante's Inferno ASCII Art

When the team behind the Dante’s Inferno video game hid ASCII art in the source code of many popular websites and then waited for that art to get discovered, they were taking a huge risk, but sometimes big rewards can only come to those that are willing to take equally big risks. The risk was mitigated by the fact that their campaign was innovative and well targeted, but there was still the chance that their idea was going to fall flat, or that consumers were not going to be receptive to the idea of hunting for what essentially boils down to fancy looking banner ads.

Hell Is Closer Than You Think

Before we dive into the campaign however, let’s do a quick history lesson: ASCII art, or art made with text, has been around since the early days of the computer. Back when printers weren’t able to make graphics, someone figured out that various characters could be combined to simulate them instead, and ASCII art was born. Because of its lengthy history and quirky nature, ASCII art has remained popular in the geek crowd for many years, and coders are even known to hide ASCII art in the source code of their websites so that other geeks will stumble across it and discover the hidden art while looking under the hood of another coder’s site. This type of ‘hidden reward’ is also found in video games, where coders will hide objects or inside jokes in hard to reach places or behind lengthy button combinations in what’s affectionately referred to as an Easter Egg. The goal for both is to reward users that dig into a website or explore in a video game beyond what the typical user would do, so that whether it’s hidden code in a website or a hidden Easter Egg in a video game, those that discover it feel like they have earned access to some sort of exclusive content or reward.

With that history lesson out of the way, lets look at how Dante’s Inferno combined the geek’s love of ASCII art with the gamer’s love of Easter Eggs into a unique and innovative ad campaign that generated a ton of buzz for their upcoming release.

Dante's Inferno ASCII Art - Death

The campaign featured six pieces of ASCII art that were hidden in the source code of various video game and technology websites. One of the first of these sites to get discovered was Digg (by Brent Csutoras) with the initial discovery leading to a large scale search that uncovered a number of other pieces of art scattered across the Internet in places like IGN, GameSpot, Daily Motion, Games Radar, and WWE. One site, Kotaku, even discovered art hidden in their own source code after a reader tipped them off to the campaign, which the editors claimed to have no knowledge of. In addition to the art itself, each hidden ‘ad’ also contained a URL and a password to a secret site, and by collecting all six of these passwords, users could visit that website and unlock a special bundle of content that included music, wallpapers, posters, concept art and more from the upcoming game.

Reap Your Earthly Rewards

What’s interesting about this campaign is that it was very risky, since the ads could have sat unnoticed for a lengthy period of time before being discovered, and even then, they would have to be almost exclusively passed around by word of mouth, since there is no way to view them except by manually selecting to view the source code of a website. Thus, the campaign would have been dead in the water if it had not generated the buzz that its creators were hoping for. In addition, there is no way to track who views the source code of a website or the traffic generated from those views, except through a very rudimentary URL tracking system that uses custom URLs to track the source of visits. Thus, the only way to judge the results of this campaign is to track how many users download the special bundle, and what kind of buzz the campaign generates. (It’s interesting to note that Dante’s Inferno decided not to track what sites users were grabbing their codes from, since the same URL was used across all sites, and secret codes were shared among sites as well.) Another challenge is that while bundle downloads do indicate the total number of people exposed to the campaign, they can’t differentiate between a user that actually viewed the ASCII art in the source code of a website, and a user that simply found or was given the six passwords on a gaming forum or other less involved medium and then used them to unlock the bundle.

The result of these challenges is that for a campaign like this to work well, it has to be used for the right product at the right time and with just enough luck thrown in to capture the interest of the right audience long enough to make an impression. Judging by the blog reactions and user comments about the campaign however, this seems to have struck just that balance, with comments ranging from “I am pretty impressed by this campaign” and “it is an advertising campaign and quite a clever one if I must say so myself” to “The latest stunt is eerie, and gets bonus points for both creativity and giving the fans some fun bonuses.” Even Digg’s Chas Edwards, Digg Publisher and Chief Revenue Officer was quoted as saying, “Since Digg’s early days, ASCII art has been ingrained in our site’s culture. We’re thrilled with the opportunity presented by our partnership with Electronic Arts and the Dante’s Inferno team — incorporating ASCII art into advertising on Digg, while providing the 40 million users in the Digg Community first access to the promotion code.”

