Naturally, viral marketing has become a popular business strategy to spread ideas and information between people in much the same way as a virus, creating the potential for exponential growth as the message rapidly multiplies – creating a huge buzz along the way.
So perhaps you’d be surprised to learn the most successful viral marketing campaign of all time took place before social media existed. Even before mainstream use of the internet. The most successful viral marketing campaign of all time centred on a small, low-budget indie flick in 1999 called The Blair Witch Project.
The Blair Witch Project
In case you missed it first time around, here’s a quick rundown of the movie. The Blair Witch Project is the story of three student filmmakers, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams, who are investigating the supernatural legend known as the Blair Witch in the town of Burkittsville, Maryland. After interviewing the locals, they disappear into the Black Hills with their recording equipment, and are never seen again. A year later, their footage is found and pieced together to make the movie.
There are various reports detailing the amount the movie cost to make, but Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, who co-wrote and produced the film, confirmed the original budget was somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000. It was shot on handheld cameras, one of which was returned after use for a refund to keep costs down. The three main actors did most of the filming, and their lines were entirely improvised – they only had a general outline to follow and had to react to situations unprepared. It took eight days to shoot, and a further eight months to edit. The end result was all the more terrifying as audiences didn’t know whether it was real or not.
The Seeds of the Viral Marketing Campaign
Haxan Films, the production company belonging to Myrick and Sánchez, had put together a basic website, www.blairwitch.com, giving the story behind the legend, which went online in June 1998. The film itself was first aired at the Sundance Festival in January of the following year. After an all-night bargaining session, Artisan Entertainment bought the rights for a reported $1million.
In a joint decision, Haxan and Artisan, decided to use the website as the focus of their publicity campaign. For the next six months, they added to it, and used a number of other low-budget tactics to promote the film. Prior to the film’s release in July 1999, they had spent approximately $1million on promotion.
On its opening weekend, The Blair Witch Project grossed $1.5 million on only 27 screens. All screens were packed, and people queued for hours to be sure of a ticket. The number of screens was increased twice before its October release in the UK and Ireland. In total, The Blair Witch Project reeled in over $248million at the Box Office, the second highest return on investment of any film. Despite advances in modern cinema and much deeper pockets in today’s film industry, not a single independent film has come close to that viral marketing campaign. So how did they do it?
The Blair Witch Project Website
The website still exists today, and is worth a look, although it’s been updated to reflect the ten-year anniversary of the film’s release. It documents the history of the Blair Witch from 1785, when the legend began, to October 1997, when the rediscovered footage was released to the families of the missing filmmakers, who asked Haxan Films to piece together the story for them.
There’s a detailed section on the filmmakers, with photos of them preparing for their filming expedition, and individual biographies with photos dating back to their childhood. In addition, there are pictures of the aftermath including their abandoned car and tapes, photos of the police search, a number of interviews with family members and people who worked on the case, and footage from the news coverage from the time.
Finally, there are snippets of film from the recovered tapes and Heather’s journal. Altogether, they make a chilling time capsule that expands on every aspect of the film, and increases the belief that it’s based on true events.
The Viral Marketing Campaign
In addition to the website, which was expanded gradually to reflect new information being discovered about the ‘story’, the viral marketing team team joined various online forums and fanned the flames of the story by adding mysterious nuggets of information, to keep people talking.
They also shot a number of low-budget trailers. The following video shows two of the original trailers:
In the first, viewers hear the breathless and terrified voice of Heather, begging for forgiveness, before cutting to the top of her face, wide-eyed in fear, bathed in torchlight in the woods. The second details the search for the missing filmmakers. They are both chilling.
The ads were mainly shown in college campuses, with a special feature on the Sci-Fi Channel. By avoiding mainstream cinema ads, they not only saved money, but made audiences believe that they’d stumbled on something special, discovering it for themselves.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the viral marketing campaign was the attention to detail, to the extent that if you looked on the IMDb before the film was released, the three actors were listed as ‘missing, presumed dead’. They even handed out missing persons leaflets, although the posters put up in Cannes were taken down the following day when it was revealed that a television executive had actually been kidnapped, in an unconnected event.
Finally, on the opening weekend in July 1999, Artisan took out a full-page ad in Variety Magazine, simply noting the website and the number of hits to date: 21,222,589. It was a simple call to action – you can’t afford to miss out; social proof is one of the strongest marketing tactics there is. Moreover, by limiting the release to only 27 screens, they created the impression that this was a difficult ticket to get hold of, drumming in the idea that you cannot afford to miss out.
The publicity campaign for The Blair Witch Project was simply the most inventive, terrifying and successful campaign in film history. Undoubtedly, part of the reason for its success was that it was the first film to be widely marketed online. In other words, it was a trailblazer. The website provided a point of reference for people to refer to, and it was something that could be shared easily, with the potential to spread like wildfire. The pictures, video and interviews that appeared online at various intervals added to the uncertainty of whether this was actually a true story. Even the actors, at the time of filming, thought the Blair Witch legend itself was real, although they were aware the situations around them were manufactured.
Another reason for its success was that it created a feeling of uncertainty in people’s minds. Were they actual people? Had they really disappeared? Surely this couldn’t all be fake? Remember too, at this time fake documentaries were uncommon, and the unknown actors simply added to the mystique. It was also more difficult at that time for people to check the authenticity of the story, whereas today a simple search online would reveal in minutes that the events were not real.
It would be impossible to replicate the viral marketing campaign for The Blair Witch Project now. Many have tried, and many have failed – but we can learn from it. Perhaps the most important lesson is the need to be original. The Blair Witch Project worked because it was so unique. Whereas the imitators have failed, because they weren’t. It’s much easier to stand out when you have an original angle to work from, but the impact lessens each time this idea is copied. Being original also makes your idea more shareable, because people love to stumble across something different, and are eager to pass it around so they appear ahead of the game amongst their friends.
The moral of the story? Don’t imitate, create. And do sweat the small stuff, because attention to detail can be the difference between a good campaign and a killer one.