I’m a big fan of superhero movies, and The Dark Knight is one of my favorites. Naturally, then, any scrap of information about the upcoming sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, gets me ridiculously excited. But even as new photos and press releases hit the Internet, I keep checking for answers to my biggest question: When does the ARG start?

In simple terms, an ARG, short for alternate reality game, is a very particular form of viral marketing. It combines real-world and online experiences to tell a story, one that players interact with through websites, emails, text messages, newspapers, phone calls, real-world events, physical objects—anything you can think of. It’s an immersive undertaking in which fans find clues, solve puzzles, and work together to figure out where a story is leading. The games are usually created to promote a product, such as a film, or a video game (like Halo 2) or a music album (like Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero).

Harvey Dent campaign rallies
Fans participated in several fake campaign rallies for Harvey Dent.

Take The Dark Knight’s ARG as an example. Clues began to surface in 2007, including a website and real billboards promoting the fictional Harvey Dent’s run for Gotham City District Attorney. Things got even more interesting a few months later during San Diego Comic Con, where some attendees found dollar bills defaced by the Joker. After painting their faces in Joker makeup and following a scavenger hunt through the city, the players were rewarded with their own Joker henchmen masks while fans online got to see the first trailer for the movie.

Bat signal on the Sears Tower
The bat signal shines in blue across the Sears Tower.

For a year, players completed all manners of missions, ranging from finding cakes with cell phones baked into them to staging fake campaign rallies for Harvey Dent to watching the bat signal shine on skyscrapers in Chicago and New York. At the game’s end, many fans snagged tickets to a free screening of the movie days before it hit theaters.

But why do companies spend the big bucks to fund these alternate reality games? They’re free to play, and often start with clues so subtle that only hardcore fans spot them. Not to mention, sometimes it takes months before players find out what product the ARG is actually promoting. In the end, are these immensely intricate puzzles worth the effort?

Short answer: When done well, yes. Here are a few reasons why:

  • ARGs can change the way people perceive a brand. Jane McGonigal, former employee of ARG-maker 42 Entertainment and developer of an Olympics-themed ARG sponsored by McDonald’s, suggests that an ARG gives a company the chance to “make something amazing, give it away, and then take credit for it.” If you had a blast gathering clues and solving riddles for a game you found out was all McDonald’s idea, wouldn’t that elevate your opinion of the company?
  • ARGs can increase brand awareness and attract new customers. After conducting an ARG promoting the Audi A3, the car company saw online buying activity increase 73 percent compared to past marketing campaigns. When millions of people are participating in or following an ARG, that’s millions of potential new customers who are now taking notice of the brand.
  • ARGs create loyal fans. These games inspire extreme dedication in their followers—a man in Florida, for instance, waited outside in a hurricane for an ARG-related payphone to ring. Through addictive puzzles and memorable events, ARGs generate brand missionaries who share their excitement with other consumers.
  • ARGs put unique promotional products into consumers’ hands. Those fans who earned Joker masks, Harvey Dent campaign swag, or copies of the Gotham Times during the Dark Knight game have something tangible to remember their experiences, and the film franchise, by. Who do you think will be first in line to see the sequel in 2012?

My involvement in the Dark Knight ARG was minimal at best—but it was still one of the coolest things I’ve experienced on the Internet. I am crossing my fingers that another ARG starts as The Dark Knight Rises looms closer; a puzzle involving Twitter led to the first image of the villain Bane, but otherwise the trail has petered out. Even without a second ARG, though, my investment in the Batman brand is sky-high—thanks in large part to the ARG for The Dark Knight.

Image credit to zek_rahman, forklift, and vpisteve.

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