THE IM CONVERSATION started like any other between two teens: How r u? What r u up 2?
Jill020306 was in a lousy mood, dealing with boyfriend troubles and stuck babysitting on the night of a big party. After a bit of innocuous banter, Jill's tone got more serious. "I'm getting these really creepy calls," she typed.
Her friend, concerned, asked for more info. "He's called a few times and breathes into the phone. Ew!" Eventually, Jill convinced her friend to pick up the phone to listen in on one of those creepy calls. On the other end of the line, a man's voice threatened, "Have you checked the children?"
Despite her way casual IM-speak, jill020306 isn't a real teenager at all, but an automated simulation of the character Jill Johnson from the teen horror movie When a Stranger Calls. The Jill-IM bot might also be considered the personification of the interactive media plan of the year—highly engaging and far from typical, even in the Web media universe.
The Jill-bot was part of a standout plan launched last winter by Universal McCann Los Angeles for the February premiere of When A Stranger Calls, a remake of the 1970s babysitter-in-peril film. While McCann ran plenty of traditional banner ads, the plan's centerpiece was a virtual online life for Jill, featuring an AOL Instant Messenger-bot which utilized pages of scripted responses, a MySpace page complete with Jill's blog entries, plus text messages from Jill and even phone calls from the movie's scary Stranger.
According to those involved, promoting the opening of a horror flick in winter would not be easy, especially since that particular weekend was Super Bowl weekend. "It was an extremely tough weekend known for keeping people out of the theatres and on their couches," says Elias Plishner vp, group director, Universal McCann Interactive Los Angeles.
Plenty of teens avoided their couches for at least a few hours, as When a Stranger Calls grossed $21.6 million, the largest movie to ever open on Super Bowl weekend. And according to exit polls, 42 percent of moviegoers cited the Internet as a key source of information about the film.
Reaching the movie's 12- to 17-year-old-girls target audience warranted a huge amount of creativity. "Young females are very much a moving target," says Plishner. So McCann constructed a media plan that allowed users to interact with Jill as if she were a real person. "We wanted consumers to go on the ride that she goes on," adds Dwight Caines, senior vp, digital marketing at Sony.
First, AOL instant messenger users were able to chat with the bot, which was built by AOL and programmed by Sony's marketing team. After a handful of exchanges, the fake Jill would encourage users to check out her MySpace page, where they could read her blog, chat and sign up as Jill's "friend." The Jill-bot also urged users to "listen in" on phone calls she'd been getting by calling an 800 number, which played a recording from the movie. Jill's fans could even text Jill and sign up to receive a call from the Stranger (the bad guy from the movie). "The campaign elements talked to one another," explains Plishner. Both agency and client emphasized that it was crucial the virtual representations of Jill sound like a real teenage girl—not like advertising—for the campaign to work. Witness one of Jill's MySpace blog entries:
My plans 4 tonight (this really sucks): To pay for my stupid cell phone bill I have to babysit for a family I've never met in this house that's like way far out there. I'm going to miss the bonfire party, which I've been totally excited about for weeks.
Prior to launch, the hope for the campaign was to at least nurture interest among a small group of super-engaged fans, says Sony's Caines. Yet the results of the interactive elements were off the charts. The AIM buddy engaged in chats with 400,00 people for an average of 339 seconds. In addition, 360,000 calls were logged into Jill's toll free number. Through MySpace, 400,000 people viewed Jill's page and 110,000 kids became her friends. By opening weekend, more than 40 million users had been exposed to the film.
Says Caines, "This is now a case study we are going to use for a long time on how to run an integrated campaign."
Mike Shields is a senior reporter for Mediaweek.