March 26, 1996

Cyberhunts Aim to Keep
On-Line Consumers Clicking

In an effort to find two strangers who will join him in a 24-hour-a-day, global scavenger hunt that must be completed as swiftly as possible over a 10-day period, Daniel Horowitz of Piscataway, N.J., posted the following message on the World Wide Web:

"I am a first year college student at Rutgers University studying industrial engineering and psychology. I love puzzles and games and hope to win."

Horowitz is among 2,400 or so puzzle-loving, game-playing Web surfers who, in the past three weeks, have visited the Web site for Swatch watches, the colorful, inexpensive time pieces that have become pop culture collectibles. The visitors have managed to click their way through Swatch's marketing information and registered to participate in the company's "Net.Hunt" game.

It's the most recent example of a form of on-line marketing that has been exploding in popularity in recent months. Known generically as "cyberhunts" (one company has adopted the term as the proper name of its game), these events are an extension of one of the oldest of marketing ploys, the contest. They are attracting wide attention among both advertisers and consumers, however, because of the ways they embrace unique qualities of the newest of commercial media, the Internet.

The Net.Hunt competition, which starts officially on April 1, requires participants to form teams of three players who will attempt to solve a riddle in 10 days or less by exploring the Web to find the 10 pieces of a multicolored mosaic hidden at various sites. The mosaic is an image of the company's newest limited- edition watch, "Zapping," designed by the multimedia artist Nam June Paik.

While there is nothing new about a promotional adventure or scavenger hunt on the Web to generate interest in a consumer product, the Swatch contest is drawing anywhere from 175,000 to 300,000 hits a day -- a lot of traffic for a marketing site and, marketing experts say, a testament to the fact that the contest plays to the unique strengths of the Web.

For one thing, competition demands that users take advantage of the global and interactive nature of the Internet, employing tools like e-mail, search engines and message forums.

But it is the often-overlooked international, or "World Wide," aspect of the Web that makes this contest different. Unlike other on-line sweepstakes or adventure hunts that encourage individual play, Net.Hunt can be played only by three-member teams. Ideally, members should live in time zones at least six to eight hours apart so that there is always one member of the team awake and surfing the Web.

Net.Hunt was designed to market the "Zapping" watch by Swatch

This feature of the game, in turn, encourages participants to visit the Swatch Web site to seek teammates. The company maintains bulletin boards on which would-be players post information about themselves and then exchange e-mail to form a global team. A search engine lists players by continent. Directions are in English and French.

The game's first prize also plays to the global nature of the Web: an expense-paid trip by each member of the winning team to the home country of the other two members.

Winners will also be awarded their own limited edition Swatch watch designed by Paik, best known for his "The More the Better" media tower of 1,003 TV sets and, more recently, the "Cybertown!" video and technology installation currently on display at the San Jose Museum of Art.

Enrico Veraldi, a spokesman for Swatch International in Switzerland, said that "Net.Hunt" was designed to reflect the youthful fun and "globality" of Swatch products and to encourage involvement in the brand.

The Web site also invites visitors to join a Swatch watch club, where they can trade watches or participate in chat forums about Nam June Paik and other artists. "We want people to really get involved in our product, and that's what the Web site is all about," Veraldi said.

Marketing analysts applauded the company's clever use of the medium, although several expressed reservations about parts of its design and questioned whether it could be adapted to other products.

"What Swatch is doing is really taking advantage of the unique properties of the medium and pushing the envelope on advertising," said Donna L. Hoffman, a business marketing instructor at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University and a director of Project 2000, a study of emerging media, including the World Wide Web.

"This event involves consumers in the brand in an exciting way and in a way that is not blatantly commercial" Hoffman said. "It is using the unique features of the medium in a way that simple banner ads do not, and is a nice integration of what the Internet is about and what Swatch's global marketing objectives are all about."

On the other hand, Hoffman criticized the site for not actually selling Swatch watches. "That's the missing link," she said.

Veraldi said Swatch had decided not to compete with its established retail outlets and added, "On the Internet, sales are not established."

