Image via Google Maps

3 Marketing Lessons From Internet Easter Eggs

Earlier this week, many of us could be found browsing Google Maps, trying to beat a Pac-Man level that looked a lot like our morning commute to work. Google Maps’ new feature made headlines in all major tech publications, and trended on both Twitter and Facebook for two days straight. Wired magazine called the Pac-Man feature “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, April Fools’ Day easter eggs in history.”

Easter eggs are secret features, messages, or inside jokes that are hidden within a program or a website without explicit instructions that lead to them. There are plenty of online resources that reveal the most notorious and entertaining Internet Easter eggs for the lazy hunters. However, few of them explain why it is that we love testing the Konami code on every website in search of hidden online gems. We decided to explore the main elements behind the thrills of the Easter egg hunt, and figure out how the Internet users’ fascination with hidden features can help businesses add some colour to their content.

3 marketing lessons from Internet Easter Eggs

1. Inside jokes create a sense of belonging

It’s not hard to clue in to Internet things—after all, most are just a Google search away—but the payoff to “getting” the inside joke is great. Understanding a reference to an Internet meme contributes to the users’ sense of community, which is an impressive feat if you consider the size and diversity of demographics among groups of users.

Buzzfeed’s ability to create and aggregate relatable content is notorious, so it’s not surprising that the Easter egg on their page celebrates one of many members of the animal kingdom Internet users obsess over—sloths. This is what you see if you type in the Konami code (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A) while visiting Buzzfeed.

Google Maps’ Pac-Man feature falls into another common category of Easter eggs, which have to do with transforming a familiar interface in accordance with a cultural phenomenon or a trending topic. Pac-Man is an iconic arcade game that perfectly captured a certain aesthetic, and Google Maps’ user interface lends itself to this kind of gamification. YouTube, which has long reigned as a primary source of viral video content, programmed an Easter egg that plays on the user’s tendency to search for trending topics. For example, when users search “do the Harlem shake,” the results page auto-plays the familiar tune and obeys your command.

People who study the viral content phenomenon argue that inside jokes are not about the individual video or photo at all. Rather, it’s the culture of the Internet that facilitates participation so easily. Recall #TheDress phenomenon: the original piece of content, the picture of the dress, received the bulk of attention at the very beginning of the viral craze. Then, it was replaced by colour-adjusted photos in articles discussing the colour temperature phenomenon and memes of llamas dressed in black-and-blue dresses. The original picture reached the tipping point once everyone else “clued in” to the trending topic. The same effect often applies to hidden features: you don’t even have to see the Easter egg for yourself, you just need to hear about it from someone else in order to peak your curiosity.

To apply this lesson in business practices, it helps to think of content that has this type of “discussion tail,” or something that compels other users to refer to your content, or create their own versions of it. You can also adopt YouTube’s Harlem Shake strategy, especially if you can think of a clever way to join an existing discussion around a trending topic.

2. Gamification drives engagement

What do the Google offline dinosaur race, Google Maps’ Pac-Man and YouTube’s loading snake have in common? All of them maximize the time users spend on a single page with the help of gamification. They also turn frustrating things like wi-fi issues and loading times into a fun experience. Google’s teams are incredibly resourceful when it comes to creating interactive user experiences, whether it’s a Google Doodle or an April Fools’ joke.

And there’s a lesson to draw from these practices, one that doesn’t involve trying to poach Silicon Valley engineers: create online content that users can interact with. This doesn’t require you to have the engineering capacity to create a whole game. These interactive experiences can come in form of something as simple to create as a quiz, and still produce great results—for example, the New York Times’ most popular piece of content of 2013 was a quiz.

3. A reward is encouraging, no matter how small it is

Finally, a big reason behind the Internet Easter eggs’ appeal is the same one that drives kids to search for painted eggs and candy—the thrill of the hunt, and the reward that comes at the end. It’s rewarding to type in a Konami code, or send a herd of ponies running through your Gchat window—even if you didn’t stumble upon the hidden feature on your own.

To help find content that resonates with your audience, sometimes you just have to ask yourself what you think is currently missing from the online community, and how you can address that gap. Whether it’s offering advice on a common issue, creating a funny video about a shared experience, or turning your design team’s inside joke into a hidden feature, your audience will appreciate the personal touch.