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Hiding “Easter eggs” in your product/service/advertising

December 1, 2009

I’m not talking about the chocolate sort, I’m afraid (although that could be quite persuasive too…).

I’m referring to the following kind of Easter egg, as defined by Wikipedia:

“A virtual Easter egg is an intentional hidden message, in-joke or feature in an object such as a movie, book, CD, DVD, computer program, web page or video game.”

For example, “an Easter Egg is found on all Microsoft Windows Operating Systems prior to XP. In the 3D Text screen saver, entering the text “volcano” will display the names of all the volcanoes in the United States.”

In simple terms, it’s a built-in “surprise & delight” mechanism.

Much like the secret rooms that people build into their homes to put a smile on their guests’ faces:

What I like most about “Easter eggs” as a concept is how their impact is proportionate to how long you’ve been living with them, ignorant to the fact that they lurk only a few simple steps away.

Once revealed, the surprise can be so powerful that it forces you to radically reassess the object/experience in which they have been living, unbeknownst to you.

From a marketing perspective, I see “Easter eggs” as a way of generating additional conversations about your product/service/advertising.

I also see them as one solution to the “half-life of excitement” (as opposed to the half-life of knowledge): the amount of time that has to elapse before you’re half as excited with a product/service/advertising initiative as you were when you first experienced it.

Here are a few thoughtstarters:


I purchase a television. Two years into owning said television, and having become quite familiar with it, I accidentally sit on the remote and something very strange happens. A dancing chipmunk appears on the screen for 10 seconds and then disappears.

First I laugh and then am completely lost for words, initially putting it down to the fact that I’ve consumed a few too many beers over the weekend.

However, I reject this as a possible explanation and grab my laptop. Into Google, I type: “Toshiba chipmunk”. The first search result is for a forum where people are discussing the precise phenomenon that I have just witnessed. How exciting is this?!

It turns out that pressing the 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and ‘menu’ buttons in succession, at least two years after the TV was released onto the market, activates the chipmunk.

I then tell all of my friends about it and, better yet, invite them around to show it to them in person.

A TV that had become part of the furniture is now worthy of a conversation.


Over a period of 6 months, I transfer exactly £200 each month into my online savings account.

The moment that the last transaction completes, I’m presented with a personalised video from the Chairman of my bank. He says:

“Nick, I wanted to personally congratulate you for saving £1200 over the past 6 months. It’s a fantastic acheivement. Thank you for continuing to bank with us.”

Needless to say, I’m flabberghasted and tell everyone I know. Some people with the same bank follow suit.


There are elements of “Easter egg” thinking that have already found their way into advertising.

“The Beast” Alternate Reality Game for the film A.I. was initially seeded by hiding “rabbit holes” (there’s definitely a recurrent Easter theme with all of this!) in its advertising. From Wikipedia:

“There were three overlapping entry points to the game, or “rabbit holes” in ARG parlance. First, some trailers and posters for A.I. had a credit for Jeanine Salla as Sentient Machine Therapist hidden among the credits for Spielberg and the actors. Second, one of the trailers encoded a telephone number in markings on the promotional text; if a player called this number and followed the given instructions he/she eventually received an email stating in part that “Jeanine is the key” and that “you’ve seen her name before.” Third, an A.I. promotional poster sent to some technology and entertainment media outlets had a very simple code stating “Evan Chan was murdered. Jeanine is the key.”

Also, Pringle’s compelling banner ad rewarded the “clicker” for their continued interaction with an increasingly entertaining response.

However, what’s missing from these examples is the opportunity to surprise and delight people long after the campaign’s bought media budget has been used up.

What if a brand was to sponsor photo booths in popular tourist locations, the twist being that you do not receive the photo of you and your friends there and then but in a year’s time via MMS?

In this instance, you sign up to the fact that the brand will surprise you at some point in the future when you’re least expecting it and when the photo of your holiday with friends in Paris is most likely to stir some kind of emotion?

What do you think? Any more ideas?