Other analysts said that as a marketing tool, cyberhunts require a significant time commitment on the part of the consumer and may not always attract the preferred demographic for a product.

For example, they predicted that a promotion like Net.Hunt would attract many college students. That may be the group that Swatch is targeting, they said, but a car company or software maker might find it more advantageous to provide information to help consumers learn about the products themselves.

"Will this event have any impact two months from now?" asked Josh Bernoff, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "A lot of the potential in the Internet is in the area of one-to-one marketing, and so the question I have to ask is whether or not the Swatch people have set this up in order to learn more about the participants and their customers. That's the real opportunity in events such as this."

Similarly, Thomas Lakeman of Digital Planet says, "We prefer to stress depth over breadth" -- that is, to encourage consumers to go deeper into the advertiser's site, rather than all over the Web.

John Holland, an on-line strategist at CKS Interactive, an interactive marketing company, said, "You can really go into overkill in trying to come up with a gimmick."

Although CKS helped design a cyberhunt promotion for Sony's high-tech theme movie "Johnny Mnemonic," Holland said that simple, less time-consuming interactions can often be more effective in building consumer loyalty for a product. He cited as an example the NBC Xtra newsletter, which allows visitors to the NBC Web site to note their programming preferences and then sends them personal e-mail alerting them to upcoming programs that fit their tastes.

Despite such reservations about cyberhunts, Net.Hunt will have to contend with some serious competition from at least two other marketers running such contests on the Web.

This month, Tracer Design Inc.'s Sandbox Entertainment Network launched a new version of "Cyberhunt," an interactive thriller that invites viewers to search through other sites for Vincent, a science professor at Bell Labs who has been mysteriously sucked into cyberspace and now leaves his footprints all over the Web.

Cyberhunt provides incentives -- extra points, clues or prizes -- for players to click through the traditional banner ads, thus guaranteeing advertisers a 10 percent click-through -- though there is no guarantee that the advertisers' messages will hit home.

If an advertiser prefers, Tracer Design in Phoenix will also work the products themselves into the interactive story line. Eventually, the designers plan to allow players to send e-mail to their favorite characters and receive a reply. Top prizes for play include a shopping spree at a cybermall that is a Tracer Design client.

In addition, Interactive Imaginations in New York will launch a new scavenger hunt called Blood Hound on April 1, along with five other Web-based games, including two multi-player games where players compete for cash, cars, cruises and other prizes.

Interactive Imaginations created the Riddler.Com site, perhaps the first to combine sophisticated Web-wide gaming with advertising sponsorship. The company, which claims about 500 new subscribers daily to Riddler.Com -- has obviously found a way to attract ad dollars in support of free web-wide games, cyberhunts and trivia competitions. In the last year, it has grown from 3 employees to 35, and it has brought on additional game writers, including two from the TV quiz show "Jeopardy."

"Networth" character
from Riddler.Com
"The major thing for advertisers to remember is that the Web is a community of sites," said Michael Paolucci, the president of Interactive Imaginations. "It's a network out there and you have to try to open your arms and share branding opportunities with others. Advertisers should think of their Web site as a living organism with arms and tentacles. That's the nature of the beast, and you have to deal with it. It's not a proprietary or closed system, which is the environment which most advertisers are accustomed to."

Nevertheless, Paolucci said there needed to be a clear distinction between the game and advertising content in order to attract an audience, and he said he anticipated more sophisticated cyberhunts and other Web games in the months ahead.

"We're going to be seeing a lot more 3D navigation on the Web and a lot of searching up, around and through things, rather than just a lot of clicking." Paolucci predicted.

Related Sites
Following are links to the external Web sites mentioned in this article. These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content or availability. When you have finished visiting any of these sites, you will be able to return to this page by clicking on your Web browser's "Back" button or icon until this page reappears.

  • Swatch watches home page.
  • NBC Xtra newsletter on the Web.
  • Cyberhunt by Sandbox Entertainment Network.
  • Riddler.Com by Interactive Imaginations.

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