Gluttony

Hiding an ad in the source code of a website is a great example of a company that’s willing to think outside the banner, but does the success of the Dante’s Inferno campaign mean that hidden ASCII art is a viable option for other ad campaigns as well? In this case, I don’t think that you could duplicate the results of this campaign in the near term, as the success was due in such large part to the combination of right place, right time to the right audience for the right product. However, if enough time goes by and users once again forget about a company’s ability to hide ads in places as remote as the source code of a website, I think we could see another campaign or two reach a similar level of success by using a similar idea.

So why can’t companies just start hiding ads in the source code of all of their favorite websites and then wait for people to find them?

  1. There is a very small percentage of people that even know how to view the source code of a website, and even then, it’s not a guarantee that they will like ASCII art.
  2. Much of the buzz around the Dante’s Inferno campaign was driven by the novelty of the idea, so each subsequent implementation will have substantially less buzz as people get accustomed to seeing ads hidden in source code.
  3. If people don’t care enough about a product to go searching for hidden art with secret codes and mystery websites in exchange for exclusive content, then the campaign will never get seen by more than a handful of consumers who accidentally stumble across it.

The take away from this campaign is that it’s important to always keep your eyes open for new and innovative ideas, and to be willing to take a risk on a new format that might drive a lot of interest in a product, even if that format can’t be directly tied to traffic or sales. In addition, because the lack of direct tracking means you will never know the exact impact of a risky or non-conventional campaign, you must find a new way of defining your reward (besides just traffic and clicks) so that you will know if the risks were worth it, and if the campaign was a success.

The Good:

  • Unique and innovative campaign generated a massive amount of buzz.
  • Exclusive content motivated users to seek out additional pieces of hidden art and pass along the campaign to others.

The Bad:

  • Results would be difficult to duplicate, as much of the buzz was driven by how innovative the idea was.
  • Limited tracking means the success of the campaign is based on a single number (in this case, bundle downloads) and that the awareness generated by the ads themselves, separate from clicks, was all but impossible to track.

The Future:

  • Unique ad formats that reward the viewer are sought out by consumers, rather than needing to be forced upon them.

Hell Is Nigh

Gowalla and Incase Team Up For Location-Based Sponsorship

Gowalla Incase

Gowalla, a location-based social network, and Incase, an Apple accessory manufacturer, have teamed up to create one of the first ad campaigns to live exclusively on a location-based social network. (They’re calling it a ‘collaboration’, but it’s still a proof of concept even if Gowalla isn’t getting paid for it.) The campaign features six Incase-branded virtual items which are modeled after actual Incase gear. When Gowalla users check in at any Apple Store around the world during the promotional period, they receive one of those six virtual items, and a few lucky users will even receive an actual Incase Slider case in addition to their virtual item.

Gowalla Prize

This ‘real prize’ functionality debuted during Gowalla’s 10 and a Half Days of Christmas promotion, but this is the first time it’s been sponsored by another company.

Gowalla Real Prize

Lastly, if a user collects all six virtual items, they receive a special ‘Incase Pin of Glory’ to mark their accomplishment. (Pins are one feature of Gowalla’s system.)

Since Gowalla, Foursquare, Loopt, Whrrl, Brightkite and the rest of the location-based social networks are all relatively new, they’re all still trying to figure out how to monetize their service, which should make this an interesting space to keep an eye on in 2010. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that location-based social networks will be the space to watch in the coming year, as they have the potential to revolutionize how companies advertise to consumers on a highly targeted and hyper-local level.

