A Columbia TriStar marketing agreement may be a clue that more portal-like ad offerings are forthcoming.
Google has teamed with Sony Pictures Entertainment's Columbia Pictures to create a puzzle-themed 24-day contest for the studio's upcoming "Da Vinci Code" film. The program, which lets people opt-in to see contest updates on their personalized Google home pages, exemplifies the publisher's efforts to take its relationships with marketers beyond paid search ads.
"This is really something new for us and we're looking to do maybe a handful of these a year," Dylan Casey, brand and entertainment manager for Google, told ClickZ. "It's something we're interested in pursuing to see how we can interact with our users and get some feedback as to how Google works as a platform for these types of initiatives."
When users opt-in to add the "Da Vinci Code Quest on Google" module to their home pages, each day they see a link to a different puzzle. Once solved, each puzzle introduces a riddle that calls for the player to use Google Search, Google Maps, Google SMS or Google Video. Agency Big Spaceship worked with Google and Sony on the look and feel of the puzzles and microsite elements. The contest is aimed at audiences in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. The film, starring Tom Hanks, debuts in the U.S. on May 19.
Casey said characterizing the partnership as an advertising deal would be a mistake. Implying that no cash changed hands, Casey referred to it as a "highly collaborative project" which sprung from the two companies' work together on AdWords campaigns for Sony Pictures films.
"We've always wanted to work with Google on a project, and this one made a lot of sense," said Dwight Caines, EVP of worldwide digital marketing at Columbia TriStar Marketing Group. "Google's brand is about providing information to people, providing answers to people who are in their daily lives trying to solve something. We thought it would be a good organic fit." The "Da Vinci Code" story, originally told in a novel by Dan Brown, involves a Harvard professor of symbology who races around the world trying to solve various puzzles.
For Google, the deal allows it to showcase its personalized home page service, which works by allowing users to add content modules. It also lets the company involve users in its Search, Maps, SMS and Video products. "We're really just hoping to show users interesting things that they can do with Google that are utilitarian and also interesting and fun," Casey said.
Despite denying ambitions to become a portal, Google has been steadily adding offerings that keep users engaged at its site. Most recently, the company introduced a calendar program to go along with its Gmail and Talk offerings.
Still, Google is wary of being too intrusive with its advertising, so an opt-in program like the "Da Vinci Code Quest" is in keeping with its ethos. "The personalized home page is a great platform for this type of program because it allows the user to choose to add the content," said Casey.
Though Google has been wildly successful with a low-key, largely text-based approach, competitors such as Yahoo, MSN and AOL have a much wider palette of opportunities to draw from when working with advertisers. The "Da Vinci Code" program represents Google's openness to more rich, immersive and integrated marketing efforts. But don't expect Google to begin offering advertisers a menu from which to choose.
"Our approach to this type of project is going to be that it's highly collaborative and highly custom," said Casey.
Rather than putting together a dedicated team to deal with branded entertainment initiatives, Google will instead assemble ad-hoc groups to implement similar programs in the future. In this case, the company included software engineer Wei-Hwa Huang, a four-time World Puzzle Champion.
Columbia Pictures will promote the puzzle contest via its main film site and through search marketing on Google. It will also run an ad campaign on sites appealing to puzzle enthusiasts and on general movie-related sites. Additionally, the company expects to benefit from word-of-mouth marketing. The contest has already generated substantial buzz on Google-related blogs.
The first 10,000 people who complete all 24 puzzles will be invited to participate in a final 48-hour challenge. The grand prize winner will receive vacations to New York, Paris, London and Rome. Other prizes include a Bravia LCD television and a VAIO notebook computer.
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Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
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