We’re all gamers now

November 18, 2009

Gaming has never been more mainstream. In the past, brands have sought to integrate themselves into popular games or even create their own. The new frontier is to use games as a powerful tool to change behaviour. Gaming as a mindset, not just another channel.

Gaming is truly mainstream

Whether it’s allowing people to maintain a house in the country, run a fashion boutique or kill innocent civilians, the world of gaming cemented its position as the most important and exciting entertainment medium in the last month with two significant pieces of news.

Firstly, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 became the highest-earning entertainment launch ever when it sold 4.7 million copies for $310 million in the US and Britain in a single day.

To put this figure into context, The Dark Knight took $158.4 million in its record-breaking opening weekend.

Secondly, Electronic Arts (the developer and marketer of enormous videogame franchises such as The Sims and FIFA football) bought Playfish (a maker of social-network-based games, such as Pet Society, in which you create and look after your very own virtual pet) for a reported $300 million dollars.

The first piece of news reinforces the sheer mainstream scale of the console gaming sector.

The second shines a light on the growing world of casual/social network gaming; a world that’s home to a whole new kind of gamer. The stereotype of videogames as the preserve of geeky teenage boys has never sounded more outmoded. You just have to witness Ant & Dec’s irritating probing of families and young professional couples in Nintendo’s latest TV spots to get a sense of where gaming’s new audience lies.

Gaming as a Mindset

Of course, brands have sought to mine the potential of games for a good while now.

From Burger King creating branded games for the Xbox back in 2006 (yes, 2006!) to Obama canvassing for votes in Madden NFL 09 in the run up to the election.

However, most efforts have tended to mimic traditional broadcast advertising in screen-based games.

If we consider gaming to be simply a way for us to “pretend”, as Russell Davies posits in this excellent blog post, then ‘gaming’ can play a role in every interaction our fans (potential or real) have with our brands.

In other words, ‘gaming’ as a mindset, not just another channel.

The Gaming Mindset Can Change Behaviour

But this is about more than just shifting likeability scores on a brand tracking study.

The power of games lies in their ability to change behaviour, by letting people pretend.

Whether it’s encouraging people to transfer money to their savings account by letting them pretend that they’re slapping a pig to do so (see below!), encouraging children to eat more healthily by letting them pretend that they’re eating 12 cheeseburgers a day and then showing them the consequences, or educating young people about the importance of being careful online by letting them pretend that they’re part of an elaborate mystery.

In creating experiences that recognise people’s innate desire to pretend, we can encourage them to take specific actions.

3 examples in detail

1. British Heart Foundation –

Currently one in three UK children are obese or overweight and if this trend continues, it is predicted that 90 per cent of today’s children will be by 2050.

The challenge was to encourage children to change what they ate for the good of their health.

The solution is ‘Yoobot’, an educational game which allowed children to experiment with the future health effects of diet.

Children could either care for their ‘Yoobot’ or feed it into an early grave, learning about the effects of diet and exercise on their long-term health along the way.

Over a million children created Yoobots and 78 per cent of the 11-13 year-olds who played claimed to have improved their diets

The IPA paper is here.

2. PNC (Bank) – Punch The Pig (Virtual Wallet)

PNC is an American bank.

The challenge was to make lifelong customers of their Generation Y customers.

The solution was to create a new kind of online banking experience, one that reflected the way their audience felt about money.

One gaming mechanic they included was ‘Punch The Pig’ – a playful interaction in which you click on a virtual pig to transfer a pre-determined amount of money from your ‘Spend’ account to your ‘High-Yield Savings Account’.

More here from IDEO.

3. Channel 4 –

The challenge was to educate children on the threats, dangers and opportunities of life online.

The solution is ‘Smokescreen’, a 13-mission Alternate Reality Game about an invented social network, created by Six To Start.

From the site: “Smokescreen follows the story of Max Winston and Cal Godfrey, two mates who’ve set up an exclusive social network called White Smoke. After Cal’s involved in a car accident and falls into a coma, White Smoke becomes huge – and starts attracting huge problems. Each mission sees you explore the world of White Smoke, and find out who you can trust – and who you can’t.”

A version of this post appeared in glue’s Newsletter. You can sign up for the Newsletter here.

