Thursday, January 6, 2011

An Air of Mystery

Greetings all!  It's been a while since I've posted last.  I promise it won't be nearly as long between posts for quite some time.  I decided to take a little time off during the holidays to catch up on some work, as well as with friends and family.  It was a nice, much needed break, but I'm back and ready to get back to work helping small businesses and non-profits create and maintain their PR and social media efforts.  So with that said, let's jump right into today's topic.

The Mystery Campaign!

First, let's begin by saying that the "Mystery Campaign" is not new.  It's also not really a PR campaign.  You won't have much luck pitching a media outlet a mystery story.  Journalists have a bad habit of wanting to know details and the like.  However, as a marketing strategy, more to the point, as a social media marketing strategy, it can be real boost to your overall efforts.

Before we move forward, ask yourself this...what is one of mankind's most enduring traits?  The answer is, of course, curiosity.  We are a curious species.  When presented with something unknown, we nearly always go out of our way to satisfy that curiosity.  For decades, marketers have banked on our natural curiosity to promote products, services and businesses.  And, like the old saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Currently, in Denver, a series of billboards caused a minor stir when they appeared of the skyline of the Mile High City.  If you live in or around Denver, you've probably seen them.  They're big and red all over, with a single, yellow spoon situated just off to the right of center. 

There's no copy, no hint as to what it might be promoting, no message hitting commuters over the head as they go to and from work.  It's a simple, basic picture and nothing else.  What is it?  People asked.  What does it mean?  Who did it?  What's the point?  Within a week, people's curiosity was piqued. 

I spend a lot of time online doing research for my clients, as well as for this blog.  I read the papers, and the news outlets online and within a short period of time I began to see the question pop up all over the place, wondering about the giant red billboard with the yellow spoon. 

It didn't take long, about two weeks, before the answer was out and the public curiosity was satiated.  It turns out the billboards were part of a new promotion for McDonald's breakfasts.  This is just a single example of this kind of mystery campaign being used to raise awareness and generate interest in a product or service.

Those of you old enough to remember the 80's will recall fondly, maybe, the very first Apple commercial that aired in 1984.  If you don't remember, or weren't around to watch it the first go-around, here it is.

This ad ran during the Superbowl and confused millions of viewers who basically had no idea what the commercial was about.  It created waves of interest as the general public tried to figure out what they had just seen and what it was supposed to say.

The "Mystery Campaign" has even been used successfully in animated TV shows.  Anyone remember the "Gabbo's Coming!" commercials from the Simpsons over 10 years ago?  Who is Gabbo?  Why is he coming?  What will he do when he gets here?  Hell, as a casual watcher of the program I was intrigued to find out who this "Gabbo" character was. 

Why it works:

I've already explained one reason why the "Mystery Campaign" works; simple curiosity.  But that alone isn't enough to make a campaign successful.  More than anything, the successful campaigns capture the imagination of potential clients and customers.  They also provide a promise of some kind that appeals to the base desires of your potential audience.  The question is, how can you do that with your social media campaign?  Let's break it down.

The elements:

Let's get this out in the beginning; the mystery campaign doesn't work for everything.  Generally they work best when unveiling something new, something innovative, something unique.  If you're promoting a dry cleaners or widget, you might want to consider a different approach. 

But if you have an event, an opening night, an unveiling, you'll want to start with an angle.  Remember when we discussed news angles?  This isn't much different.  The goal is to build a mystique, a mystery, not just to ask question, but to truly get people's attention and tickle their imagination.

Just like in everything else you do, you also want to tease your potential customers or clients with the promise of something exciting, special, unique, wonderful.  Use any adjective you wish, but you want your audience to be waiting in anticipation, believing that what they're waiting for will benefit them some way, either materialistically, financially or emotionally. 

Let's look at the tools you need to make this work:
1.  A date - No, I'm not talking about someone you ask to the prom.  This is more like a deadline, a specific time frame in which to weave your web.  In order to build anticipation, you need to let the public know when to expect the big event.  Without a deadline or end date, you'll have a hard time creating buzz.  You can only string the public along for so long.  Eventually the excitement will wear off, they'll lose interest and move on to something else. 

2.  Appeal to the base wants and needs - What do people want?  Money, love, happiness, security?  Whatever it is, your campaign needs to give the promise of meeting at least one of their wants or needs.  Let's say you're promoting a new sandwich at your restaurant.  Give it a name, call it, the Bronson.  Then, as part of your campaign you can say something like, "Bronson is coming, and you'll never be hungry again..."  Hey, that sounds good.  Of course, as a reader, I'll be asking, "Who the heck is Bronson, and why won't I ever be hungry again?"  You have my interest.  Now all you need is...

3.  Follow up - What makes a great mystery campaign great is that it ends up being everywhere.  It gets people talking.  They start asking their friends and co-workers about the mystery.  Posters begin appearing on streetcorners, posts end up flooding Facebook, the Twitterverse is abuzz with contemplation and excitement.  But this doesn't happen without some work.  YOU have to be constantly posting online, spreading the word, going into chat rooms and asking questions about the very campaign you have created.  It takes some vigilance and effort to make a mystery campaign successful, moreso than your typical social media efforts.  But if you put in the time, you'll begin to create the kind of buzz that will pay off big in the end.

