What makes a viral campaign smart?

Nine Inch Nails has clearly set the standard for super cool viral way to hype your record, give your fans a way to get seriously engaged, and garner gobs of great press all at the same time. The catch, though, is that Trent Reznor has an awful lot more savvy than most people. As MTV News staff writer James Montgomery says in a USA Today article (a very good if not super-recent in-depth overview of the story),

There are a lot of bands, like Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy, whose fans grew up on the Internet and MySpace. I don’t know if they’re Reznor-level smart. He gets it. Not many bands today have the intelligence to do this.

What did Reznor do that is so smart?

1. He spread the campaign across many platforms — a network of websites, but also t-shirts, the cd itself, USB drives left in bathrooms at shows — and many of those platforms were not on the internet. By hooking into live audiences and t-shirt wearers, he directly targeted his fans’ offline social networks, which he wove seamlessly into online communities. He recognized that his audience is found on the internet and also hanging out wearing t-shirts with their friends, and his strategy recognized the overlaps between those networks and used each to enhance the other.

2. He crossed genres by getting fans to engage with a record the way they have been engaging with many television shows. Writing a concept album isn’t new, but making it an alternate reality game (ARG) that people could really play is. He developed a (semi)coherent narrative whole into which the pieces fit like puzzles. It echoes Lonely Girl and Blair Witch Project as well in that it set up web sites that gave just enough to make people want to actively seek out more.

3. He took full advantage of people’s sociability. Unravelling the story depends on social engagement. At the very least, the people who found the USB drives had to be socially oriented enough to leak the songs they contained. But people also had to tell each other about the sites. And more importantly, in order to really piece the story together, they have to collaborate. It reminds me a lot of watching Twin Peaks in 1990 and reading alt.tv.twinpeaks and trying to collaboratively solve the crime (or Lost today). In those cases and in this one, there is so much ambiguity in the ‘narrative’ that everyone can develop a theory of their own, which makes it much more fun to have access to other people’s ideas and perspectives as well.

4. He figured out new ways to do things. CDs that change color? Cool! USB drives in bathrooms? Clever! Cryptic quasi-religious armageddonesque websites? Neat-o. But next time a band leaves a digital form of a leaked song in a club or a concert hall what will people say? “Nine Inch Nails rip off, how lame.”

Having the vision to see a complete and novel project, figure out how to leak and distribute that vision throughout the fan base, and doing it as well as he did requires smarts, no doubt about it. But he also had some other things going for him, not least of which was an already present huge loyal fan base with a long history of building online community around his productions.

Short story? Great campaign but very hard to replicate, especially for bands without a fan base who’s already got a strong sense of what you’re all about. But there are some clear lessons: Use multiple interconnected platforms, including material ones that connect offline activity back to the internet, give fans clues to piece together that they’ll piece better together, understand and work the fact that fans have friends they like to talk to on and offline, and think way outside the box about distribution channels for your message. Word of warning: avoid Lite Brite displays.

Comments (2) to “What makes a viral campaign smart?”

  1. The campaign is working really well, just by reading this post I want to hear the album! No usb-drive in my bathroom though ;) Trent for prez(nor)ident.

  2. Spot on, Nancy. A great assessment of the NIN effort.

    Sadly, as one of my students pointed out today, it seems that they’ve missed the killer ingredient needed to make this a truly outstanding venture: great music.

    Seems Trent may have gotten distracted by the other art and/or marketing and forgotten that his band’s core business is making music that their fans find enthralling. This is a failing that CDBaby’s Derek Sivers is always warning his members about. My student tells me that reviewers have panned the album, which is a pity.

    Hoeever, I intend to have a listen for myself (for the first time) because of the publisity they’ve gained.

    Will NIN get another go? I certainly would like album sales to match theirs … not to mention the other sales and so on …