Five baseball cap-wearing bros, cowered in a corner, eyes wide, limbs akimbo, clutching at each others’ poorly developed pecs.
Although meme-machine BuzzFeed is responsible for pouring gallons of gasoline on the photos’ flames, what some viewers don’t realize is that the pictures were part of an intricate, borderline genius, marketing campaign created by Nightmares Fear Factory, located on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, to promote its haunted house.
How it got started
“People just started noticing and think we just started posting pictures last year,” Vee Popat, Nightmares Fear Factory’s social media and marketing strategist, told us. “But we’ve been doing this consistently every day for 365 days for years.” (That’s right, “bros” are even photographed freaking out on Christmas).
Ten years ago, founder Frank Lapenna got the idea to take pictures of people at key scare-moments in the pitch black maze from Disneyland and other theme parks that sold photos of guests on roller coasters.
“So 10 years, he started standing in this one spot and taking picture of people, and we’d all laugh at them,” Popat said.
Eventually they installed a still camera and video camera that would capture the exact moment of optimal fear in the pitch dark, and a tradition was born.
Since it was a pre-Facebook era, and MySpace wasn’t really a photo sharing site, Lapenna tried to make the content social the only way he knew how. “He thought, why don’t we email people the jpeg,” Popat said. “For the obvious reasons, they’ll share it with their friends.”
And so it began.
How it went viral
Popat began working at Nightmares Fear Factory in 2009, and he immediately created a Facebook page for the haunted house to share daily photos and frequent videos.
Understanding the power of the viral video, he never allowed himself to say the “V” word aloud, Popat started uploading videos on YouTube, Vimeo, Daily Motion, and Google Videos (which no longer exists). He confided that he actually thought that if anything would make it big, it would be the videos rather than the pictures.
But Popat still decided to create a Flickr account in 2010. “I knew Flickr was going to be a big site, it was owned by Yahoo,” he said. “But it was more of an SEO thing — it wasn’t a social media play but was an SEO play. maximizing for SEO.”
And good SEO paid off.
Popat distinctly remembers checking the site’s traffic on Thursday October 5, 2011, and seeing that the Flickr account jumped from 50 views — after being up for six months! — to 2,000.
“The BuzzFeed writer must have been searching for Halloween stuff and found ours,” Popat said, touting good SEO. “He must have got a kick out of the university aged guys cowering and hugging each other and then he created that great name for it, ‘Scared Bros.'”
An hour later, Tumblr sent over 1,000 more views. “By three or four, we said wouldn’t it be funny if ABC called us.” By the end of the day, ABC along with most other major news corporations had.
From October to December 2011, the Flickr account saw a rise from 50 to 3,500,0000 hits.
But what’s truly amazing about the haunted house’s viral story is that lightening struck twice. Right before Halloween, BuzzFeed and other publications have recirculated the photos and Nightmares Fear Factory is reaping the rewards.
“It’s crazy to us,” Popat said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think to say we’d go viral again.”
How it helped revenues
Well going viral is all well and good, the real question is how these photos have helped the year-round haunted house.
“Revenue absolutely did increase,” Popat said.
Since the photos spread around the world, surprisingly getting media attention last in Canada itself, international tourists have been stopping by the haunted house on trips to Niagara Falls and telling workers that they saw the photos in their local newspapers.
“I have to view our pictures every single day, and I notice a different demographic coming to the haunted house,” Popat said. “And that’s a result of going viral.”