4.  Watch your timing - This is one of the most important elements of this kind of campaign.  If you start too far in advance of your big unveiling, you'll lose the interest of the public and the buzz will fizzle out.  Start too close to the end date, and you won't have enough time to build the kind of activity you want.  A general rule is to not start your campaign more than a month in advance.  Figure it will take about a week for people to actually start paying attention.  Then two weeks for the buzz to reach a crescendo.  The final week will be all about driving folks to either purchase tickets to your event, or get them excited enough to show up to your unveiling.  This is called the 3 stages and I'll cover them in just a couple of paragraphs.

5.  Have a point - It's great to catch people's attention, but once you have it, you have to do something with it.  In other words, you want to drive the folks online to a website, a Facebook page, a Youtube page, or give them a call to action of some kind.  Maybe it's to show up at a specific location at a set time for the unveiling where you'll toss out swag and have a party.  Whatever it is, you have to tell people what you want them to do.

6.  Be visual - Of course, words say a lot, but we all know the old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words.  Take the McDonalds billboard mentioned above.  A big red billboard with a simple, single yellow spoon laid against it does more to grab attention than a billboard full of words.  The same holds true online.  Even a picture of the date with a simple, short tagline can be effective.  In order for your efforts to be successful, you will want to use pictures, graphic elements, even video to help build excitement and buzz. 

7.  Be diverse - In other words, don't have one single picture or one single video.  People will tire of the same visuals very quickly.  You want to have several different visual elements, each with a slightly different message or targeted at a different audience.  For example, one of my most recent projects involves the opening night of a Shakespearean theatrical group.  They know they'll attract more traditional theater goers.  But in order to be special they need to attract those that might otherwise not pay money to watch live Shakespeare.  To reach those audiences, we created a series of videos, some that appealed to those who enjoy action and adventure, blood and fights.  At the same time we released a video that highlighted the more...sexy...elements of the show.  All the while we are keeping the entire venture wrapped in a veil of secrecy.  All these readers know is that something fun, sexy, new and exciting is coming on 1.14.2011.  Plus, by having a handful of different visual elements, you'll be able to post and repost these photos and videos over and over to catch those who might have missed them the first time around.
If your campaign has all of those basic elements, your efforts will likely be successful.  Again, you have to stay on top of this kind of campaign more than usual, which is just one other reasons why you shouldn't launch this kind of campaign too far in advance.  You simply won't have the time to truly stay on top of it all and still manage the rest of your responsibilities.  But three to four weeks of hard work and vigilance will net you some major results.

Which finally leads us to the the three stages of the "Mystery Campaign."  Let's assume you are starting your efforts one month before the end date.  As mentioned above, you can break your four weeks into three stages.  But this works with a three week advance, and, if you're desperate, even a two week advance.  Any less lead time than that and you're likely wasting your time.
1.  Launch - This is where you make a splash.  You can leak your best stuff, your most attention grabbing stuff out online over the course of the first stage.  This is the part where you want folks to sit up and ask, "What is this about?"  It's during this time that you will be posting the most content on your various social media platforms.

2.  Maintenance - Once you have their attention, you have to maintain it.  You can do this one of two ways.  A) You can continue to post constantly in an effort to build momentum quickly.  Or B) You can begin to release your material in a more measured way, designed to keep it in front of people, but still make it a bit of a mystery.  If you suddenly pull back a bit, it will get people wondering what is happening and keep them on the edge of their seat, so to speak.  Either way can be successful.

3.  Tapering Down - The final week leading up to your big event is really your make or break moment.  On one hand you can, in an effort to reap some PR bounce from your campaign, unwrap the mystery a day or so beforehand.  This is risky since you take the chance that you will kill the suspense for some folks and lose some potential customers or clients before your big unveiling.  The better move is to keep the suspense going until the very last moment.  The only change you'll likely make at this stage is to focus not so much on the mystery, but on the date and the call to action.  If your efforts up to this point has been to highlight the promise and the mystery, at this stage you'll want to really hammer the end date and what you want people to do at that time.  By this stage, people will just be starting to tire of being in the dark.  By giving them something to do on the date in question, you rekindle their excitement, knowing that their curiosity will soon be quenched.
Of course, you'll likely never make the kind of splash that Apple did in 1984, or that McDonalds did in Denver, but you can still reach thousands upon thousands of folks who otherwise might never have heard of your business or non-profit. 

Also, keep in mind, that while we're talking about something potentially viral (isn't everything online "potentially" viral?) that isn't necessarily your goal here.  Your goal is to get people questioning and talking, yes, but you don't need it to circulate around the world in forwarded emails.  What you DO want to do is get your immediate community of potential customers and clients to take notice of you.  And when it comes to grabbing attention, really, nothing does it better than a well-developed Mystery Campaign.

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