Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) have become an incredibly powerful viral marketing and audience
engagement tool over the last
couple of years. However, the elements of a
successful ARG remain a mystery to most people. Some of the most
successful ARGs that I have participated in over the past few years were the
I love bees
for Halo 2, the Iris campaign for Halo 3, the political dystopia campaign, for NIN’s Year Zero,
and most recently the Harvey Dent political campaign for the upcoming The
Dark Knight movie.

Even though I enjoyed participating in them,
until recently I hadn’t really thought about what makes them
compelling – beyond their premise (i.e. the product they are based

This is a guest post by Muhammad Saleem, a social media consultant and a top-ranked community member on multiple social news sites.

Essential Elements of an ARG

Here are few of the ‘must have’ elements for a successful Alternate Reality Game:

1. Storytelling or narrative

Every ARG
should have a captivating story to tell that extends beyond the
product. For example, the Halo 3 guerrilla marketing campaign revealed
specific elements of the third installment in the series, which would
be interesting for people that are already fans of the game. These
‘games’ often serve as prologues for the product or event that they
are ultimately marketing. Unlike with traditional advertising, these
stories make the product/event more dynamic and more appealing.

Although ARGs are mostly used to market products that have found a loyal
online fan base (e.g. video games, movies, music, and television),
they can be used to market almost anything – as long as you have a
story to tell. We saw this in Audi’s “The Art of the Heist” ARG, which
was made specifically to market the Audi A3, and Coca-Cola’s “Zero
will give you life as it should be” campaign for Coke Zero in Europe.

2. Discovery/deciphering and documentation elements

Any well-executed ARG will play its cards close to its chest
and reveal information slowly, sporadically, using different outlets/
mediums, and over an extended period of time. The narrative should be
broken into smaller pieces, often obscured or coded in some way, so
that not only do they need to be found but also deciphered into
something intelligible. As such, the discovery and deciphering elements
allow different people/sources to ‘discover’ new information and
forces them to work together as a collective to help the story progress.

While most people will be interested in closely following the story, to
try and be the first to discover the next step (for fame/glory or just out of
curiosity) there will be others that will play along just so they can
document the game, analyze the marketing strategy, and learn from it.

3. Cross-medium interactivity

For an ARG to be
successful, it has to use multiple mediums. It has to be pervasive and
must be available and accessible on as many different mediums as
possible. These mediums may include, but are not limited to:

  • Articles
    or bits of information seeded online on blogs and news outlets
  • Videos
    (clips, trailers, commentary)
  • Print ads in magazines and newspapers
  • Billboards
  • Posters in shops
  • People with placards on the streets
  • Phone calls
  • Radio or online audio broadcasts
  • Email and snail mail

The more mediums you use, the more personal it becomes and
the closer it gets to reality. Furthermore, with each medium you tap a
potentially unique audience that you may not be able to tap into using
other mediums (e.g. online/email versus offline/snail-mail).

4. Blurring the lines between reality and fiction

Because ARGs allow you as an individual and community (working together) to make decisions that have visible and
often instantaneous results, or at least give the appearance of
interactivity, they help blur the lines between reality and fiction.

For example, for the Halo 3 campaign, real people took to the streets
and babbled indecipherable gibberish for days on end. Similarly, the
Harvey Dent campaign was made to look like a real political campaign
and at the same time required a ‘grassroots’ collective effort to
unveil what was actually going on. When you walk into a store and are
faced with a vandalized display and a floor littered with “The Joker”
playing cards, in a sense you step out of theatrics and into an alternate

Image from

Things ARGs Should Avoid

Just as there are some elements that any good alternate reality game
must possess to engage an audience, there are other things that
can completely turn an audience off. Here’s a look at some of the
elements that ARGs must absolutely stay away from.

1. Lack of interactivity, too linear

Too many ARGs
give the appearance of interactivity and though it seems like the end
result depends on your participation, the games are actually linear
‘journeys’ from point A to point B. No one wants to put hours into
a puzzle when they know that their individual effort doesn’t really
affect the outcome.

2. Lack of a reward

People enjoy participating in
ARGs because each puzzle you unlock gives you a new piece of
information and helps progress a story. As I mentioned earlier, these
games most often serve the purpose of a prologue. No one wants to
participate if the reward is not tantalizing enough or there is no
reward. The Coca-Cola Coke Zero campaign had this problem, because the
participants ultimately realized that the campaign was merely for
another flavor of Coke – information that in itself isn’t ‘virally appealing’.

3. No instant gratification

Just as important as
having a reward is allowing readers to access it right away. We are
living in a Web-enabled world where instant gratification is key and delayed
gratification is like no gratification at all.

4. Too difficult

You don’t want to just throw away
the prize, but you also don’t want to make getting to the prize so
difficult that nobody wants to participate. There have been ARGs where
I tried for a half an hour and then gave up, thinking that I would
wait for someone else to solve the puzzle and just enjoy the
findings; or I didn’t bother going back out of sheer frustration. Finding
the appropriate level of challenge can be one of the more difficult
parts of any ARG-based marketing effort.

5. Same old game, different name

The ARGs that everyone
talks about were successful because they innovated and came up with
ideas and ways to engage that no one had used before. If your game is
still using the same old tactics to market a different product, it’s
not going to work. Try to come up with something new, because the
novelty value alone will be enough to draw in some people.

6. Too scripted, too commercial

An ARG by its very nature
has to appear to be unscripted and non-commercial to succeed. Otherwise
it just becomes an advertisement that people have to work for to see.

You have to keep in mind that on a very basic level, you must have a
premise that people are interested in – or they could be interested in.
Making an alternate reality game around cats will be difficult to
market. It’s much easier to follow the 4 steps above and avoid the 6
pitfalls mentioned, to take your good idea and make it a great
success through ARG-based viral marketing.

ilove bees image from