On August 4, 2010, a post appeared on a new website, http://www.shaydoran.com, with the apt title, “Where it begins.” In the post, the blogger, Shay Doran, describes his arrival at Vail, a small mountain town in Colorado, and shares his hopes that his latest relocation will turn out better than the last few. The next post, roughly a month later, hints that Shay’s hopes may be unfounded:
“I know this is meant to be the ‘Shay finds new friends and is happy in Vail’ blog that reassures all my friends in old haunts that all is good, but I’m gonna have to skip that song and dance. Something weird is happening. Or else I’ve just developed out-of-control paranoia.”
Something weird, indeed, was happening. Shay begins documenting the unsettling discoveries he makes at his new home and shares them through a series of Facebook updates, blog posts, and videos. The first video introduces Shay and his new home: his uncle’s mansion. It also contains a clue that Shay’s paranoia isn’t out-of-control.
The reaction of Shay’s friends and followers was immediate and sympathetic. They posted drawings of Shay on his Facebook page, commented on his video posts, and gave words of advice and encouragement. Many offered their own explanations regarding the strange happenings at the mansion.
In response, Shay encouraged his supporters to help him solve the mysteries of the mansion, posted drawings of their Facebook avatars on his own Facebook wall, and continued to reveal more about the unusual world in which he found himself.
While the online interactions were entirely factual, Shay was as fictional as they come: he was a character from an upcoming novel called “Nightshade” by Andrea Cremer and published by Penguin. Working with a marketing firm named Campfire, Cremer and Penguin rolled out a highly interactive, multi-platform marketing campaign to build awareness for “Nightshade,” the first of a trilogy from Cremer.
Unlike traditional marketing approaches, this campaign explicitly sought input from fans and incorporated their feedback into the experience. In a way, the audience became part of the team, working collaboratively with each other, Cremer, Penguin, and the Campfire team to discover some of the puzzles in the “Nightshade” world and learn about one of its characters in a very personal way.
“With ‘Nightshade,’ we wanted to create an interaction and dialog between the audience and the content that went beyond the confines of the book. We gave the audience the opportunity to play with the story and to actually be a part of the story, rather than just consume it. We wanted a more meaningful level of involvement.” – Emily Romero, VP Marketing, Penguin Young Readers Group
Additionally, the campaign was meant to guide fans through parts of the “Nightshade” world not contained in the novel. The full vision involved publishing content across multiple platforms in an integrated approach to produce an experience for fans that ultimately walked them right up to the release of “Nightshade.” To achieve this, Cremer, Penguin, and Campfire had to work incredibly closely. They also had to balance the need for coordination and planning with the need to remain flexible as they responded to fans and created content in real time over the course of the campaign.
“We didn’t have a huge budget to surround people with a variety of media so we decided the feeling of immersion into the story we wanted to create would have to come from Shay being quick to respond to people. To do that authentically you need to work closely with the author. Andrea and Brian Cain, Campfire’s creative director on Nightshade, clicked immediately, and I knew we had the right team for this kind of experience.” – Mike Monello, Partner, Campfire.
The genesis for this experience started with an idea to use alternate reality game frameworks for the campaign. This meant Shay would interact with fans in character. According to Romero, this aspect initiated with Mike Kelly from Brand Value Advisors. “[Kelly] originally conceived of the alternative reality gaming approach, and he brought us together with Campfire. Campfire conceived of the campaign and executed it. It was a great collaboration.”
Making this kind of experience work required faith and support by Penguin as well as the right kind of author. Lisa Kelly, Assistant Director of Trade Marketing at Penguin, saw Cremer as the right fit for this kind of experience:
“Andrea was completely integral to this campaign and was an enthusiastic contributor. She volunteered to write up a ‘Bible’ of the world of Nightshade, a lengthy synopsis of the story arc of her trilogy with detailed descriptions of the main players in her world. This enabled Campfire to create a fully realized character to become the face of the campaign.”
Furthermore, Cremer’s ability to write quickly, coupled with her background, made the campaign possible. As a professor of history, Cremer sees many similarities between solving mysteries and her professional field of interest. Additionally, she’s a self-described gamer girl who was raised on Dungeons & Dragons and plays World of Warcraft.
“I like interactive world-building experiences, and it was a natural step to go from loving mysteries, role-playing games, and video games to working on an alternate reality game as an author,” Cremer said. “Penguin approached me and asked if I would be willing to work with a unique marketing firm [Campfire] to create original content in real time for a campaign.”
Cremer met with Campfire to share her vision of the “Nightshade” world and its characters. Based on what she shared, Campfire proposed using Shay as the face of the campaign and suggested structuring the campaign to help fans understand what led Shay to the circumstances he found himself in at the beginning of the novel. Interestingly, Shay isn’t the central protagonist of the novel.
According to Monello, “Shay was the best character to use as the center of the prequel because he enters the story as a newcomer to the Nightshade universe, putting him at the same level of knowledge as new fans entering the experience.”
Cremer soon found herself writing content for Shay’s Facebook Wall, the weekly video series, and “Shadow Days,” the prequel for “Nightshade.” The prequel explains how Shay ended up at his uncle’s mansion, as well as includes references to people who participated in the campaign. Amazingly, Cremer wrote the prequel during the campaign. While this proved challenging at times, it also gave Cremer the ability to tightly integrate and cross-reference content across mediums and platforms. The result proved to be a success (the second novel in the trilogy, “Wolfbane,” was released in 2011, and the final installment, “Bloodrose,” was just released).
