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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!



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  1. Eric


    Much the same as the whole “Blair Witch” manufactured folklore. I respect them both because they recognize the horror genre is most effective when they place the viewer’s concern not in what they see, but what they cannot see.

    I’ll openly admit, though, there’s far more entertainment to be had in watching others play the game than playing the game yourself. Bane, especially, is entertaining to listen to as he plays.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      “I know a slender fellow…his name is Jonathan Crane…doesn’t scare me in the slightest!”

    • Mikey

      I agree whole-heartedly about horror being more effective when things are left to the viewers imagination. Marble Hornets, the first Slender web series/ARG, and the best of them, really understands this and does a good job of keeping you guessing. And I’ve contended before that Slendy, as an unknowable “eldritch abomination” from beyond, is a still a mystery in most incarnations, despite his “market penetration,” and plays on our fear of the unknown and the “other.” In that way, the Slender Man Mythos is not unlike the Cthulu Mythos created by HP Lovecraft. Heh, and it sounds like I’ll have to check out this “Bane playing Slender” video.

  2. Amy Swanson

    Wow, I had no idea who Slender Man was and now I really wish I didn’t know about him. I hate scary stuff (seriously, ‘Hocus Pocus’ is the scariest movie I can handle and that’s rated like PG), so now that I know about this I’m freaked out to go outside in the dark.

    Guess I’ll just have to have a promotional flashlight on me at all times 😉

    I do love learning more about viral marketing and seeing what other companies are doing though. My favorite had to be ‘Hunger Games’ creating a website/online experience for fans to sign up and be placed into a district to create even more excitement for the movie. Experiences that really bring people closer to the brand and make them feel like they belong always catch my attention.

    This was a really interesting blog post, Mike. It’s nice to know that I could at least know what people are talking about when they bring up Slender Man. Thanks!

    • Amy Swanson

      This accurately sums up how I feel: Haha 😉

      • Mikey

        Heh, I swear, it seems like there’s a lolcat for everything.

    • Mikey

      I’m glad you liked the post! I’ve been a fan of the Slender Man for a while, mostly the various web series/ARGs that you can find on YouTube. But, then, I’ve always been a pretty big horror fan in general. Heh, sorry if this blog gives you nightmares! But, now you know, and knowing is half the battle. …unfortunately, with Slendy, the other half is dying.

      And I agree, viral marketing is an interesting subject. It’s always neat to see what people try, and it’s interesting to see what does and does not work. Thanks for reading and sleep tight!

  3. Rachel

    I’ve watched clips of the video game on YouTube (because I’m a masochist and occasionally like scaring myself), and it’s definitely freaky! I was only peripherally aware of the origins of Slender Man, though, so this was a helpful post. (Also, the creepy kid in the foreground of the first Slender Man picture is almost freaking me out more than Slender Man himself, haha.) You bring up a lot of thoughtful points about viral marketing here, too — especially that these things are often most popular when they’re spontaneous, and that audience participation helps a lot. Great stuff, Mike, thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Mikey

      Your welcome! And I agree, that is one creepy kid! And I’m glad my post was helpful! But, yeah, viral marketing is always kind of a crap shoot. You almost never really know what’s going to work, since it involves the x-factor of your audience/customers getting invested in it. Thanks for reading!

  4. Wash

    I encourage everyone to download the Slender computer game (it’s free!) and play it in the dark. Do it!

    • Mikey

      You know, surprisingly, I’ve never actually played the Slender game, despite being a fan of the Slender Man Mythos! But I definitely intend to change that, as I’ve heard a lot of good stuff. And, by good stuff, I mean horrible stuff! …horror’s weird that way. But, yeah, a lot of people have recommended it and have said it’s scary, so I’ll have to try it out. Thanks for reading!

  5. Jeff Porretto

    Nice post Mikey! I’ve often tried to determine why something goes viral. After careful consideration, extensive research, and just some simple intuition and judgement calls…. I have no friggin idea 🙂 If “Gangnam style” can become the most watched youtube video ever (1 BILLION VIEWS! God help us)… then I have no idea what it takes for something to go viral. Honestly, I think that of all the factors you mentioned, luck is the biggest one.

    • Mikey

      Thanks! And, yeah, it definitely seems that way. Sometimes, you just have to wonder WHY so many people watched a given video. Oh, well, it’s one of the greatest mysteries of our time. Thanks for reading!

  6. Mikey

    To all those who read my blog, I apologize for invoking the Slender Man. To make up for it, have something to brighten you day! Yay!

  7. Tom

    Slender man was even in a skrillex music video, hah! I have a slender man magnet attached to my computer at home, that’s right… The standard free PC game “Slender” is downright the creepiest game I’ve played even with the simple graphics. I guess when it boils down to it, it’s just a creative scary idea that people wish was real or is it already??!?!!?!

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