‘The Lost Symbol’ Takes Its Puzzles Online

This week marked the much-anticipated release of author Dan Brown’s newest novel, “The Lost Symbol.” Fans have been waiting six years to find out what adventures protagonist Robert Langdon — of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” fame — will face this time around, and what baffling historical puzzles he’ll find himself attempting to decode.

Although little was revealed about the book’s plot in advance, its publishing company, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, has been strategically planting clues around the Web to generate excitement and word-of-mouth promotion. The mysterious nature of Brown’s subject matter lends itself well to a marketing campaign that culminates in some impressive social and mass media marketing reminiscent of the infamous “Swordfish” online campaign. It even spawned a separate campaign entirely manufactured from inspiration.

It doesn’t take a Harvard-educated professor of symbology to track down the promotional references that have been rampant in recent weeks. In partnership with NBC’s “Today Show,” Doubleday has been revealing photographic clues in a regular series called “Search for the Lost Symbol.” Both on the program and in a special site section, “Today Show” host Matt Lauer has invited users to identify the locations — each of which plays a role in the book — of objects depicted by a selection of photos.

Video of the clues also has been posted to “The Lost Symbol” Twitter page. Since June, Twitter users have been challenged with additional puzzles that range from images of mysterious symbols and codes to other cryptic puzzles based on various themes that aren’t necessarily related to the book but are likely to appeal to Brown’s target audience of curious readers.

The execution of the Twitter effort is best-practice-perfect, from the intense frequency of the posts (often several each day) to the inclusion of contests for loyal users and cross-promotional incentives that include promising to reveal Robert Langdon’s next adversary when his Facebook page reaches 100,000 fans. If there’s a fault with the campaign, it’s that the Twitter content may have been too cryptic for the common man; the account only had 4,100 followers the night before the book’s release, so word of the Facebook pledge didn’t reach enough consumers to attract the necessary 100,000 fans by the release date.

Surprisingly, administrative activity on Dan Brown’s Facebook page, which according to Doubleday is the page officially associated with the book, has been minimal, with sporadic postings referencing the “Today Show” clues and Web site features. Stranger still is the detached tone with which posts are made: “Dan Brown’s publisher invites you to play Symbol Quest.” The excitement generated by the tone and content of the book’s Twitter account is completely lacking on the social site.

The book’s theme of mystery and intrigue was also carried out by the book’s Web site, where visitors can play an online game called Symbol Quest that challenges players to navigate a selection of historical and modern-day symbols to match the ancient ones to their actual meanings. The site also provided a free downloadable widget that counted down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds to the book’s September 15 release. The microsite, along with the Twitter and Facebook accounts, are being managed by by interactive agency Special Ops Media.

At least one advertiser has taken advantage of the buzz surrounding the book and launched a Brown-inspired campaign aimed at self-promotion. Washington, D.C., tourism agency Destination DC recently created a site heralding the fact that the book’s plot takes place in the Capital and inviting tourists to recreate its action with a trip to select locations throughout the city. Until a few days ago, when the intricacies of the book were revealed to the world, much of the page’s content was based on rumors and conjecture, but it’s been enough to draw a unique brand of attention to the site.

It’s always interesting to see how advertisers choose to combine online and social media with mainstream channels to extend reach and enhance marketing creativity. It’s impossible to say how much of an effect this elaborate approach will have on increasing book sales, but as far as captivating potential readers goes, there’s no question “The Lost Symbol” campaign has found success.

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