And there’s a great post on a similar tangent by Katy Lindemann here.

Captology: “persuasive technology”

August 14, 2009

I’ve just had a rare moment of clarity.

A few posts back, I wrote about fundamentally redesigning the online banking interface to look like a collage of real-life ‘reasons to spend’ (loved one’s education, car stereo, rent etc.) to help people to manage their money better. The post was inspired by some research conducted by a Professor of Marketing in Canada called Dilip Soman.

Well, Rory talks here about the importance of behavioural economics to the future architecture of the communications industry. In the video, he mentions a Dr. BJ Fogg, a Professor (yes, another one!) at Stanford.

It turns out that captology, Dr. Fogg’s pet subject, is what I was skirting around with my blog post but couldn’t quite put into context in the grander scheme of things:

Captology is the study of computers as persuasive technologies. This includes the design, research, and analysis of interactive computing products created for the purpose of changing people’s attitudes or behaviors.

First off, ‘persuasive technologies’ is a fantastic little phrase bursting with meaning. I hope not to wear it out over the next few weeks.

Secondly, this meeting of technology and behavioural science gets me very excited. Obviously there are elements of both of these things in some of the work that the comms industry already produces (most recently, Fiat eco:Drive). What excites me though is the implicit motivation behind Dr. Fogg’s work to make the world a better place. Peace Innovation? I’m in!

Check out captology papers and case studies here.

Being Nick Fell

July 30, 2009

It appears that I have a famous namesake in the world of marketing.

He’s currently the Group marketing director of SABMiller.


Whilst Marketing is determined to turn this into a Google-ranking battle, I have another suggestion for him: to create a marketing powerhouse together, staffed exclusively by people called Nick or Nicola Fell…

We could call it ‘Steve’ for irony’s sake…

I hope he gets in touch.

Popcorn, envelopes and online banking collages

July 28, 2009

Yesterday, I heard about a really interesting strain of social/behavioural research.

Some of the thinking is being led by a guy called Dilip Soman who is a Professor of Marketing at Rotman School, University of Toronto (you can hear more from him on Dan Ariely’s podcast, Arming The Donkeys).

It goes something like this:

When people buy a bucket of popcorn at the cinema, they tend to eat the lot – no matter how big the bucket is. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?

Soman and his colleagues wanted to see if they could curb the amount of popcorn that people ate.

So they asked some cinema concession stands to replace the single bucket of popcorn with four separate bags, whilst keeping the total volume of popcorn the same.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people ate less popcorn. When asked why, the participants said that it was because they had to think for a moment before opening the next bag.

With the bucket, they just ‘went with the flow’, as it were. With the four individually-wrapped portions, they had to stop and decide whether or not they wanted to carry on.

Then Soman and his colleagues decided to perform the same experiment with cash and envelopes.

They worked with a not-for-profit organisation to distribute pay to construction labourers in India.

Some labourers received their cash in one envelope. Others received it in a number of envelopes. As with the bags of popcorn, the envelopes acted as a psychological barrier to go on spending. Those who received their salary in the most envelopes spent the least amount of money over the same period of time.

In other words, money in many envelopes is ‘stickier’ than money in one envelope.

Next Soman and his team sought to strengthen the barrier even further by earmarking a portion of a few of the workers’ salaries for their childrens’ education expenses and,  most importantly,  placing pictures of their children on the envelopes in which this portion of the money was kept.

Guess what? Noone opened those envelopes.

So once you label money with its use, it becomes more sticky for that particular use. Adding pictures to represent the money’s use makes it even stickier. I guess because pictures are quicker than words in evoking emotions, like guilt?

So having listened to this podcast, I asked myself: what if you took this understanding and applied it to online banking, with the aim of helping people to save and spend more wisely?

You might replace a single, separate savings ‘pot’ on your online banking interface with a number of virtual envelopes which each represent a different expenditure (the electricity bill, the friend’s birthday present you’re saving up for, the holiday to the south of France etc.)

