August 2005

BBC Viral Marketing

Earlier today there was a story on BoingBoing (and then naturally, on Slashdot) surrounding what appeared to be a viral marketing campaign started by the BBC.

Speculation was rife that the BBC had inserted false information into Wikipedia regarding a multi-media “entertainment mystery” surrounding the death of an imaginary pop star. The concept of viral marketing is not new, but recently, marketing companies have been becoming more inventive in their use of the internet, leaving seeds of information in various trusted and untrusted sites in the hope that they will germinate into word-of-mouth frenzy.

Wikipedia has been used several times by marketeers, and the slow burning trickle of readers can provide a valuable revenue stream, or a useful place to leave clues. In contrast, the tide of opinion that comes with being featured on slashdot can be difficult to cope with. Failing to respond to the millions of scrutinizing eyeballs that are suddenly turned your way can result in significant brand damage and the BBC have moved quickly to deny any involvement.

As a license payer I asked the BBC to:

please comment regarding the apparent misuse of wikipedia to further the Jamie Kane project.

Rob Cooper who is the senior producer of Jamie Kane was kind enough to configm by email:

Thanks for your feedback. There has been some confusion over this issue. Just to confirm, the BBC would never use Wikipedia as a marketing tool. The first posting was simply a case of a fan of the game getting into the spirit of alternative reality a little too much. The follow up posting was made by a fan of the game who happens to work in the BBC and was made without the knowledge of anyone in the Jamie Kane Team or BBC Marketing.

The viral marketing of Jamie Kane was certainly something the BBC desired. In a Guardian interview from June 2005, Sophie Walpole, head of interactive drama and entertainment, was quite explicit in “hoping it will go viral.” In this case, it appears that active viral marketing wasn’t intended, but through the global reach of sites such as Slashdot and BoingBoing, it has occurred anyway, and the project has indeed received massive publiclity. The value of this publicity will take time to understand since the project’s target audience of females aged 14-18 doesn’t fit well with the demographic makeup of Slashdot readers, who tend to be male, and over 18.