Viral Marketing Campaigns Straight Out of Hollywood

Originality and unexpectedness are superpowers. Surprisingly, very few brands use them as such. They’re hard to master and far away from a science or anything you can test. That’s probably why you don’t see more truly original and unexpected communication today.
Linus Karlsson and Paul Malmstrom

Obviously, the best marketing campaigns are the ones that make people excited about a product or service. The sole intention of viral marketing is to get audiences so engaged they actively promote the message.

Cinema production companies commonly exploit viral marketing across multiple channels, especially online. When successful, viral marketing campaigns can yield tremendous profits . . . and provide great lessons for every marketer.

First, let’s define exactly what viral marketing is.

Viral Marketing Defined

Viral marketing is any strategy that encourages the audience to pass on a marketing message to others. The possibility for exponential growth in the message’s exposure and influence in the right conditions is the basis for this type of marketing. Like viruses, this strategy takes advantage of rapid multiplication to push marketing messages to thousands, and eventually millions.

Now that we are on the same page, we can look at how some movie marketing campaigns have gone viral.

1. The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project is what started the viral marketing buzz in Hollywood, and with good reason. The movie was made for a little over $22,000, and drumroll please . . . the movie grossed over $240,000,000. Yes, that number has 7 zeroes. There weren’t many mockumentaries of that style in the horror genre at the time, helping its popularity. However, a movie like The Blair Witch Project doesn’t make that kind of money with just witty dialogue.

Before YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace, The Blair Witch Project pioneered the adaptation of guerilla marketing to the internet, setting the standard for viral marketing.

The film gives the impression it is a real documentary and actual found footage. The filmmakers and Artisan Entertainment supported this premise by building a website backing the claim. They also circulated the rumors via online message boards. (Remember those days? AOL, anyone?) The filmmakers, who also happened to be the actors in the movie, even committed to staying secluded leading up to the film’s release.

Not only did people talk about it on the internet, but they began spreading the rumors offline. I was 9 years old at the time of the release and can still remember the buzz surrounding the film.

2. The Dark Knight

So this is a big step up in terms of budget from The Blair Witch Project, but it nonetheless deserves to be mentioned. The production budget was very high, coming in at around $275,000,000, but the movie made over $1 billion in box office ticket sales and another $150,000,000 in home market sales. The Dark Knight was able to use Batman’s brand recognition and fanbase to build a landmark viral marketing campaign.

The campaign included a massive scavenger hunt which led legions of fans chasing after various clues surrounding the superhero movie. The scavenger hunt immersed fans from around the world in the details and universe of the movie well before it came to the big screen.
This video explains it all.

They also included a website for Harvey Dent’s campaign for district attorney, a Joker website, and campaign signs, posters, and swag for the Harvey Dent campaign. Ultimately they utilized an already engaged fanbase of the brand to dress up and take part in a very immersive experience to increase outreach.

3. Paranormal Activity

The entire Paranormal Activity franchise has effectively utilized viral marketing, but the first movie is the one to focus on. Oren Peli, a first-time director, made the first horror flick in the series for only $15,000. He used his own home, unknown actors, and low budget equipment, and the movie grossed over $200,000,000 between the box office and domestic video sales.

To create their viral marketing campaign, Paramount teamed up with to allow fans to “demand it” in their area. They utilized social networks such as Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Delicious, Facebook, and Twitter. Fans were even able to tweet their screams directly from the Paranormal Activity website.

It was a cleverly interactive online campaign, and they also blatantly made the movie mysterious to intrigue people all the more.

The advertisers for Paranormal Activity incorporate mystery into the trailers and website by not releasing the normal wealth of information. It went viral because people were demanding it to figure out what was happening in the movie. It also helped that there hadn’t been a documentary style horror movie portrayed as reality since The Blair Witch Project.
Here is one of the more descriptive trailers.

The Takeaway

For most B2B companies, viral marketing may not be a practical option. However, these campaigns do illustrate:

  • the power of creating original and unexpected messages
  • using multiple, diverse marketing channels,
  • and incorporating all of your marketing channels to close the loop on your campaign.

Without understanding and implementing these key lessons, the movie marketing campaigns would have been in vain.

Each of these very successful campaigns used traditional outbound marketing, but they also leveraged social media and originality to get a varied audience to interact with the campaign.

Viral marketing campaigns present an unique opportunity to learn from the performance of other brands’ marketing. By understanding why these campaigns were so successful, you can apply your knowledge to your own campaigns and gain a decisive win for your marketing.


Marketing to the
Conversion Lifecycle

Are you converting your leads into customers? Learn more about each step of the conversion process all the way from targeting to final purchase. Plus get examples of how to market to each phase to convert more customers.

Download Whitepaper