Ever hear of Easter eggs? Not the dyed hardboiled type many hide for kids to find in the spring and then, when they don't, eventually advertise their positions with the gentle aroma of sulfur dioxide. We're talking about the little surprises left in software, entertainment packages, and other tech products that consumers are supposed to discover and enjoy. But they're more than a harmless joke. Easter eggs can become part of a serious brand strategy says Ryan Hoover, a product director at PlayHaven, a company that makes software for game developers.

Say What?

The practice goes back decades in software and long before then, as well. How many people used to regularly look at Al Hirschfeld's caricatures of entertainment names and look for the hidden "Ninas," the name of his daughter, in the drawings? You could say that Where's Waldo is nothing but a big printed series of Easter eggs.

Users of iPhones swapped stories about the funny answers they could get from Siri. Google's front page doodles are like Easter eggs, only, ironically, without the need to search for them. DVD versions of movies have had Easter eggs in which you might have to execute an odd string of actions to get a special feature that you would not otherwise see. You can even find Easter eggs in office productivity software like Microsoft Word.

Why They're Powerful

In a nutshell, that gets to the power of Easter eggs. People enjoy finding them and can even get to the point of repeat business to satisfy the surprise itch. Hoover started thinking about this when looking at some hidden features of Snapchat, the image-based social networking platform. People send each other images that quickly disappear. Hoover sees three things that Easter eggs can deliver. I'll add a couple of others at the end of his list.

  • People talk to each other about a product because they want to show that they're in the know and reveal the secret to friends.
  • Knowledge of the Easter eggs lets users put themselves into a special class of insiders.
  • Because of the "wow" effect they have, Easter eggs can help build a brand.
  • Make the surprise widely enough known and you could trigger waves of earned press, as Apple did with Siri.
  • Easter eggs can be part of the product line figuratively and not just literally. They become anticipated surprises the people look forward to.

One thing to remember is that despite their origin as a bit of whimsy on the part of a programmer or artist, Easter eggs are not a casual undertaking. Years ago I spoke with someone highly placed in the entertainment industry about the use of Easter eggs in DVDs. Although some users would find them through obsessive searching, it seemed hard to believe that people might stumble across some of the odd strings of activities necessary to activate them.

As it turns out, chance had nothing to do with it. Not only were the studios placing the Easter eggs in the DVDs, but they would seed the mechanisms with some influential people, looking for them to pass the information along in a grassroots way. Some even had such users on the payroll.

Has your company successfully used Easter eggs? How? Let me know in the comments.