Simply the Best: Why This Early Viral Marketing Campaign Still Hits Home

17 years after its release, The Blair Witch Project now has a sequel, but it’s the original that’s still on my mind.

Last weekend, I did something I swore I’d never, ever do again… I watched The Blair Witch Project.

Rewind to 1999, when Google was young, the internet was not yet mainstream, and social media didn’t exist. A friend snail mailed me from the Cannes Film Festival about a movie she’d just seen and couldn’t stop thinking about. Then I started hearing about it through the grapevine – it was what everyone was talking about around campus and at social events. Our hopes were high that this small-budget, Indie film would be released in Halifax.

Word kept spreading, but somehow there were no spoilers – the mystery was still in tact despite the gossip. A new approach to marketing played a huge part in the buzz, perfectly timed and executed, successfully walking the line between fiction and truth. But my friends and I weren’t analyzing marketing tactics – we were just enjoying the suspense of it all.

It turns out the adrenaline and unease we felt was essential to the film’s marketing success. Provoking emotional response has always been an important part of successful marketing tactics, but in this case the methods used were new.

I recently had the chance to pick the brain of an expert, Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Programmer at FrightFest and Associate Editor at ScreenAnarchy:

“While The Blair Witch Project certainly has stood the test of time as a horror film, there is no denying that much of its initial success came from the fact that it was advertised as, and believed to be, a true story…contemporary audiences were not familiar with [found footage] usage to create a documentary feel to the horror genre. As this was also pre-social media, and the early days of the Internet, the film’s website, visited by millions, perpetuated the myth that this was real footage through its clever marketing.”

The film’s website featured lore around the Blair Witch, information about the filmmakers and their disappearance, evidence released by the Sheriff’s office, interviews – all added additional layers of complexity and intrigue to the story. Before the film was released the three main actors were listed as “missing, presumed dead” on IMDb. A documentary, The Curse of the Blair Witch, created a backstory for the film and was aired on TV. It was all very convincing.

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A recreation of my weekend film experience, but with less popcorn

There’s much that content marketers and clients can learn from the film’s marketing success, which not only spread by word-of-mouth like wildfire, but also inspired a sub-genre of films in its wake (Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, [REC], Trollhunter, VHS, Chronicle).

 Strategy is Everything

This practically speaks for itself. The Blair Witch Project’s marketing strategy wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive or successful without ample time to ideate and deliver. If you want your content to be successful, you must have a strategy in place. Knowing your audience is crucial – once you’ve established who you want to reach, you can move on to the ‘where’ and the ‘how’. There’s a misconception that structure stifles creativity, but it doesn’t have to. A good strategy should take the guesswork out of the process and leave plenty of room for creativity to flourish.

 Creativity and Ingenuity Go a Long, Long Way

The Blair Witch Project cost roughly $20,000-$25,000 to make, was purchased for just over $1-million, and cost $500,000-$750,000 after post-production… this is small potatoes for a film that grossed $250-million at the box office. Creativity and ingenuity were key components of its success. With the help of smartphones, social media, and apps, any of us has the ability to make magic happen with a resourceful approach and a willingness to try. Take a look at this spooky flick by (and starring) the young Hayden MacPhail, daughter of Mike MacPhail from our Custom Applications and Innovation Practice:

Emotion Begets Action

Successful content triggers emotional response. Clicking an ad, digging deeper online, sharing content on social media – it’s got to be intriguing or touching to be worth someone’s time. Responses like anger, anxiety, or awe – feelings that make our hearts race – are said to be the most impactful (read more about it in The Secret to Online Success: What Makes Content Go Viral). With a strategy in place and a thorough understanding of your audience, an empathetic content marketer will inspire your audience to take the next step.

Fast forward to me this past Saturday night, hiding under a blanket, my eyes closed for half of the film. It’s still terrifying. It’s the reason I’ll never go camping again (ever). And the marketing for the film is still fresh in my mind, 17-years later. That’s pretty successful, as far as I’m concerned.

The sequel, Blair Witch, is in theatres now. Chances are I’ll be the one peeking through my fingers amongst fans of the original, all of us enticed again by the myth of the Blair Witch.

Brigid McWhirter

Brigid McWhirter

Brigid’s creativity, enthusiasm, and experience help her share engaging stories that draw in and stay with her audience. With a strong foundation in English literature, education, and tourism, Brigid’s drive to stay on top of changing tools and trends helps her keep pace with the rapidly evolving digital environment.