Still Nauseous After All these Years: <i>Blair Witch</i> Turns 10

In 1999 I was in charge of producing the's Web site and online media outreach. Here are five observations that hold the same weight in 2009 as they did in 1999.
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This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the release of the Blair Witch Project, the ground-breaking, nausea-inducing, most successful indie film of all time. Blair is widely considered the first film to use the Internet to drive its marketing campaign -- something I'm lucky to have firsthand knowledge of. In 1999 I worked at Artisan Entertainment as the Director of Online Services and was in charge of producing the film's Web site and the online media outreach -- not a bad gig for a 24-year-old. Had I had a second to breathe and understand what was going on around me -- of the frenzy that was Blair Witch -- I probably would have developed (in no particular order) shingles, a drinking problem and a facial tic. Luckily, I was blissfully unaware of the maelstrom.

In the ten years since a lot has changed (yes, I have frames and javascript enabled) but a lot of the core principles that made and its online marketing campaign wildly successful remain true today. Here then are five observations that hold the same weight in 2009 as they did in 1999.

  1. Flashier isn't necessarily better. Companies spend millions of dollars designing their Web sites and online campaigns. Guess what? You don't need to. wasn't even designed by a graphic designer (Lions Gate has actually re-launched the original site for the anniversary, click here to see it. In general, content matters to users much more than design. Craigslist and MySpace are just a few examples of hugely successful sites that aren't great on the eyes. When designing a new Web site or campaign, think content first and design second.
  2. Enthusiasts drive numbers. Catering to a niche audience is a fantastic way to generate early buzz for your site or product. For Blair Witch we targeted the same fans that were into comics, sci-fi and fantasy and it paid off in a big way. Enthusiasts took the time to start fan sites and talk up the movie in forums way before it hit theaters, generating valuable *real* buzz that got picked up by mainstream publications and users. Need more proof? Look at the increase in attendance at Comic Con over the last ten years.
  3. Online, reality is better than fiction. I know what you're thinking, and you're right, Blair Witch wasn't real. It did however, give the illusion of being real while at the same time being more interesting, mysterious and in-depth than typical reality content. The Internet is a uniquely democratic medium where people are not only tolerant of handmade looking content, they often expect it. So, even if you're creating something fictional, make it look real.
  4. Target teens. Just like enthusiasts, teens drive early adoption and often define what's hot on the Internet. Usually, everyone else follows. For Blair Witch, we heavily targeted college campuses with fliers that drove them to the Web site. Teens and college students have a lot more time on their hands than us working folk and they like to talk, text and post pretty much all the time. Get your stuff on a lot of teens' radars, make it cool, and watch it explode virally with more bang than you could ever buy.
  5. Keep it fresh. Content is getting consumed at ridiculous rates these days. Once you've captured your audience's attention it's your job to keep it. That means updating your content daily if not hourly. Back in 1999 we got away with updating weekly, telegraphing to users in advance what they could expect to see next week. If I was managing the same site now I would probably be updating it hourly with coordinating tweets and Facebook status updates.

One final thought. Sometimes you have to go against your better judgment and trust that your younger co-workers have better ideas than you do. In 1999 a lot of twenty-somethings were trusted with Internet strategy because it was so new. In 2009, we have Mark Zuckerberg (24) running Facebook and Morgan Stanley proudly citing 15-year-old interns in their analyst reports. Ahh, to be young, carefree and connected!

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