Tag Archives | Traffic

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.”


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

Skittles Embraces Social Media In A Big Way


Most brands have at least dipped a toe into the waters of social media, but earlier this week, Skittles sent the online world into a tizzy by being the first brand to jump head first into the deep end. They did so by turning Skittles.com into a social media portal, and turning their brand and brand message over to the fans through the user generated content that’s been placed on various social media channels.

Skittles Pop-Up

After confirming your date of birth (which seems a little silly since you can see everything that appears behind the pop-up window before entering a date anyways, and because all of the individual channels are available freely to anyone of any age) you’re taken directly to one of the Skittles channels (Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter or Wikipedia) where you can view it in all its glory, plus an overlay to help you get from one channel to the next. As can be expected, some people used the opportunity to spam the Skittles fans with NC-17 messages and randomly tagged junk, but eventually the novelty wore off and things returned to normal. (Or normal, plus the tons of extra traffic and chatter from the increased awareness that the campaign created.)

Skittles YouTube

For a brand that had little to no online presence (admit it, you hadn’t been to Skittles.com in the last six months either) they managed to go from zero to hero in less than 24 hours. Sure, they have done some fantastic TV spots recently that garnered a few views on YouTube, and people occasionally uploaded a picture of a design they created on their counter with a bag of Skittles onto Flickr, but there was no compelling reason for anyone to visit Skittles.com. After this campaign went live however, every blog, every news channel, every pundit, and every person with an opinion about the campaign and the Skittles brand was sharing it with others, and Skittles became not only the hot topic of the entire Internet for a day, but a buzzword for the rest of the week as well.

Skittles Comment Moderation

Now obviously this isn’t a model that would work well for any brand, since no one wants to visit the Wikipedia page for Joe’s Finger Traps and Staple Removers, but it does show that with a little effort, you can take the conversations and interactions that are already happening about a brand and amplify them through the use of social media. In addition, Skittles realized that these conversations and interactions are going to happen anyways, so they could either try to ignore them, or they could embrace them and participate in them as a way to regain some control over them. (Ironically enough, they gained back that control by going through the motions of giving up that control all together.)

In addition, when you look at the Return on Investment for a campaign like this, the numbers are phenomenal. The overlay itself doesn’t cost a lot to design and implement, the buzz spreads the word automatically, and Skittles was creating and designing their own social media channels anyways, so this just gave them a chance to show off their work and share a bit of the spotlight. Plus, once everything is in place, the users are the ones making the content, so Skittles can just sit back and relax with their hand on the moderation key for the occasional fan mis-step.

(This does bring up a good point however about moderation and a brand’s willingness to let go. For Skittles, they made the choice, either intentionally or accidentally, to give users full control, and I think it was the right choice to make. If you try to control the message, anything that slips through will be blamed on the brand, but when it’s obvious that the fans have full control, the message gets attributed directly to the creator and doesn’t send shrapnel towards the brand if anything off-brand makes it through. Plus, users tend to police themselves, so the detractors eventually get bored and move on while the true fans stick around to create content and promote the brand.)

So what are the lessons to be learned from the Skittles campaign, and how can a brand begin to adapt them into their own online strategy?

  1. Stop worrying so much about controlling the message. Users are out there talking about your brand anyways, and they’re doing it in their own words and their own way and without your influence, so trying too hard to control the message is only going to upset them and discourage their contributions. Instead, embrace customers that are evangelical enough to talk about your brand with others, and encourage and motivate them to do so through rewards like the social justification of appearing on your website or the physical rewards of a contest or giveaway. If you do need to retain some control, do so by supporting the positive and ignoring the negative, because the system will naturally monitor and correct itself over time.
  2. Integrate user generated content into your website. Rather than trying to segment everything into its own little area (Videos go on YouTube, Photos go on Flickr, etc.) create a central location for customers and potential customers to see it all together. Potential customers are going to seek out the opinions of current customers anyways, since we naturally trust other people the most when making a decision, so brands might as well embrace that exchange of opinion and make it happen on their own turf. Plus, it keeps development costs down, and helps keep a site relevant and fresh.
  3. Focus as much attention on the leading social media channels as you do on you own website. Gone are the days when a user went to a company’s website to find out more information about that company. Instead, they’re looking for that company in the places that they’re already visiting, and chances are, if the company’s not there officially, they’re finding someone or something else that’s there in its place. To capitalize on this, embrace the power of social media, and put simple and cost effective work into creating a place that people want to be and that motivates them to share.

The Good:

  • Total integration of social media encourages participation and consumer interaction.
  • Novel approach increases buzz and drives huge spikes in traffic.
  • Development and upkeep costs are kept low, increasing ROI.

The Bad:

  • Users can abuse the privilege with spam and inappropriate messaging.

The Future:

  • Companies put some (or all) of their brand into the hands of their fans, and let social media shape their message in a public way.