Codebreakers and Golden Hares: Finding The Feeling In Social Media

In insecure times, codes and codebreakers matter more than ever. So military and intelligence services worldwide face a problem – how to recruit people with the very specialist skills and interests required to become cryptologists and break high-level codes? In 2014 the US Navy launched Project Architeuthis, its innovative stab at cracking this particular conundrum.

Architeuthis was a recruiting program with a difference. It centred on an augmented reality game, where players, alone or in teams, followed a trail of clues around the web to solve extremely hard cryptology puzzles. The prize was an unusual one – encouragement to apply to become a Navy cryptologist.

The game was a massive success. Fuelled by a bubble of media attention from Mashable to the Daily Telegraph, wannabe code-crackers from around the world took part, and the US Navy found enough people to fill its recruiting quota.

Project Architeuthis won enormous acclaim among marketers and the media for its sheer cleverness and its elegant solution to a tough recruiting challenge. It carried off the WARC Social Strategy prize this year, and it’s a deserved winner.

But the very things that make it such a great project also point to one of the biggest challenges for using social media effectively as a marketer. How do you get lightning to strike, not just twice, but repeatedly?

Architeuthis, with its tricky puzzles and tempting narrative, reminded me of another success story, this one from my childhood. The picture book Masquerade, by the artist Kit Williams, was published in 1979 and became a national sensation in Britain. Its pages were full of beautifully illustrated, cryptic stories and riddles, all of which pointed to the secret location of a real-life treasure, a golden hare pendant (also hand-made by the absurdly talented Williams). The search for the golden hare gripped the nation, and even when it was found in 1982, some die-hard questers still kept hunting – so wrapped up in the puzzles that they convinced themselves there was a secret second treasure out there.


Masquerade and the golden hare inevitably inspired a load of imitators, and the shops filled up with picture books promising this or that treasure – eventually including Williams’ own follow-up, themed around bees and where the riddle was to work out the book’s title. These were far less successful, though, because the thrill of novelty – and the massive free media attention that came with it – was gone. For all its success, Masquerade stood as a beautiful one-off.

Back to social media marketing, and Architeuthis. Architeuthis is a fantastic illustration of what social media is so good for – a bespoke solution to a tricky targeting problem that you simply couldn’t handle with traditional media. That doesn’t answer the question of whether it’s a long-term solution – if the US Navy creates a new game next year, will it get the same media attention? And if it doesn’t, will it reach the brilliant minds it needs to? The project might be a long-term success, building and tapping into communities of problem-solvers which can serve as a source of recruitment for years to come. But it might also be a golden hare – a magnificent idea which turns out to be a glorious one-off.

This matters for marketers, particularly at larger companies, which are investing huge amounts in social media. Marketing should be a business that rewards great ideas. But a lot of marketing involves consistent tools – solutions which work when repeated, and over the longer term. How good is social media marketing at providing those solutions?

Enter Peter Field, marketing analyst, who last month released the 2015 edition of his “Seriously Social” report for WARC. The report crunches the data behind dozens of successful social media campaigns – including Project Architeuthis – to analyse how well they work, how best to use them and what drives their success.

Field’s conclusions are positive ones – while social media is in a period of transition as organic reach gives way to paid reach, it still makes a strong impact, particularly when allied to traditional media. His concern is that, as paid social media becomes more dominant, marketers will become obsessed with short-term returns and ignore social media as a brand-building channel.


But there’s one very interesting result in Field’s study, seen in the picture above. When he looked at what factors made a successful social media campaign, practical ones like customer utility and incentives performed quite poorly. The dominant factor in social media success, Field discovered, was originality. Social media marketing is still a novelty-driven business.

This points towards an answer to the question I posed before: is social media all about the golden hares that deliver massive attention and ROI as a one-off, rather than big ideas brands can build on? The dominance of originality suggests the answer might be yes.

The premium value given to originality explains why younger marketers love social campaigns so much. It’s not just shiny object syndrome, whatever the old guard might say. But in contrast to the safety-first world of traditional advertising and old-school pre-testing, where everything boils down to persuasive messaging and brand linkage, social media is a land where new ideas are proven to win.

That’s intoxicating for creatives. But for brand owners, it’s a world where every campaign has to start from scratch and you’re only as good as your last idea.

What’s the solution? How do you encourage the originality of a Project Architeuthis without getting stuck in a land of golden hare projects – beautiful but unrepeatable work?

golden hare

Luckily, Field identifies another route to creativity. Just as with offline media, his data shows that using emotion to build brands on social media delivers the best business results in the long run. With less of an emphasis on the short-term, the Fame created by brilliantly original projects can be matched by the Feeling generated by emotional work. How do brands do that? Video will be king – and Field finds that video is becoming a more and more important part of the social mix.

Social media needn’t be a cipher, a code that changes every time and needs cracking again and again to deliver rewards. It can work for the long term – if brands keep working to find the feeling.


One thought on “Codebreakers and Golden Hares: Finding The Feeling In Social Media

  1. Nicely put, Brian.

    The originality of Project Architeuthis was a strong part of its success, but there were a few other factors I can think of. (I’m a partner at Puzzability, a team of three puzzle writers who wrote and produced the entirety of Project Architeuthis—although the video you’ve provided a link to was put together by the agency that hired us.)

    A strong factor was the shared experience that social media offers. Curious visitors who noticed a somewhat cryptic Facebook post were led down a “rabbit hole” where the story began to unfold. From there the audience grew organically as players invited their friends to see what they had stumbled upon. (Of course, the internet wasn’t around when “Masquerade” came out; it’s quite likely that today communities would have been formed online to share ideas.)

    Another factor was the way an ARG unfolds in real time. Sometimes a day would go by when nothing new was posted. This felt more “real” than sticking to a predictable schedule of posts (but behind the scenes this allowed us to watch solvers do their work and give newbies a chance to catch up.) There was no advertising to speak of; not once was the goal of finding recruits mentioned. Players felt they were connected to something actually happening, not canned.

    And lastly, yes, the emotional involvement of the players was an important factor as well. Project Architeuthis was presented in the form of communications from and between Navy characters who needed help saving their friends. It was the story, and the supposed stakes involved, that kept players focussed on the solving. A set of intricate puzzles presented for their own sake would not have led to the frankly overwhelming emotional responses we saw as the few solvers had their final “Eureka!” moment and knew they had helped “save the day.”

    As to whether this lightning can strike twice—or repeatedly—the jury is out. Our follow-up, which took place earlier this year, doesn’t appear to have attracted the same numbers of players. Nobody’s told us specifics. We shall see.

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