Viral Marketing Then & Now: The Blair Witch Project & Unfriended

In 1999, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez released a low budget, found footage horror movie which rocked the world with controversy, however unlike most other horror movies, it was not the film’s content that sparked speculation but its legendary viral marketing scheme (which took place before Twitter, YouTube and Facebook even existed) and has left modern horror movies longing to replicate it to this day.

The Blair Witch Project proved just how crucial online marketing can be, with its website ( and the clever trickery on the no-name actor’s IMDb pages (listing them as missing), enough hype was created to generate over 20 million page views before the film even opened in theatres. The film itself went on to earn $248.6 million after a worldwide release.

The pros of using online marketing were obvious- information on the website could be shared easily and with the mounting speculation, debates on whether to film was fake or real were common, only adding to the already growing curiosity.

The Blair Witch Project is an excellent example of how transmedia storytelling can be used as an effective marketing strategy, in a way the film’s plot became interactive with fans desperate to piece the story together, even before seeing the film itself. This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of viral posts on message boards and, of course, the official website.

The website itself documented the Blair Witch legend as well as the disappearance of the supposed college students, including interviews with family members, news coverage and photos of police searches. Managing to expand on the films subject matter, the Blair Witch website remains to be one of the most convincing marketing hoaxes of all time. 

Unfortunately, the success of the Blair Witch marketing strategy is unlikely to repeat itself. Although the new age of internet is useful from a marketing standpoint due to how quickly information becomes widespread, it unfortunately makes stealthy marketing difficult to do due to the prevalence of fact checking. Although its unique style of marketing may never be fully replicated, The Blair Witch Project will always be notorious as the film that birthed the viral online marketing we see so many films use to this day. 

Which brings us onto a more modern example of the effectiveness of online marketing. Unfriended, released in 2014, follows the story of a group of online friends who find themselves dealing with the demonic presence of their dead friend. The film was praised for its uniqueness in being the first ever “Skype horror movie”, so naturally, a large amount of its advertising was based online.

Unfriended’s marketing campaigns spanned a number of different platforms, including Instragram, Twitter and even the messaging app Kik, and managed to engage up to 44 million people. The film’s official Twitter has amassed 39.1k followers and its Instagram has gained 27.2k followers. Although both follower counts are impressive, it was Unfriended’s Kik and Facebook campaigns which really gained points for originality. Fans could chat to Laura, a main character, who “replied” with automated, scripted responses and even directed chatters to the film’s official website. This original style of marketing garnered attention through not only being interactive but also through YouTube videos showing people “brave enough” to talk to Laura. 

Much like The Blair Witch project, a large part of Unfriended’s marketing relied on speculation from fans and critics alike on whether it was “just a movie” or based on true events. There is even a “RIP Laura Barns” Facebook page, much like the one depicted in the film, which has garnered 29k likes and managed to convince a large portion of the film’s audience that everything depicted in the film was true. Unfortunately, unlike The Blair Witch project, the prominence on the internet means Unfriended’s “based on true events” angle isn’t nearly as effective, a quick Google search will show the actor’s IMDb profiles as well as websites such as Snopes, disproving its validity.

In conclusion, although released 15 years apart, both The Blair Witch Project and Unfriended have proven just how powerful an online audience can be when it comes to marketing and where the future of marketing lies. More and more widely successful films have taken the route of online marketing in the years since the film’s releases and will most likely continue doing so.

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