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The Blair Witch Project: What can content marketers learn from the iconic horror this Halloween?

The Blair Witch Project: What can content marketers learn from the iconic horror this Halloween?

by Ben Wittams-Smith29th October 2014

Blair Gif

The generation of today will most likely laugh at the notion of the Blair Witch Project once being the globe’s most bone-chilling film, but this was precisely the status it enjoyed 15 years ago, when it was released to a rapturous furore.

The film follows the story of three media students – Michael C Williams, Josh Leonard and Heather Donahue – as they camp out in the forests of their native town Burkittsville, Maryland, in order to conduct a video documentary about the existence of urban myth, the Blair Witch. The on-screen results of the project were nothing short of phenomenal; its innovative and unique nature quite simply terrified viewers, and had them talking about the film long after it had been released.

That the film was one of the first in the ‘lost footage’ genre augmented its appeal to the global audience, whose unfamiliarity with the concept of a ‘fake documentary’ made it far easier to convince them that the occurrences of the film actually happened.

However, being unique alone cannot account for how a film which cost just $60,000 to make ended up grossing a monumental $248,639,099 worldwide, representing a percentage profit return of more than 400,000%! To put this in perspective, the current holder of the title ‘highest grossing film of all time’ belongs to Avatar, which is estimated to have taken in $2.78 billion since its release. Whilst this figure is undoubtedly impressive, it still demonstrates a far lower percentage return on investment than the Blair Witch Project because it used a substantially larger budget of $237 million.

The roots of the Blair Witch Project’s success can instead be more insightfully traced in the effectiveness of its digital marketing campaign, which was so successful that word of the film had already gone viral by the time of its release. The reality is that despite being 15 years old, the movie is still a great illustration of how to conduct your content marketing and PR affairs when promoting your business or product. This is because as the percentage ROI shows, no project has managed to market itself more effectively to a worldwide audience.

So, what exactly can SEOs, content marketers and digital advertisers learn about their trade from the iconic Halloween flick?

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 17.33.16

You don’t need to spend big, to make big

As previously mentioned, the Blair Witch Project grossed nearly $250 million worldwide – a figure which would be even higher when scaled up in accordance with inflation. The fact that it cost only $60,000 to film and release illuminates a key point to remember: you don’t have to splash the cash in order to optimise your marketing campaign’s return on investment.

The digital landscape contains so many people who unnecessarily splash out money on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google+ in order to bolster the exposure of their content, erroneously believing that doing so is the sole way of obtaining high quality links, viral numbers of re-shares and enhanced levels of consumer interaction. Such an approach to content marketing represents a basic misunderstanding of what it is all about; providing value and interest to an audience, with the aim of raising your brand’s profile by doing so. Splashing out aimlessly on boosting your posts so they cosmetically appear more reputable will not make you money. Likes, +1’s and re-shares are only worth something if they signify an organic approval from a member of the community, who is telling people they are more than happy to convey their approval and endorse your brand.

Instead, it is all about whom you target your content towards, and how you do it which impacts its overall success or failure. The Blair Witch Project was able to go viral by the time it had been released because its marketers had intelligently used the internet to promote terrifying vignettes about the film; a maverick brand of content marketing. The vignettes were cheap to produce, but were targeted at teenagers and young adults who were more than happy to spread the word about an innovative film concept which came across as frightening. The mystery of the film, coupled with the fact that its promotion was targeted at the right type of audience to grow its reputation and induce conversions was the driving force behind the success of its campaign. The result was almost $250 million dollars gross and one of the greatest exhibitions of content marketing ever produced from within the film industry.


Be evocative; target the emotions of your audience

In general, people will only choose to share content or discuss it within their circles if it has evoked some sort of emotion within them. This could be intrigue, interest, anger, sadness or in the case of the Blair Witch Project, fear; something that provoked some sort of internal response within a viewer which drives them to pass on that feeling to another person.

Whilst the Blair Witch Project was being promoted prior to its release, there were a number of examples of their campaigners targeting the emotions of their viewers. This was to ensure the content they were releasing was generating a global buzz, and was intriguing enough to convince other people that it was worth talking about.

One such example was a ‘mockumentary’ of the film which was broadcasted on Sky just before and during its release. The contents of this documentary were arguably as intimidating as the film itself, and left myself and hundreds of other members of the young generation at the time terrified – but captivated by the intrigue of the legend of the Blair Witch, and eagerly wanting to learn more about its roots and history.

The source of interest revolved around the fact that this piece of content marketing had played to my emotions; it had scared and enticed me in equal measure so that I was left wanting more.

The bottom line here is that designing your content to be evocative is a key requisite to adhere to in order for it to market successfully. When writing a piece of work, creating some intriguing graphics or filming promotional media for your product or service, make sure that you evoke a reaction from the people viewing it, so they feel compelled to share it; something that will organically bolster the profile of your brand and in the long-term, boost your profit revenue.

Just look at the material which is engaged with the most on social media platforms; it is usually content which evokes shock, happiness, amusement or surprise. By detaching yourself as the designer or author of your content and taking time to consider how it makes you feel when you look at it objectively, you will be able to make the necessary modifications to it before it is released, so that it is optimised for user engagement when it is finally put out there.

