Marketing & Branding

The Success of Fear: What the Slender Man Can Teach Us about Viral Marketing

The Slender Man. For some, the mere mention of the name is enough to conjure forth primal dread. For those who haven’t heard of him before, the Slender Man is a horror character that originated on the internet that has since become an almost omnipresent meme.

He seems to be everywhere nowadays, having grown from his humble beginnings on a forum to several dedicated web series, multiple blogs, songs, games, and even an upcoming movie. He has “blown up,” as the kids might say. As such, I contend that this modern day boogie man could teach us a lot of about viral marketing.

But, first, let’s get into just what exactly this “Slender Man” is.

It started in 2009 on the Something Awful Forums. They were having a contest where users submitted pictures that were photoshopped to be scary or paranormal in some way. The thread continued on uninterrupted until one user posted his entry: a couple of black and white pictures with a strange, abnormally tall and thin man with no discernable features in the background, accompanied by a short little story.

original slender man pictures
The original Slender Man submissions.

That’s when things changed. Everyone loved the entry and the original user posted more entries, all about the same “Slender Man.” It completely derailed the thread, the contest was largely forgotten and the thread became mostly dedicated to the Slender Man.

And it only grew from there. People responded to the character, mostly with fear. Soon, other people were posting Slender Man content, which would be seen by others, who would create their own, and so forth.

So, what can Slendy teach us about marketing? The success of the “Slenderbrand” provides a strong model of how a successful viral marketing campaign works: it was spontaneous, it provided a strong product/message that resonates with people, it allowed others to participate, and it had room to grow.

1. It was spontaneous. Attempted viral marketing campaigns almost never work. That is just a sad fact of the business. It requires the right mixture of timing, quality and luck. If you attempt to start 200 different viral campaigns, maybe 1 will actually succeed.

For example, of all the entries in that original photo contest, only one got such a strong response. All the others have been forgotten or were largely ignored. But the Slender Man resonated with people and managed to grow beyond its simple origin.

slender man computer game
A spontaneous Photoshopped picture has even spawned a computer game.

2. It provided a strong product that resonated with its audience. It’s up to the people to spread your message. No matter what you do, if people don’t respond to your work, it won’t spread at all. You have to make sure that your product or message is either of great quality or inspires a strong emotional response.

The first Slender Man post did just that. The thought put into the story it told and the atmosphere it created really captured the attention and imagination of the users, not to mentioned creeping them out.

slender man stickers
Lots of fans created fan art or had Slender Man-related entries in horror contests.

3. It allowed others to participate with the brand. Encourage people to interact, modify, or parody your content. By allowing people to interact with your message and to modify it or present it in their own way, you’ve already done a lot of work in facilitating the spread of your message. (Think about the never-ending parody videos of “Call Me Maybe” or “Gangnam Style.”)

When others began to make their own Slender Man pictures and stories on the original forum thread, the creator didn’t step in and tell them stop. He stepped back and let them flourish. If you try to control how the people interact with your work, you’ll just be discouraging them from passing it on.

slender man podcast
Slendy even has a podcast!

4. It had room to grow. Similarly, if your message or product is to truly “go viral,” then it must have the capacity to expand beyond the confines of its original intent or environment. The more easily your message can spread or be used in new contexts, the more readily people will pass it along.

The Slender Man was able to grow beyond its original confines on the message boards. He started to show up on other websites and in other media. Slendy provided a great deal of room for people to work with, and large potential for interpretation, which helped it expand beyond a silly little photo contest. It even inspired a YouTube series by two film students (introduction is embedded below).

With the right combination of quality, timing, and luck, maybe you can apply the lessons of the Slender Man and be just as frighteningly successful.

What do you think? What viral marketing campaigns do you like or think were successful? Were you aware of the Slender Man Mythos beforehand and, if so, were you fan? What’s that behind you?!

Expand Your Brand!

IMAGE CREDIT TO KNOW YOUR MEMEVICTOR SURGE, RPPR ACTUAL PLAY, BEARSTACHE, AND SLENDER GAME.