Remember The Blair Witch Project? The film released in 1999 but the rumours started in 1998 and it certainly wasn’t limited to American audiences. School kids were talking about how this was a true story and how disturbing it was.
For those of you who need a reminder, The Blair Witch Project was this found footage documentary style horror film, about three film students. These kids set out to produce a documentary about the legend of the Blair Witch and so travel to Maryland to interview the locals as well as investigate the mystery. This, according to the film, happens in 1994.
Nothing is heard of them since until about a year later, their recording equipment is found from which the film is pieced together. It’s all very mysterious and disturbing but it would have been just another horror film, if not for the amazing marketing.
Remember, the internet, at this point in human history was still in it’s nascent stage, still not as universal as it is now and most importantly, neither YouTube nor Facebook existed. A fact that both helped as well as severely challenged the marketing of the film. It’s super easy to go viral these days, spend enough money and/or enough effort on content and you are all over social media in no time but then, people also have access to numerous sources to verify your claims.
It’s all the more remarkable then that The Blair Witch Project was and still is, the most successful viral marketing campaign that used the internet, especially when, the internet was so much more limited. It all started with the film website, which gave the story behind the witch as well as a constant update on the rumours and a detailed section on the ‘lost’ students.
IMDb helped, the actors were listed as missing or presumed dead and the low budget trailers, shown mostly in college campuses along with a strict avoidance of mainstream advertising created a sense of curiosity and discovery. The masterstroke was a limited release, only twenty seven screens, creating the impression that this was a difficult ticket to get hold of, drumming in the idea that you cannot afford to miss out along with 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.
The film which was made on an estimated $25k plus another million on marketing grossed about a million and a half on the opening weekend and ultimately reeled in over $248 million 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 campaign.
Obviously the actors wren’t dead and obviously it wasn’t based on a true story but the marketing campaign that went viral is now part of history, more than, even the success of the film.
And that kids is how you use the internet like a boss!