Case in point: the online marketing backing "Fringe," the forthcoming TV series from J.J. Abrams ("Lost," "Alias") that has its debut on Fox next Tuesday. The show -- about an FBI agent guided by an unhinged genius scientist -- already has a dozen rabid fan sites devoted to it, dissecting a handful of clues dispensed through a cryptic Fox-created website, imaginetheimpossibilities.com.
It worked before
Of course, that "Fringe" will have a fairly active viral-marketing component comes as no surprise, given that Mr. Abrams also produced "Cloverfield," a horror film whose online hype helped it make it the most successful January film release ever.
Indeed, "Cloverfield" fan sites like Cloverfield Clues racked up some 2.6 million unique visitors and just shy of 5 million page views. Created by a Lexington, Ky., software engineer named Dennis Acevedo, Cloverfield Clues was getting some 70,000 visitors daily prior to the film's release in theaters last year.
But what is surprising is that many of the same online fans who inadvertently helped market "Cloverfield" are now back and doing the same thing for "Fringe."
Mr. Acevedo, for example, has partnered with another self-described Abrams fan, an Orange County, Calif.-based administrative assistant named Edward Michaud, to create FringeTelevision.com. They're already getting 2,000 unique visitors for a site about a show no one has seen.
Susan Bonds, president-CEO of 42 Entertainment in Pasadena, Calif., was not surprised that Mr. Acevedo is back at it.
While not affiliated with "Fringe," she was responsible for producing the alternate-reality game for this summer's Warner Bros. blockbuster "The Dark Knight," which has become the second-highest-grossing film of all time.
Said Ms. Bonds: "My feeling is that 'Dark Knight' and 'Cloverfield' changed things. They allowed the audience to really live in the fiction, and so overall, expectations are raised."
And the benefit is overwhelmingly accruing to both marketers and advertisers, Ms. Bonds said.
"With viral sites ... we learn not only how many unique participants, and where they are, but average length of time they experience. That's time spent with your brand or property -- about 10 minutes, on average. That's incredibly valuable to making people fans for life."
And Mr. Acevedo is nothing if not that. He has managed to see a leaked pilot episode online -- as well as the finished version from a Fox press kit, though he won't say how.
"I don't know if I want to reveal how I got it," Mr. Acevedo said. "It's a competitive advantage."
There are a dozen other "Fringe" fan sites puzzling over viral marketing clues about esoteric plot points -- videos of sheep walking in perfect circles, mysterious Braille dots and math formulas -- but "only three or four that are really up to date. They're my competition."
So far, though, Mr. Acevedo says "Fringe" has been holding back on the viral treats, relative to "Cloverfield." A viral website, MassiveDynamic.com, a glancing reference to a corporation in the pilot of "Fringe," exists online but is not yet live, though he said he's monitoring it closely.
"As far as viral marketing, it's been very, very limited. There's really only been seven pieces of evidence released. It's not a full-on interactive game -- at least, not yet."
Cautioned Mr. Michaud, "My sense is they're laying the groundwork."
Executives at Bad Robot, Mr. Abrams' production company, declined to comment on their plans for the show's marketing, but people familiar with the situation said there will be plenty of viruses floating around -- after the first episode airs.