Missing Poster

A missing poster – part of ‘The Blair Witch Projects’ advertising campaign

Market outside of convention

The first-person horror movie genre might not seem original today after audiences have been subjected to what seems like 75 Paranormal Activity films and the incredibly underwhelming Cloverfield, but back in 1999 it was one of the hottest and most creative innovations in film history.

The same can also be said of the manner in which its marketing campaign was conducted – The way Haxan Films and Artisan utilised the web in order to conduct their marketing campaign was groundbreaking and contributed heavily to its eventual success. In particular, they continually ‘leaked’ content surrounding the film in order to give it a heightened sense of importance and did so through independent channels to build up the sense of mystery and fear over its release.

Some of the most common ways of spreading the word of your business were developed by The Blair Witch Project’s marketers back in 1999, and there is no coincidence between their willingness to be innovative with their content marketing and the $250 million revenue figure the film eventually attained.

One such strategy they adopted which is no longer popular, but was fresh back then, was the subtle release of content and information about the site on student forums and university campuses. Many of the film’s advertising team signed up to forums discussing its story, or other media related discussion groups, and gradually contributed more and more in order to generate a buzz from younger demographics and truly establish a sense of intrigue and fear amongst its target audience. The degree of success it enjoyed from taking such an approach was incredible; not only did they minimise their spend on promotion, but they also used the content in order to make readers feel like they were undergoing their own investigation of the mystery – as if they were playing roles of extended characters from the film delving into the facts and fiction of the titular character, the Blair Witch. The decision to play trailers of the film in university campuses only served to promulgate this trend, making consumer interest in the movie unbelievably high by the time it was released.

Obviously, with the universal accessibility of the internet nowadays and the familiarity that audiences now have with the ‘fake documentary’ horror genre, taking such an approach to marketing your own content would be ineffective. However, it can be argued that it was the consumer market’s inexperience with the types of marketing that the Blair Witch Project campaigners were doing which made it so effective at engaging people, convincing them to buy into the legend and ultimately, turn up to the film.

When thinking about how to promote your own content to further your aims, consider how you can use the web in order to get people talking about your brand and contemplate approaches that have not been done before in order to get you noticed. Those who go against convention are far more likely to get noticed, and thinking about how you can use the internet creatively to create intrigue about your company is a sure-fire way to separate yourself from your competitors.

You should also remember that having a strong pre-campaign to promoting your product or service before it has been released plays a huge role in your overall success, and you should tap into resources such as forums, review sites, scheduled media channels and YouTube in order to generate interest in your offerings right from the off.

Be holistic and tap all your resources for promotion

During its promotion, you would find references and material about the Blair Witch Project absolutely everywhere. Whether it was on billboards, websites, posters, trailers, the radio, forums, search engines or even the news, you could not escape talk about the film and its legend. This was an innovative tactic for the time, and Haxan Films used the internet in order to convince people that the legend was real, convincing people they were fully warranted to be talking about it. It was absolutely incredible marketing, channelling all resources to convince a diverse assortment of people that the film was worth going to.

The lessons content marketers should take here from the film is that you shouldn’t primarily use one source to promote your films; yes it is fine to mandatorily share your work on social media sites, but these shouldn’t be the only source of exposure for your work. Going viral and getting people talking about your brand needs a more holistic content marketing strategy, using things such as publishers, your businesses site, influencers and prominent industry figures in tandem with social media marketing in order to ensure your material acquires maximum engagement.


Despite being 15 years old, The Blair Witch Project still provides content marketers and those involved in PR with a multitude of valuable lessons to learn about how they should go about conducting their own initiatives today. The way their advertising team promoted the film was emphatically effective at putting people on cinema seats because they targeted their content so well, and released it gradually to really build up mystery and interest in the legend of the Blair Witch. Yes, they did capitalise on the naivety of the audience at the time, and yes the internet was in its infancy. But they also spent near to nothing in relative terms for promoting their material, and presided over a monstrous campaign which was so innovative, that it caught the consumer market cold; transforming intelligent youths into marketing cattle who were happy to spread the word of the Blair Witch legend and add to the money-making machine.

Marketers should also remember that they do not need to spend a lot of money in order to attract interest in their work and expose it globally. Instead, it is all about the quality of their content, how evocative it is and how effective it is with engaging its target audience. It can be argued that marketers should spend far more time putting themselves in their viewer’s shoes than conducting analysis of cosmetic metrics like +1’s and likes. Spending time working on how well your content plays on viewer’s emotions will ensure that in the long-term, it will be shared organically a lot more and more importantly, will compel people to talk about your brand positively.

And by taking all these lessons into consideration, and applying them to your own marketing campaign, you will see your company move towards the upper echelons of its industry in the same way that the Blair Witch Project did all those years ago; putting consumers at the forefront of their content marketing campaign in order to achieve levels of success the world had never seen before.


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About The Author
Ben Wittams-Smith
Ben Wittams-Smith is a content writer for Just SEO and the Company Director of JSEO LTD. As a specialist in SEO, SEM and digital marketing, Ben regularly contributes content and provides analytic insight in these areas.

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