The Dark Knight Batman movie and attention planning for viral campaigns

Jimmy Maymann
Go Viral

Attention is the scarcest commodity in media. It is also the most strategically vital.

The democratisation of digital information and media has led to an information overload. For users, it has provided an endless source of entertainment - from Facebook widgets and MySpace profiles to parodies and free games. But it has also eroded marketers' ability to hold an audience's attention.

In this environment, economic advantage flows to those marketers best able to direct attention to the right spot, at the right time, and in the most efficient way.

The key is to reach users when, where, and how they want to be reached, while ensuring that commercial messages enhance, and not diminish, the user experience. And in this world of user-generated content and social media, it is important to track and measure your results at every stage.

This requires innovation which in turn demands attention to detail, and careful testing and planning. All these elements can be seen at work in the viral marketing success of The Dark Knight, the record-breaking latest movie in the Batman franchise discussed in detail below.

While success on that scale is almost unique, we believe that there are seven common factors for marketers to consider in regards to attention planning of viral campaigns.
1. Likeability

It is still crucial to confirm whether people like your brand or not. Audiences find most brand perception surveys off-putting so it is better to use any pre-existing data on this question.

2. Awareness

Have people seen the campaign and are they aware of the brand? You need to extract any online conversations that refer particularly to the brand and analyse them.

3. Frequency

In the 1970s, Krugman devised his three-hit rule, because he believed that, in order for it to work, a message had to be transmitted several times. According to this theory, the first hit won attention, the second established relevance and the third consolidated these impacts.

In a world of attention scarcity this is still important, but only if you have enough content to support it. In the internet age, users are no longer willing to see the same piece of content more than a couple of times but it is still important to measure frequency.

4. Engagement

Engagement is a natural extension to measures such as 'awareness' and 'likeability' because it establishes the degree to which a particular brand's story is built in a consumer's mind. This can be assessed from the level of brand-related activity on blogs, forums, and websites etc.

The main questions are:

  • How many blog posts did the campaign spark?
  • How long were the conversation strings generated?
  • Were they mostly positive or negative
  • Did the campaign spark other user activity?

5. Attention

Attention scarcity makes it increasingly important to understand what gets people to click, chat, and blog about your campaigns. The first step, in assessing whether we have created a campaign that's attracting the audience's attention, is to track whether users want to spend time with our branded content for five seconds, 20 seconds, or for the entire length of the execution.

A high clickthrough rate also indicates an ability to retain interest. It also provides an indication of user gratification, an area on which other measures could provide further illumination.

6. Dispersion

In an environment dominated partly by user-controlled media, it is crucial that the campaign gains traction - i.e. that it spreads beyond the initial targeted websites and communities environments and is picked up by web properties.

However, the forwarding of a campaign from mailbox-to-mailbox is only part of the story, as it is also important that content spreads from one website/community to another.

7. Relevance and reach

In the online universe, YouTube has taken the broadcaster role formerly held by network television. YouTube has reach, but is it a relevant channel for the target audience? This is one of the key questions to ask yourself when distributing a campaign to the highly diverse online audience.

On reach the key questions are "How many people have seen the campaign - and where are they from?" The internet is global, but if your campaign is European, it doesn't help you much if it interests users in Asia.

Case Study: An Alternate Reality for Batman Fans

Many of these themes can be seen at work in The Dark Knight example.

For Hollywood studios, it is normal for pre-release campaigns to attempt to build awareness for big budget releases.

But when Warner Bros built a multi-platform viral marketing campaign a year before the release of The Dark Knight, it not only caused a stir, but also created a universe for Batman fans to organise themselves into a cohesive, active, and self-sustaining community. Marketers could learn much from this.

Warner Bros positioned the audience not simply as consumers of advertising for the film, but as full-blood interactive partners in the advertising campaign itself, sharing a real and fictional story that could be influenced by participants' ideas or actions.

The set-up can be described as an alternate reality game (ARG), as it treated elements of the film's plot as real, and allowed fans to interact and affect these.

The fictional Gotham City of the movie came to life through the creation of websites containing newspapers, cab companies, churches, TV stations, and even subways purporting to be from the city.

The campaign encompassed a string of websites such as,,, and multiple activities across platforms including advertising, scavenger hunting, voting role playing, and social media tools to empower the fans to create a Batman universe for themselves.

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