It was the summer of 1999, and me and my best friend (12 and 13-years old respectively) were huddled around my PC eagerly downloading 30 second, 3 megabyte, grainy video clips of old huts in a wood somewhere in America. Oh, and they took about 20 minutes a piece on my 56k dial-up modem.
But why on earth were we doing that?
The answer to that question lies in the marketing and PR campaign used by Haxan Films and Artisan Entertainment for promotion of The Blair Witch Project.
One of the earliest examples of a found footage movie, The Blair Witch Project followed three film students - Heather Donahue, Michael C Williams and Joshua Leonard - as they investigated the legend of the Blair Witch in their home town of Burkittsville, Maryland. In a modern day context this premise sounds somewhat unremarkable, but 15 years ago fake documentaries were far less commonplace, making it much easier to dupe a significantly more naive public (including me and my friend) into believing that this could really have happened.
The promotion for the movie went viral thanks to its internet-based marketing campaign, but what can it teach us about content marketing in 2014?
You Don't Need To Invest A Fortune To Earn Success
If you take a look at the typical summer blockbuster then you'd be forgiven for thinking that studios seem to be of the opinion that the more money you throw at a movie, the more successful it will be - and it does sometimes pay off. Take The Avengers as an example . With an estimated budget of $220,000,000 it went on to gross $623,279,547 (IMDB.com) - a return of around 280%. Not bad.
However, The Blair Witch Project cost just $60,000 (estimated) and returned a worldwide gross of $248,639,099 - or 414,400%.
Sometimes as content marketers we feel that the only way to acquire high quality links, hundreds of clicks or thousands of shares is simply to spend more and more money, which frankly completely misunderstands the reason content succeeds in the first place. We'll explore some of these reasons in more detail in the following points, but the key thing to remember is to sometimes go better rather than bigger.
Trigger Emotions In The User
There was an accompanying 'mockumentary' to The Blair Witch Project that was aired on Sky television in the UK at the time of the movie's release - and I found it absolutely terrifying. Again it gave nothing away about the story being entirely made-up and played it dead straight, resulting in me - apart from probably sleeping with the light on that night - completely capturing my imagination and leading to my mini-fascination with the legend as well as wanting to find out more about the story.
Why? Because It triggered an emotion, and that emotion led myself and many more to take to the net and immerse ourselves further into the mythology.
Now, I'm not suggesting that scaring children is an ideal marketing tactic, but the principle is the same. We need to be triggering emotional responses with our content, as it is this reaction that gets stuff shared. Fear, amusement, surprise and anger have all been shown to be the most effective emotions to trigger - less so contentment or sadness - and you only have to take a look at your Facebook timeline to see that the majority of stuff getting shared would fall into these categories.
Easier said than done perhaps, but the next time you're considering a piece of content you've created or planned to create, think about how it makes you feel.
Break The Mould
Found footage movies are ten-a-penny nowadays, reinvigorated by the phenomenally successful Paranormal Activity, however back in 1999 it was trailblazing - but not just from a movie production point of view.
The way Haxan Films and Artisan used the internet to drive the marketing campaign had never been done before, and it was the way they 'leaked' information gradually and across less mainstream channels which was the key.
The marketing team joined forums to plant the seeds of the story subtly, while the trailers were shown on college campuses. This not only helped to keep the budget down, but it also helped to make people feel like they were discovering something mysterious themselves - almost as if they were a part of the investigation into the Blair Witch legend as well.
Something like this wouldn't work today, not just because a quick Google search would instantly reveal there was no such legend, but because we wouldn't fall for it en masse like that again - though that doesn't stop film makers continuing to try.
Imitating other things that have proved to be successful will only get you so far in content marketing, and it is by seeking to break the mould and do something different or unexpected that you will really begin to see success with your efforts.
Utilise Multiple Channels In Your Marketing Efforts
Unlike the standard marketing model for movies at the time, Haxan Films and Artisan utilised the web to reach a huge audience, combined with more traditional forms of advertising. They set up a website (http://www.blairwitch.com/) which still exists today - albeit having had a bit of a refresh in 2009 to celebrate the 10th Anniversary - while they also produced some low budget trailers which gave little away, though continuing to promote the idea of it being a true story.
Modern movie marketing campaigns all utilise these online channels as well as the standard theatrical trailers and billboard posters, and you'd be limiting yourself significantly if you only promoted your content marketing through a single outlet. Your strategy should incorporate social media profiles as well as influencers, external publishers and your own website seamlessly, with a consistent message and tone of voice throughout.
What movie marketing campaigns have you been impressed with, and did you fall for The Blair Witch Project story like my 12-year old self? Let us know in the comments below.