It all began with the unusually direct title: Snakes on a Plane. Last year, the silly-sounding title in New Line's lineup of films caught the eye of bloggers, who made the movie the subject of speculation and jokes. The rest is Web and viral marketing history.
Snakes on a Plane —starring Samuel L. Jackson as an FBI agent fighting off hundreds of slithery critters at 30,000 feet—has become a full-fledged Web phenomenon, spawning fan blogs, tribute trailers, music videos, songs and a bevy of fan-created paraphernalia. One user-created trailer for SoaP (as the movie is known in the blogosphere) has been viewed over 230,000 times on YouTube. The Internet mania has even jumped to mainstream media, spawning stories on MSNBC, CNN and several mentions on Comedy Central—all more than a month before the movie's Aug. 19 release.
Such grassroots, word-of-mouth buzz is any marketer's dream. But what lessons does SoaP hold for advertisers and agencies? Word-of- mouth and viral marketing experts say many, although replicating such viral explosions is close to impossible, despite what are sure to be many efforts to do so.
"The hard part is for marketers to give up that kind of control," said Jim Nail, chief marketing and strategy officer at Cymfony, a word-of-mouth research firm. "They need to give up that notion that they know better than the consumer what the consumer wants."
Gary Stein, director of strategy at Aegis Group-owned viral agency Ammo Marketing, said New Line was in a similar situation to Coke and Mentos after the success of a viral video showing the explosive effect of adding a Mentos to a bottle of Diet Coke. Unlike Coke, which played down the stunt, Mentos has seized on it with a contest of its own soliciting user contributions.
New Line took the Mentos approach to marketing the movie, Stein pointed out, following the lead of consumers in crafting its strategy. The studio's most important initial action: It did nothing. Fake trailers and posters that spoofed the movie (and possibly infringed New Line's intellectual property) were not only tolerated, but linked to from the official SoaP Web site. "When it happens outside of your control, it's a reminder that it's just part of the environment," Stein said.
Experts also praised the studio for giving fans a say in the movie. During a reshoot of some scenes, New Line added a bit of dialogue for Jackson suggested by many in the blogo- sphere—a profane utterance about his distaste for serpents on planes. "They added steroids to fuel the conversation even higher," said Steve Rubel, svp at Edelman, who has charted the SoaP phenomenon on his blog.
Building on that, New Line, which declined to discuss its marketing plans, last month launched its first Web marketing program. It struck a deal with up-and-coming social network TagWorld to run the site's first-ever promotions. New Line solicited submissions for the SoaP soundtrack, eventually receiving 700 entries, which were voted on over 40,000 times. It ended up choosing two to include on the soundtrack.
"It's embracing the idea of the community having pieces of your content or your brand," said TagWorld president Evan Rifkind. "There has to be some exchange."
With a month still to go until the movie's release, the challenge will be to maintain the buzz level. New Line has unveiled its online "fan kit," with MySpace wallpaper and audio and video clips, and a "No. 1 fan" contest. Users can earn entries by having their friends come to the site to vote for them—a bid to continue the viral effect.
Of course, all these moves will be for naught if SoaP bombs, cautions Pete Blackshaw, CMO at Nielsen BuzzMetrics (owned by Adweek parent VNU). He is skeptical many brands can replicate the magic of SoaP, only because it's so dependent on the film's absurd premise. "We need to resist the temptation [that] there's a blueprint for word-of-mouth marketing," he said. "You're just not going to have that kind of concept come around this often."