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When Microsoft decided to launch a viral marketing campaign around its Windows Vista operating system, it wanted a spectacle that could catch fire among Internet fans.
It turned to an Internet marketing agency that has a track record for such stunts: 42 Entertainment, a start-up in Seattle and Emeryville that is full of video-game developers, puzzle freaks, toy makers and even fashion designers. These are the people who, more than most marketers in the world, understand the entertainment potential of the Internet.
``We wanted to do something that hadn't been done before,'' said Jordan Weisman, the founder of 42 Entertainment, which specializes in so-called alternate reality games, or ARGs.
So they came up with a campaign that was part contest, part Internet scavenger hunt, dubbed Vanishing Point. That's just one of the latest and most elaborate of the artificial reality games being used as a form of viral marketing that 42 Entertainment does to reach people who shun conventional ads.
``People are applying a white-noise filter to advertising,'' Weisman says. ``With us, we give them entertainment value first before we make any kind of pitch or ask them to hand over any kind of money. It builds good will.''
42 Entertainment wanted something fans would enjoy, so that meant the campaign couldn't have a heavy-handed advertising message about Vista in it. Many marketers who rely on viral marketing campaigns, popularized in books such as Malcolm Gladwell's ``The Tipping Point,'' realize that tech-savvy youths have become resistant to the blatant commercial messages in 30-second TV spots and other traditional media.
One solution is to conduct alternate reality games that are giant puzzles solved by teams of strangers on the Internet whose only connection is a love for online treasure hunts. These ARGs rely on networks of addicted fans to both stoke their popularity and to provide the collective mind power for solving puzzles.
The Vanishing Point game started in December and took off in a big way at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Clues included messages hidden in a Bill Gates speech, a light show that used the fountains outside the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas as a canvas for clues, skywritten messages above four cities, coded images projected onto the walls of various monuments and a fireworks extravaganza with a secret message in the skies above Seattle. The winner who solved the puzzle first, 29-year-old computer technician William ``Will'' Temple of Sacramento, won a trip into space on a private rocket.
``It took us months to figure out how to put images on a series of water fountains,'' said Weisman, 42 Entertainment's founder.
The puzzles that 42 Entertainment comes up with are often ridiculously hard, but the collective ``hive mind'' of the fans working together often means that the toughest puzzles can be solved within hours of being released.
But fans can be a jaded bunch, particularly the veterans at online puzzle-solving clubs such as Unfiction, which specializes in solving ARG puzzles. So the 42 Entertainment crew specializes in puzzles that ``hide in plain sight,'' or are obvious enough from a certain point of view.
With the ilovebees.com campaign of 2004, 42 Entertainment figured out how to make 50,000 pay phones ring at the exact same time. The team sent out squads of temps to find the pay phones and test them. All this was undertaken as part of a viral marketing campaign to promote the Microsoft video game, ``Halo 2.'' Participants only found that out at the end.
The ringing pay phones stunt turned out to be on one of the most memorable events of that campaign. The fans gathered at the phones and recorded the messages that they heard. Then they pieced them all together into a six-hour broadcast. Put together from all the snippets, the broadcast was a ``War of the Worlds''-style radio broadcast of a fictional invasion of earth that precedes the start of the Microsoft game, ``Halo 2.''
With the Vanishing Point game, Microsoft wanted more. Aaron Coldiron and Brian Marr, two Microsoft marketers in charge of the Vista campaign, enlisted 42 Entertainment more than a year ago. Weisman, 42 Entertainment's founder, was a serial entrepreneur who had developed video games at Microsoft such as the famed ``Mech Assault'' series for hard-core gamers. Weisman and his producer Susan Bonds put together a team of members who had participated in ``The Beast,'' the first ARG aimed at creating fans for Steven Spielberg's ``A.I.'' movie.
They worked with the notion that they could spread interest in games far beyond game consoles to a broader audience of people who didn't consider themselves to be game players.
For Microsoft's Vista, 42 Entertainment came up with a plot for Vanishing Point that featured Loki, a faux Microsoft executive, played by an actress, in a role as chief puzzle master for Bill Gates. The team started looking into how they could embed messages in the trails of skywriting airplanes and whether they could get permission to shine strange images on the walls of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco and the National Gallery in London.
They kicked off the campaign in December with a video featuring Loki, seeding boxes with flash drives and laptops to a small group of bloggers and journalists. From there, it spread. Loki also showed up in the audience for Gates' keynote speech last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Fans who had solved the online puzzles knew to show up at the Bellagio fountains the next night to watch for more clues. This blurring of reality and fantasy is a hallmark of alternate reality games.
Holly, a member of the Unfiction fan community who identifies herself online as ``konamouse,'' showed up at the Bellagio fountain event and chatted with journalists and fans of the Vanishing Point game. In the freezing-cold air, she described the puzzle clues she saw at the fountain show to another fan via cell phone. The fan in turn typed the description into a blog post so that others on the Internet could share in the live experience.
Full told, more than 70,000 people participated in solving the Vanishing Point game puzzles, and the contest itself drew more than 20 million page views at www.vanishingpointgame.com. Only a handful of people at 42 Entertainment, Microsoft and co-sponsor Advanced Micro Devices knew what would happen at each stage of the 48-puzzle game.
Not everyone will immerse themselves in the experience as ``konamouse'' did. But media coverage of such fanatics -- CNN showed up at some of the events -- helps multiply the effect of the marketing campaign far beyond those who actually participate in it. And that is how, with a campaign targeted at just the craziest of fans, companies like Microsoft can reach millions of mainstream spectators.
This is where marketing is going in the future: games that are really more like promotions, and campaigns with high-production values where the participants don't realize or care if they're the targets of marketing messages.