You might then build in some element of opt-in virtual ‘friction’ so that people are dissuaded from opening their envelopes unless absolutely necessary, just as they were in the real-life experiment, e.g. in order to release the funds, you have to use your mouse to literally tear the envelope open on screen (or something!).

But you might go even further and use personal images to represent each of your ‘envelopes’ (as Soman did to great effect in his experiment) so that your online banking interface looks more like a collage than a bank balance, where each image is attributed an appropriate financial value (which, at the very least, would make the online banking experience a little less dry).

You could then make the ‘friction’ aspect really dramatic – like your holiday photo literally going up in flames on screen if you were to ever release the allocated funds before the end date you’d set yourself!

Who thinks I’m on to something? Who thinks I’ve gone mad?

Digital closure (and why there’s no such thing)

July 20, 2009

91 days.

That’s how long it’s been since I last wrote a post here on the blog.

Despite the delay, there was never any doubt in my mind that I’d be back writing again.

Why was I so sure?

Because I would have felt very awkward and uncomfortable otherwise.

Awkward and uncomfortable in the knowledge that anyone stumbling across this place in future would see that the last post was written in April 2009. A house in utter disrepair.

Now, I realise that this already sounds like an extremely superficial reason to be writing again.

But the shame of neglecting my blog got me thinking about the concept of “closure”, the popular psychology term which generally refers to a feeling of conclusion to a traumatic event.

In my thinking, I took liberties with the concept and stretched it slightly to mean the feeling of completing anything, traumatic or otherwise.

For example, the air-punchingly joyful sensation of having crossed everything off your to-do list at the end of the day.

What I concluded was that, because of its very nature, the digital to-do list is never ending and so impossible to complete. In saying ‘its very nature’, I’m referring to the instantaneous feedback loop of communication that the internet provides ad infinitum.

Everything is always in beta; including your blog, your email back-and-forths with friends, your IM conversations, your twitter feed, your facebook profile etc. Nothing on the internet is ever finished.

The author of a book can complete her works and have them bound. Even if just for a fleeting moment, she can bathe in closure.

The author of a blog, on the other hand, must be happy with the idea of never ever finishing it.

Once you pop, you can’t stop.

Make yourself uncomfortable

April 20, 2009

French was my favourite subject at school, but even after 12 years of lessons, I was far from being fluent.

So, once school was over, I decided to go to Paris for six months with the aim of returning with a perfect command of the Romantic language.

Working in the customer relations department of a theme park, which didn’t quite meet every visitor’s expectations, meant that I spent most of those six months being shouted at in a very different style of French to the one that I’d become accustomed to in the friendly surroundings of a classroom. It turned out that ‘zut alors’ was not the most satisfying phrase available for venting your frustration; there are, it turned out, many alternatives. And the fact that I wasn’t adept enough with the language to be diplomatic in the early heated encounters meant that I’d often inadvertently make the situation much worse than it already was.

The stresses, strains and the sense that I was way out of my depth led me to want to throw in the towel after just a few weeks, to go to work in ticketing or at a fast food outlet, where good spoken French wasn’t necessary. It would have been a comfortable existence.

But a timely intervention by a colleague encouraged me to stick it out in ‘Acceuil’ despite how awkward and vulnerable I felt. And naturally, over time, my French improved and my confidence increased; a virtuous circle ensued.

It’s a rather long story to get to the very basic point that I wanted to make, which is this:

the fastest way to learn anything is by making yourself uncomfortable

For this reason, I also reckon that the more you put yourself in uncomfortable situations, the more things you’ll learn and eventually master.

You might not always have a particular lesson in mind. In other words, it’s worth putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation even if you have no clear and/or specific idea of what you might learn from it; I believe that if you’re observant enough, you’ll learn something.

I also think that it’s good to make other people feel uncomfortable. Not in a weird way, mind. But with the intention of helping them out with their problems/careers/lives.

For example, asking them awkward questions, saying something deliberately controversial or giving them a task that they’re likely to find difficult to complete because of an initial lack of know-how.

We should be comfortable with the idea of feeling uncomfortable.

Do you agree with me? If so, let me know your own tales. If not, why not?