Revisiting One of the Best Viral Marketing Campaigns of All Time

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when marketing efforts didn’t go viral every week… or every day… or every hour. There was also time when movies mostly didn’t have websites.

Enter the The Blair Witch Project, a little indie horror flick that changed the game for both movie marketing and online marketing way back in 1999.

With a sequel, Blair Witch, recently hitting theaters with a thud (the film has grossed just $16 million after two weeks of release), it’s a good time to revisit the unique marketing phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project.

Do You Remember “The Blair Witch Project”?

For those of you who either forgot or just don’t know, The Blair Witch Project was a micro-budget movie made with a few actors and handheld cameras that popularized the concept of “found footage” films (an approach that has been used in movies many times since).

The Blair Witch Project created buzz at the 1999 Sundance film festival, where it screened as a midnight movie. It was bought by Artisan for $1 million and released in theaters in the summer of 1999.

Upon release, The Blair Witch Project quickly became a phenomenon. Spurred by unique marketing and strong word of mouth, it grossed $140 million in the U.S. and $248 million worldwide. The movie (and this scene in particular) became a pop culture touchpoint.

The Blair Witch Project

3 Ways the Marketing for “The Blair Witch Project” Blew People’s Minds

So what made the marketing for The Blair Witch Project so unique? Here are a few things…

1. It Used the Web Like Never Before

At the time of its release, online marketing wasn’t the thing it is today. But the marketers behind The Blair Witch Project saw the web as a great opportunity.

At the core of their marketing campaign was this website. While pretty much every movie released today has a website or at least a web page, back in the late 90s that wasn’t really the case.

Perhaps more importantly, the marketers used the website to lay the groundwork for this “true story”. They kept adding new information—from pictures and footage to journal entries and interviews with “family members”—to keep people coming back and spreading the word.

The result? More than 20 million website visitors before the movie even hit theaters. Again, these were massive web numbers back in 1999 (big enough to crash the site for a while).

The Blair Witch Project Website

2. It Created a Backstory for People to Dive Into

More than simply “selling” the movie, the marketing for The Blair Witch Project told a story in the way a story would be told on the internet.

According to this article from The Drum: “The site helped plant the seed that urban legend of an evil witch camping out in the woods in rural Maryland was actually true long before the film’s release.”

And it wasn’t just the website. The studio hung missing posters for the film’s stars on college campuses with links to the site. The Drum also notes: “Reports from the time have also suggested that the marketers behind the stunts drip fed information into threads on internet forums dedicated to the ‘legend’ of the Blair Witch.”

All of this served to pique curiosity and accomplish #3 below…

The Blair Witch Project Viral Website

3. It Blurred the Lines Between Fiction and Reality

Almost two decades after its release, it’s still not uncommon to find people who argue that the film is real (it’s not). In the age of Google everything, this is amazing. It’s a true testament to what the film and marketing achieved: They made people believe.

This article from The Wrap notes: “The marketing ruse even extended to the then fledgling IMDb.com — which listed the three actors as ‘missing, presumed dead.'” People truly believed these actors were dead for years!

This is another marketing tactic we’ve seen used a lot since—passing a fictional story off as a true story. But at the time of The Blair Witch Project it was novel. Which is why it worked so well.

Could the same thing work today? In the age of social sharing and myth debunking, it would probably take a lot more effort to pull off.

The Blair Witch Project marketing blurred lines between fiction and reality

The Lasting Impact of “The Blair Witch Project”

Today, the movie holds up more as a cultural phenomenon than it does as a great movie (though the eerie ending still packs a wallop). But the marketing impact of the film still reverberates.

Many of the techniques listed above are now commonly used in marketing campaigns across industries. And in the film world, the online marketing approach of The Blair Witch Project has become something of a template for horror movies.

As stated by The Wrap:

“Studios have learned the lesson. That’s why distributors releasing genre movies, especially horrors and thrillers, tend to spend more of their marketing dollars toward online promotion… Sony devoted 50 percent of the marketing budget for ‘Don’t Breathe’ to digital campaigns, more than double the industry norm, and launched the first-ever 360 Snapchat ad for a film.”

Ultimately, the marketing for The Blair Witch Project is a reminder of the great opportunity the web offers. If you have a unique, well-conceived concept, the internet provides a platform to reach millions of people in personal, active and social way at a relatively low cost.

Just like those spooky stick figures in the movie, online marketing can be a simple way to make a big impact…

The Blair Witch Project Stick Figures