MSN Search Sets Viral Story in Motion

MSN Search, in conjunction with agency 42 Entertainment, has begun a viral campaign for its new search engine targeting mainstream consumers.

So far, “MSN Found” has generated mostly negative buzz in the blogosphere. While that’s not necessarily an indicator of its potential with its target market of mainstream Web users, most viral campaigns rely on blogs — typically run by more techie early adopters — to raise awareness.

The effort centers on a site at msnfound.com, which introduces a cast of six fictional characters in their mid-20s. These made-up MSN users maintain blog-like online journals, providing links to searches on their interests and to videos. There’s Reggie, a London DJ; Tad, the Venice, Calif. Surfer dude; Karen, the Bichon dog breeder; Swing, the Tokyo hotel concierge; Cy, the Chicago-based conspiracy theorist; and Denise, the Brooklyn matchmaker.

MSN wouldn’t comment on the campaign other than to acknowledge it was behind the effort, but it did issue a brief statement saying “Found” helps users find more of the unique content on the Web, as does MSN Search.

“There is a lot of great content to be found out on the Web,” a spokesperson said.

The blogs’ content, which so far consists of two dated entries, is somewhat cryptic. The characters reference one another offhand, but it’s unclear what the relationships between them are. If the campaign is anything like another Microsoft/42 Entertainment collaboration, the iLoveBees promotion for Halo 2, the aim is to weave an ongoing tale designed to evoke and reward curiosity.

Search boxes at the top of each blog and calls to action within the videos encourage users to search on specific terms on MSN Search. These include “hypnodragon,” “blubber blowout,” “psycho kitty,” “lava boy” and “Judo jealousy,” along with others that relate more directly to the characters. When users search these terms, they get clues about each personality. Search “Tad Diddy Reese dates,” for example, and the results page displays a picture of Tad and some text describing how financial issues drove he and his ex-girlfriend, Jan, apart. Some of the pictures link back to the blogs, while others link to video content.

Each page with video content has a “forward to a friend” feature letting viewers send a search query link to as many as 10 recipients. The email says “Your friend [name here] just watched this very cool video. Now it’s your turn. More FOUND videos are waiting for you at www.msnfound.com.”

Viewers eager to further engage the characters can email them. A response from Tad reads: “Be sure to come back next Friday, I’m going to put up the sickest surf footage you’ve ever seen. I mean, it’s some seriously crazy stuff…. p.s. I’ve got a new design up on the site, feel free to grab it and use it however you want. Slap it on a board, a tee whatever.”

Interestingly, the company did not use its own MSN Spaces blogging tool for these journal sites. It also declined to make videos downloadable, and the blogs don’t have RSS feeds — characteristics many feel are important to encourage the viral spread of campaigns.

The effort has been widely panned by bloggers, some of whom dislike the concept of a fake Web log and others of whom simply find the concept confusing. Even Microsoft’s own uber-blogger, Robert Scoble, criticized the campaign on his blog. Scoble described a conversation with an unnamed co-worker in which the person complained of having done a “fun site” that no one was linking to.

“So, let me get this straight,” Scoble posted. “You don’t have RSS feeds. That means I won’t be able to build a relationship with this site. You have a fake site so even if I tell my readers to visit it they’ll get there and feel dirty (and they can’t interact or do anything there either). You won’t let me download the videos to pass them around virally. Or remix them in fun ways….Oh, and there’s no permalinks so even if I wanted to link you directly to a piece of content there I couldn’t.”

Scoble said the co-worker defended the effort by saying the campaign was meant for “non-geeks.”

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