Around $200m will be spent on advertising in social networking games this year. So what do you need to know if you want to make a success of such a campaign?
Toyota is giving away free cars. McDonald’s is offering free hot air balloons. What fresh madness is this!? It can only be the world of online gaming, where web users in the US alone are estimated to spend 407 million hours a month immersed in the likes of Farmville, Cityville and Mafia Wars - and where marketers are now making a play of their own.
According to recent research from Nielsen, online gaming is now the second-most popular activity among US web surfers, behind social networking, and so it is no surprise to learn that marketers are looking to capitalise on this booming hobby. In fact, according to forecasts by eMarketer, almost $200 million will be spent advertising on social networking games by brands this year.
And early findings indicate that this is money well spent by marketers, with research of 2,000 social gamers commissioned by RockYou and conducted by Interpret revealing that they are receptive to ads. The study found that a surprisingly high 24% of users who played casual games clicked on an ad in a social game and made an online purchase.
But social gaming can offer even more value to marketers, explains Scott Sinclair of Capgemini Consulting. “One of the things that social gaming allows marketers to create is an experience around the brand which is inherently more memorable than simply showing an advert or popping something up on Google AdWords,” he explains. “To actually interact and involve the brand with an experience is almost the ultimate when it comes to marketing.”
McDonald’s, for instance, recently offered Farmville players the chance to acquire a McDonald’s branded hot air balloon that floats above their farms, and a digital drink that gives them enhanced skills, in return for tending the restaurant’s online tomato and mustard seed fields. Microsoft is another brand that has tapped into Farmville as it looked to generate traffic to its search engine Bing by rewarding users with virtual currency, notching up 20,000 clickthroughs in under four hours.
Elsewhere, Honda promoted the launch of its Honda CR-Z sport hybrid coupe in social game Car Town, positioning billboards with clickable adverts of the new vehicle next to every player’s garage. And fellow auto giant Toyota similarly promoted its Prius model on Car Town by encouraging players to vote on a term for the plural of Prius in return for a virtual t-shirt.
Tamara Littleton, CEO of eModeration adds: “Other brands are creating social games around their own brand – such as Disney, which is launching new branded social games on Facebook in 2012 – which is the ultimate in advertising.”
And brands aren’t only piggybacking on existing social gaming platforms either - some are also taking tentative steps towards developing their own games. “Innocent has just launched a new app which is aimed at 5-11 year olds and has got a bunch of games that are related to healthy food and promote their eating pots and smoothie drinks to the younger generation,” says Sinclair. “Innocent is an example of a company that is venturing off to create its own games to establish brand engagement and loyalty and start building up fans of their brand.
“That is the big shift that this has shown – we are moving from a generation of trying to sell us something, to trying to engage us with the brand so that we become loyal. And to borrow a term from gamification, it’s to create that core of ‘superfans’ around a particular brand or around a particular experience.”
This is very much a new field for brands and marketers, however, so while the goal of creating a new legion of superfans sounds attractive, it is of course far easier said than done. So how can brands give themselves the best chance of success?
Choose the right game
“There definitely has to be a level of synergy between the game and the brand itself,” says Sinclair. “You couldn’t imagine a particular brand advertising on Mafia Wars, which isn’t seen as a shining light in the media at the moment given some of their recent adverts across Facebook. While it is the second most popular game on Facebook, in terms of a marketing opportunity, I think it is very limited.”
Littleton adds: “Ads should always be hyper-relevant to the brand. There’s no sense in Top Shop advertising in Car City, for example.”
Identify the audience you are going after
Andrew Dean, future trends and innovation consultant at Amaze, explains: “Think about your audience and if it helps, think about a game as you would a social website: connected people, audience types, demographic types, interest types and attitudinal types. Do not waste your time and money talking to the wrong people at the wrong time, for example if you were selling cars you would not be talking to 14 year olds nor should you be talking to only people who have just purchased a new car.”
Sinclair believes that social gaming does open up new challenges for marketers who are keen to target specific demographics. “In terms of the people that are playing these games, it is a vast array. There are statistics that say there are people that are 12 years old playing these games right through to 60+, so it is very difficult to target a specific audience, and given the way that segmentation has moved, we’re no longer interested in those who are young and those who are old - we’re interested more in those who follow a particular interest. So it is a case of picking the right game and making sure that the audience within hat game is the right audience as well.”
Ensure the campaign has ‘stickiness’ and is interactive
“Making users frequently return to play is the key,” says Sinclair.
Littleton adds: “There should be more to advertising in a social game than just getting gamers to see an ad. A good campaign could drive interaction with the brand through creative placement, or a built-in area of the game. It should be social, so the brand can see what consumers think of the ad, and act on feedback. And it could drive offline sales through incentives.
“Think about how your brand can interact with players within the game in a way that is relevant and not obtrusive. Then give them a reason to interact with you in the real world - redeemable coupons, or access to exclusive events, for example.”
Ensure the reward for the user has value
“There needs to be value to the player,” explains Sinclair. “McDonald’s rewarded users with a farm that had the McDonald’s logo on it but that also opened up special powers in the game play so that they got 1.5 times the reward as a normal player. So it has to be meaningful to the player.”
Sinclair contrasts this to Microsoft’s Bing promotion. “If you take the Bing example, there was no value from giving me a farm with the word ‘Bing’ on it. There was no reward in terms of my ability to progress within the game. If their objective was just to drive traffic then they got 220,000 hits through the search engine just based on the search term ‘Farmville tips’ so perhaps they achieved it. But in terms of what the platform of social gaming gives you around brand engagement and loyalty, I think they missed a trick.”
Littleton believes brands should take rewards and value even further, into the offline space. “McDonalds got a bit of stick for its Farmville café, for not giving users enough incentive to take part - a virtual coffee made farmers work at twice the speed, which wasn’t seen as a great benefit. If users had been rewarded with a coupon for a real coffee on the other hand, the project might have led to real sales, with McDonalds able to track the impact of social gaming on consumer visits.”
Encourage viral promotion
“Get existing players to invite their friends to come and play,” says Sinclair. “This also means you don’t appear to be spamming users.”
Keep it simple
“Simplicity is key,” emphasises Sinclair. “It needs to be fairly straightforward to get it. You can’t make it complicated.”