It's an online ritual that's become as predictable as the droning of holiday music in retail outlets.
The holiday micro-sites are back.
In an online rite that's become as predictable as the droning of holiday music in every retail outlet, a slew of brands have unleashed entertainment-driven micro-sites with seasonal themes. These familiar, diminutive Web sites come with holiday messages, theme music, interactive snowball fight games and, of course, brand presence.
This year is seeing some variations on the theme, reflected in new holiday sites for Virgin Mobile, Boston.com, Discover and Starbucks. These brands and others are pulling out the stops on their Christmas, Hanukah, etc. tributes, perhaps in recognition of the Web's bigger role in retail sales this holiday season.
Fallon New York's "Chrismahanukwanzakah" Web site for Virgin Mobile is perhaps the most unusual of its kind. The agency went all out to create a psychedelic Flash send-up about the faux multi-cultural and quasi-religious nature of a season which Virgin Mobile seems to believe is mostly about buying.
The animation features a song written and recorded by the band Ween, including these lyrics: "In some ways we're all monkeys; well maybe just a smidgeon. I'm a scientologist; that's kind of a religion. Whose faith is the right one? It's anybody's guess. What matters most is camera phones for $20 less."
Surfers appear to agree. Virgin Mobile reports 110,000 unique visitors to the site, and north of 350,000 downloads of the Ween ringtone, "We're All Snowflakes."
Showing a more traditional variety of holiday cheer are two micro-sites the Barbarian Group built for clients Discover and Boston.com.
The Boston creative firm's work for Discover is the second annual holiday site undertaken by the credit card company, and marks a significant step-up in sophistication. The site's headline feature is a gift finder that lets visitors enter the age, gender and proclivities of a special someone they need to shop for. The interface then turns up a set of gift recommendations, which users can act on by clicking through to partner sites that are selling the products. Or they can print a list and take it with them into a store.
Other features of the Discover site include a multi-player online game called "Snow Fight," e-cards and, of course, an "Apply for a card" link.
"There are a lot of angles to play with the holiday stuff," said Kieth Butters, co-founder and creative director of the Barbarian Group. "The big challenge is making something that's going to be fun and interesting. It's always on a short timeline. Everyone's busy, and advertising budgets need to get spent."
Butters and company did a fair job on little notice with an interactive game for Boston.com, a snowplow rampage that mimics the narrow streets of Boston. Butters said the client looks at its integrated holiday campaign as a thank you to readers after a particularly good year, rather than as a marketing channel.
Some holiday micro-sites are nothing more than a television spot ported to the Web. Among these is a video ad Seattle agency Creature rolled out for Starbucks. In the one-minute film, a Starbucks coffee cup left on the roof of a cab survives a harrowing ride only to be stolen by an evil Santa.
At least one agency has built its own holiday-themed brand site. Integrated ad firm Grafica Group created an online film in mockumentary fashion about its pitch for the "Holiday Spirit" account. The new brand concept: "Rekindle."
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
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