'Tis the Season for Viral Holiday Cards

In what has become a time-honored Internet tradition, at least two companies have launched viral holiday cards to drum up new business and create a buzz.

The higher profile of the two is the release of “Elves in Paradise: Elf Bowling 2.” Last year the original Elf Bowling game was so popular that someone invented a virus hoax prompting thousands to delete it from their hard drives and e-mail boxes.

While this ended up being a fake threat (the game was supposed to erase your hard drive on Christmas day), the success of the campaign was real. The creator of the game, Nstorm, Dallas, helped to grow its business 900 percent in 1999 to the tune of $3 million in profits. This eventually led to the company's acquisition by Vectrix Business Solutions Inc. late last year.

This time around, the sequel is sponsored by client CDNow.com. The new game features Santa pitted against his older brother in a game of what can best be described as shuffle board — only instead of discs, elves in g-strings are pushed across the deck of a boat.

Advertisements for CDNow flash in the right corner of the screen and fly by in the form of banners attached to cartoon planes. At the game's conclusion, there is a link to a CDNow promotion called the Groove and Play Give Away.

“We wanted to do something different that would get some attention from an audience as large as possible who aren't necessarily familiar with CDNow,” said Howard Blumenthal, senior vice president of media at CDNow, Fort Washington, PA. “We latched onto what was clearly the most popular Internet game last year.”

The game was downloaded more than 59,000 times and played more than 286,000 times in its first four days. The company estimates that the game will be played as many as 40 million times by the middle of December.

To promote the game, Nstorm sent 100,000 e-mails with a link to the Elf Bowling 2 download to members of its 1.4 million-person database. The e-mails have seen a 10 percent click-through rate. CDNow plans a mailing to its online database.

“Last year we were using the game to just advertise ourselves. Now we're using the game to not only tell people about Nstorm, but also push traffic to clients,” said Dan Ferguson, senior practice leader at Vectrix, Dallas. “We're already starting to think about next year.”

Brand X Online, a strategic Internet marketing agency based in Seattle, hopes to tap into a little of the holiday magic with its viral Brand X Holiday Card.

It sent a link to a Flash clip featuring Buck the Reindeer to a house list of 75 people. The card explains that Santa Claus is angry with Buck because he hasn't sent any cards to his clients yet. At the end of the clip, the company provides a phone number and a link to brandx.com.

Once at the site, potential clients can examine templates for their own online holiday cards.

John Irwin, general manager at Brand X, hopes the card will be a success, but he realizes that the Elf Bowling phenomenon is not easily repeated. “We'd love to have something like that happen,” he said, “but the nature of the Internet determines what's good and what's bad. I hope we hit the mark.”

Irwin plans to purchase online banners to support the card's release.

Arguably the granddaddy of viral holiday cards is the Snowcraft game from Icon Nicholson LLC, New York. This game, which features children who bean each other with snowballs, was sent to 2,000 people in December 1998. A year later, it had reached more than 1 million people, and the company was still receiving three to four e-mails a day from people who had received it.

The Groove and Play Give Away runs through Jan. 17. Winners will receive CDNow gift certificates ranging from $25 to $500.

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