Incase Foursquare Sponsorship

Currently the two leaders in the space (at least in terms of buzz) are Foursquare and Gowalla, and each service is trying slightly different methods of advertising to their users, with each method having unique advantages and disadvantages. Gowalla gives users items related to the locations that they check in at, such as Incase items at Apple Stores, and a digital icon of Gary Vaynerchuk’s Crush It book at all stops on his book tour. Foursquare on the other hand shows users sponsored locations that are near their check in location, offers users coupons and specials based on check ins, and also counts the number of times that a user checks in at a location, turning Foursquare into a hosted loyalty rewards program. Regardless of which advertising method comes out on top though, expect to see each service adopt parts of what works well with the other services as each continue to refine their offering.

To test drive this campaign, I visited the Apple Flagship Store in San Francisco and checked in on Gowalla. The first time I checked in however, nothing out of the ordinary happened, so I returned later that day and checked in again, and received an Incase Slider Case item in return. There wasn’t much more to it though, which left me feeling like they could have done so much more with the idea. (Note: I did receive a tweet the next day, shown above, which said that I was the winner of an actual Incase Slider case. While I’m excited to have won, I think the points below are still valid.) A few potential ideas/changes that crossed my mind:

  1. Explain the campaign in the item messaging. Had I not been actively reading the Gowalla blog, I would not have known that the Incase item was any different from a normal item that you receive when checking in on Gowalla. At the very least, Gowalla should have included some information about the campaign and the fact that you can receive a special pin for collecting all six limited edition items, as this would go a long way towards increasing the repeat engagement of each user, and highlights the specialness of the item. Taking the sponsor integration a step further, if Gowalla included a web browser in their app, they could include a link to the Incase product page in the message, and if a user wanted to find out more about the featured product, they would be just a click away from detailed information and potentially even an online storefront.
  2. Turn each item into a coupon. If Incase wants to convert Apple Store shoppers into Incase customers, they should use the message attached to each item as an opportunity for them to give Gowalla users a special deal on Incase products. The timing is perfect, since they’re reaching a very targeted audience at or near the point of purchase, and they’re also able to specifically target early adopters and heavy social network users who are the most likely to be using Gowalla at this point, and are also the most likely to help spread the message to others. Even better (for Incase at least, though maybe not for users) would be to turn each item into a small coupon, and allow users to combine the six items together to create a larger coupon, creating an incentive to collect all six items that has more real-world value than a virtual Gowalla pin.
  3. Get users to share. Encouraging users to collect all six items is a great way to motivate repeat visits, but if Incase wants to spread the word from the initial group of influencers to a larger audience, they need to incentivize the sharing of items with others. Perhaps it’s a coupon that is only activated when one user gives an item to another user, or a contest where the person whose item is subsequently picked-up and dropped-off by the most users wins a prize from Incase, but a little motivation can go a long way toward the spread of information from user to user.

As the Gowalla/Incase campaign shows, advertising on location-based social networks can be integrated into the experience in a fun way that adds to a user’s enjoyment of the service, rather than detracting from it. And while Twitter continues to struggle to find the best way of monetizing their service without angering their users, Gowalla and Foursquare have both introduced advertising very early in their growth, which should help users accept ads and other promotions as a part of the user experience. As they continue to grow however, the key will be for location-based social networks to work closely with sponsors to help create campaigns like the Incase sponsorship that integrate ads in a non-invasive and additive way, so that users welcome and respond well to these ads, since they will ultimately provide value to both the sponsor and the user.

Magpie Tries To Make Twitter An Ad Network, Fails

Magpie Logo

Magpie calls itself the “Ad Network for Twitter”, and has definitely caused quite a stir in the last few days as Twitter users debate the value of filling their tweet stream with ads in exchange for a few dollars on the side. But is this ‘in the stream’ advertising the future, or will users revolt against an ad network that treads on their sacred ground?

For those unfamiliar with Magpie, it works like this:

Magpie Process

Advertisers buy ads for certain keywords, and create specific messages targeted to those keywords. Magpie then matches those ads to Twitter users that talk about each keyword, and automatically inserts an ad into one out of every X number of tweets, as dictated by the user. Costs are automatically calculated based on the # of followers the user has, as well as the ‘hotness’ of the keyword, and then the ads are systematically blended right into the message stream of the Magpie user/publisher.