But how, exactly, did Cremer, Penguin, and Campfire create an enthusiastic community of fans weeks before the release of “Nightshade?”
Ultimately, there were several components to the campaign proposed by Campfire, the company hired to work with Cremer and Penguin on the marketing campaign. Campfire’s Mike Monello explains why certain platforms were chosen for the campaign:
“Given the intended audience of “Nightshade,” we knew we needed to be on Facebook, but Facebook is not a great platform for serialized storytelling. Shay’s blog and the webisodes were intended to make it easier to join in while the campaign was in progress and give it a long afterlife. The physical objects are something we at Campfire incorporate into almost everything we do. When our digital and physical worlds collide in surprising and unexpected ways, it creates a strong emotional connection to the story. It’s very powerful when done well, and it’s unique to transmedia storytelling.”
How did these various platforms and content mediums work together to create an immersive experience for consumers?
First, there was the social media component: Shay Doran’s Facebook page and the Shay Doran website. These platforms allowed fans to comment on Shay’s exploration of the secrets hidden in the mansion. Conversely, Shay was able to respond in real time, giving the experience a sense of extended verisimilitude. Not only did fans post their original art of Shay on his Facebook page, fans found their own Facebook avatars turned into works of art that Shay posted in return. While it’s unlikely most of the fans took Shay to be a real person, their suspension of disbelief allowed them to interact directly with a fictional character in much the same way they interact daily with their own friends and family.
Second, there was the puzzle presented to fans in the form of some mysterious books Shay found in the mansion’s library. These books had intricate designs and patterns that Shay felt held the key to understanding the unusual occurrences he encountered in the mansion. A few lucky fans received these books in the mail and, after spending some time deciphering them, posted their findings on Facebook for the rest of the fan community to see.
Third, Campfire and Cremer worked closely together to write and produce the series of blog videos for Shay Doran’s website. Cremer would write the scripts each week in order to be able to reference fan activity on Facebook (e.g., finding clues in the books, responding to particular posts, mentioning certain fans by name). This increased the sense that fans were participating in a meaningful way.
Next, fans could text Shay at a particular number, though legal restrictions prevented Shay from texting back in character. Instead, Shay would often respond to texts on his Facebook wall.
A fifth component, was the behind-the-scenes efforts by Cremer to finish “Shadow Days,” a prequel novella that incorporated some of the “Nightshade” campaign fans who were very active. Cremer wrote the novella during the campaign, so it had a live, somewhat improvisational nature. The novella was released for free just before “Nightshade” went on sale.
By the time the novel was finally available for sale, not only did fans already know about the world behind the book, they had established a connection with one of the main characters in the novel. Some even got to see themselves as a character in the novella.
How well did the marketing experience work?
As of October 1, 2011, the official “Nightshade” Facebook page had over 3,000 likes, and the series of videos posted in late 2010 garnered thousands of views (and continues to gain more). According to Cremer, she regularly hears from new fans who just discovered the videos, prequel, or blog posts from the campaign. The content created for “Nightshade” continues to act as marketing for the series, even though the campaign is no longer active [note: since my interview with Cremer last summer, the content originally created for Shay’s personal website, http://shaydoran.com, is no longer available].
Penguin, Cremer, and Campfire are all pleased with the success of the campaign, though it didn’t completely work out as hoped.
“We learned it’s hard to generate pre-orders on a debut author’s book. One of the goals we set with Campfire was to achieve a certain number of pre-orders and we did not meet that goal. Even though we had plenty of engaged fans online talking about buying the book, many of them waited till they could touch and feel the finished book in person before placing their orders.” – Erin Dempsey, Executive Director of Trade Marketing – Penguin
However, the success of “Nightshade” positioned “Wolfsbane” to perform well. Six-week sales of the second installment were 250% ahead of its predecessor, and pre-orders were dramatically higher for “Wolfsbane,” according to Dempsey.
And Cremer notes the campaign is still doing its job.
“There are people just now finding the webisodes and are desperate because they want the puzzle books. The people who received the books and helped Shay solve the mystery had an extraordinary experience.”
With the recent release of “Bloodrose,” it would appear that Penguin’s willingness to try a non-conventional approach to marketing – by inviting consumers to be part of the experience through participation and contribution – proved to be the right call. The effectiveness of the “Nightshade” campaign positioned the series for greater success.
What separates this experience from traditional marketing is the explicit nature of the invitation for fans to participate (“Please help me!” is, after all, an arresting call to action). Rather than just produce free, static content for passive consumption – think teaser trailers, art, a short story – Cremer, Penguin, and Campfire designed the experience to include open doors for fans to walk through. Once inside, fans became part of the creative team: solving puzzles, providing content which was integrated into the official campaign experience, etc. And they were rewarded for their efforts by being named and/or recognized in the “Shadow Days” prequel (i.e., a parity of value exchange, something I’ve talked about before).
Can this model be replicated by other publishers? Absolutely, but it will require finding the right mix of internal resources willing to commit to this kind of experience, an author with a willingness and ability to engage with fans online, the right team to design the campaign, and a compelling story rich enough to support a robust world.
That’s not as daunting as it sounds, and I’m hoping to see more examples of this kind of value co-creation between authors, publishers, and audiences.