Viral Marketing Ploy Comes Back to Haunt Creator

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A virus hoax has tainted one of the best viral marketing success stories of the year. NVision Design leveraged its pass-a-long e-mail video games, like the holiday "Elf Bowling" game, into a viral marketing program that helped grow its business 900 percent in 1999 to a record $2.7 million in gross profits.

Earlier this month, however, an unnamed source sent out a viral message announcing that a delayed virus was attached to NVision games. The imaginary virus was to be activated on Christmas day when it would maliciously delete all information on the hard drives of any users that had downloaded the game.

Symantec Corp., an anti-virus research center in Cupertino, CA, and other reputable sources have deemed the virus a hoax.

"The files that we created do not have a virus," said Dan Ferguson, president of NVision, Dallas. "There are 20 different bastardized versions of the message going around. People are getting confused and propagating this rumor."

Other e-mails have been circulating saying that the programs will cause computers to crash. NVision has tracked the sources of these false accusations and confronted them directly. As many as five different lawyers have contacted Ferguson about putting together a "groundbreaking lawsuit" against the originator of the virus hoax, but Ferguson refused.

The e-mail scare may have panicked some of its recipients, but didn't frighten, Dallas, which acquired NVision Dec. 17.

Additionally, NVision's gaming site, - which receives 700,000 to 800,000 page views a day - signed on its first advertiser, "They are our guinea pigs. We're going to check it out and see how its banner advertising does and use it as a model for future advertisers," said Ferguson.

The site also launched a new game, ironically named Surprise Package, Dec. 15.

NVision's free games, which include "Frogapult" and "Y2K: The Game," are attachments sent from friend-to-friend via e-mail. When the game concludes an advertisement for NVision appears.

The effort has produced a 23 percent click-through among game players, according to NVision. This is well above the .5 percent click-through rate traditional banner ads provide. A half a million people have registered with the site to receive the new games.

The games have attracted such blue-chip clients as AT&T, Miller Brewing Company and the Texas Instruments for NVision's design services. The company's e-mail marketing division, NStorm, has been hired to create a game for Lucent Technologies called "Mission Possible," which was scheduled to be sent out around press time. "Tango Towers" a game created for Tango Software will also be released shortly.

One benefit of the virus hoax was the added attention the company received. "Anti-virus companies have said that we're number one listing on their hoax list. This is drawing new people to our site. Plus many people threw out the games before they found out the virus was a hoax and now they're coming back to the site to re-download it," said Ferguson.

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