Enticed by the prospect of turning my Twitter account into a revenue generator, I too signed up for Magpie and let it post a sample ad into my stream, at which point I reconsidered the decision, thought about what Magpie could turn Twitter into, and quickly canceled my Magpie account.

There are a few reasons why I’m not a fan of Magpie:

1. If adoption of Magpie grows, the annoyance factor grows exponentially. If one of the people you follow on Twitter uses Magpie, it’s pretty easy to ignore the occasional tweet that’s proceeded with #magpie. (To their credit, Magpie does require full disclosure at the start of any Magpie tweet.) However, if more and more people start to use the service, you have to spend more and more time weeding through ads to get to actual tweets from the people you follow.

Think about this: If Twitter had enabled this from the start as their business model, and used the default settings that Magpie uses, 20% of Twitter’s content would be advertising. Do you think Twitter would be as popular as it is today if 20% of every user’s time on Twitter was spent looking at ads?

2. Twitter is conversation. Blogs have ads because the blogger is spending their time to craft quality content that provides a value to the reader. In exchange, they show advertising to the reader, and earn money from the views or clicks that advertising generates. The blogger is getting paid for their hard work, and the reader is trading their value to the advertiser for free content. It’s one-way communication between a writer and his or her readers, and advertising is an accepted part of most types of one-way communication.

Twitter is different. Twitter is two-way communication, and closely mirrors the way that we interact in real life. If a blog is like a magazine, then Twitter is like a conversation between you and a friend, or you and a group of friends. Now imagine if one out of every six things one of your friends said was an advertisement for a company that they didn’t necessarily believe in. Sure, they might talk a lot about beer, and you might consider them a source of valuable information about beer, but if they spent a given percentage of their time talking about a beer made by the highest bidder, and automatically inserted those random facts into a pre-programmed part of the conversation, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be friends with them for very long.

In addition, there’s no need to get paid for using Twitter. Unless you’re writing a story 140 characters at a time or publishing ‘tips of the day’, Twitter is as much about receiving value as it is about giving. The value of using Twitter is in the relationships that you make and keep, the up to the minute news that you receive from your contacts, and the ‘water cooler’ environment that Twitter fosters, not the few dollars that you could make by spamming your network.

3. Magpie pretends to be endorsement marketing, but is really just mindless shilling. If a Twitter user wants to recommend a product that they use to their Twitter network, then their network values that recommendation because the source acts as a filter, and passes along quality products that they think others would get use of as well.

With Magpie however, the source is providing an advertisement for a company that they may have never used or even heard of. Unlike a banner ad on a blog, which stands outside of the regular content, and is understood as being untested by the source unless it’s explicitly stated otherwise, Magpie messages are ‘blended’ into the message stream, and are often worded to read like an endorsement. Except for the “#magpie” tag that precedes all Magpie advertisements, the message looks like any other message, and is therefore much harder to filter.

To see if I was the only one that felt this way about Magpie, I did a little Twitter searching to find out what others in the Twitter world think about the service. After weeding through the Magpie ads, here’s a sampling of what I came up with:

Magpie Reactions

Not too positive, eh?

Sure, it’s the dream of every marketer to have people endorsing their product directly to friends and family, but when those endorsements turn into unfounded annoyances, the tables can quickly turn, and an advertising campaign can turn into a spam factory that users will actively avoid.

The Good:

  • Public conversations allow advertisers to accurately target an intended and relevant audience.

The Bad:

  • Magpie interrupts the natural flow of Twitter too frequently.
  • Magpie pretends to be endorsement marketing, but is really just mindless shilling.
  • Magpie turns Twitter into a spam factory.

The Future:

  • Companies find active users of their products through public conversations, and allow those users to directly recommend products to their contacts in unobtrusive and natural ways.

Magpie