Following up on an earlier column's theme, "Playing the Game," I wanted to cover the other end of the gaming spectrum: the millions who are online and aren't fighting in futuristic battles or driving stock cars through city streets. I'm referring to the moms and grandmas who are engaged in Scrabble and solitaire. I know because my own mother burns through hours and hours flipping through cards in tournaments that have thousands of players. She battles with an equal amount of engagement and zeal as your most avid 17-year-old gamer.
After exploring the online gaming industry, I realized there are more branding and advertising opportunities woven into online games than just in-game sponsorships. In a very real, way the program sponsorships, especially for these casual-game tournaments are massive experiential and event marketing programs. People aren't just viewing impressions or clicking on banners; they're truly interacting with the brand, feeling such emotions as fun, competitiveness, excitement, even elation, and they're doing it for hours at a time! Furthermore, these online events have the potential to spill into offline championships to be broadcast on television and Web alike.
A leader in online casual gaming is WorldWinner, which was founded in 1999 and based in Newton, MA, right up the street from me. Its site reports having more than 30 million registered players globally in over 100 countries, with 650,000 games being played on the platform each day. (That's equivalent to approximately 20 million games per month.)
WorldWinner, and its parent company, Fun Technologies, were bought by Liberty Media in December. (Liberty Media also owns the Game Show Network.) It's a move that will surely put WorldWinner at the forefront of bundling online, broadcast, and live events for sponsors seeking rich, multimedia experiential branding opportunities.
WorldWinner president Peter Blacklow was good enough to grant me an interview.
Harry Gold: Please tell me about yourself and your company.
Peter Blacklow: I'm the president of WorldWinner, an online games site that hosts competitions in popular casual games for cash and prizes. We offer an assortment of more than 30 online games, including branded titles like Family Feud, Scrabble Cubes, Bejeweled 2, Diner Dash, and Zuma, as well traditional favorites, like solitaire, chess, and eight-ball pool. Unlike the multitude of free and downloadable games that exist, WorldWinner adds a dose of adrenaline by matching players against one another in tournaments, in which they compete for cash and prizes.
HG: Can you share some usage stats with us that might reveal the potential online gaming has for marketers?
PB: According to a report from the Casual Games Association and DFC Intelligence, the industry is estimated to be a $2.25 billion a year market, currently growing by 20 percent annually. It is estimated that 200 million people worldwide play casual games on the Internet every month and that 150 million are attracted to free casual games. Furthermore, AOL has told us that in terms of time spent by their users, playing online games is the third most popular activity, behind e-mail and IM. Considering these statistics, there's an excellent opportunity for marketers to reach this engaged audience.
HG: What kinds of people play online games? Any stats or user audit info?
PB: There are online games for every audience, but I'm going to focus specifically on casual games. Casual games are enjoyed by all age groups, from kids to grandparents. The nature of the games, which are easy to learn but difficult to master, can be played in short time spurts, which makes them attractive to anyone looking to take a quick break and have some fun. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of casual gamers are women, with the majority of them between the ages of 25 and 54. Many casual gamers are moms who resort to word, puzzle, card, and arcade games whenever they need a quick break and escape from the stresses of everyday life. Casual games present great potential for marketers looking to reach adult women, an important consumer group with great influence over purchasing decisions.
HG: What kinds of advertising products can you see being deployed into the online gaming environment now and in the near future?
PB: I see in-game advertising units that are trackable and can offer time-sensitive messaging. These products can be a mix of brand integration and direct response opportunities, where the advertising message is built directly into the game elements. This combination of advertising elements keeps the flow of the game seamless for the players, while providing sponsors valuable engagement time with their prospective customers. Online video advertising is becoming more mainstream and can be used before, during, or after the game, such as when the game results are being calculated. As online video advertising matures, the 10 to 15-second integrated break will be tailored to the player creating an environment in which the gamers will embrace the sponsors as part of the game experience, not just as an ad placement.
HG: How are online gaming advertising products being bundled with offline offerings to create multiplatform experiential offerings and sponsorships?
PB: We are seeing companies use the in-game model to help activate their offline marketing campaigns through time-sensitive direct response triggers, mobile text messaging, and traditional coupons to be redeemed in-store. Another trend that is developing and will continue to gain traction in 2008 is the ability for sponsors to use television to activate their online presence by creating interactive and engaging cross-media campaigns through the use of real-time casual games.
HG: What will the costs be for those advertising opportunities?
PB: We are currently in the process of reviewing pricing models within the Liberty Media portfolio of consumer Web sites. We ultimately see the final sponsor investment taking on a CPM model that focuses on user engagement. Specifically, the model will combine both exposure and engagement (time spent) with the sponsor through the use of in-game, around-game, and direct-response impressions.
HG: Are you concerned that ads in the gaming environment will negatively affect your users' experience?
PB: Yes, we always have utmost concern for the player experience; however, our sponsorship model has been developed to minimize any negative effect on our players. Essentially, the sponsorship is seamlessly integrated into the player experience. Our goal is to have the advertising sponsorship be a part of the game and enhance the consumer experience. If this is done correctly, the sponsor and the game are one and the same in the eyes of the consumer.
HG: Anything else you would like to say or add?
PB: Online games have created consumer dynamics in which players embrace advertising. Marketers have been faster to embrace the younger, male-focused video games market as well as niche spaces, like Second Life. However, when you consider the mass appeal of casual games, there's great potential for marketers to reach millions of consumers who enjoy casual games as part of their daily routine.
Thanks, Peter. From a media-consumption standpoint, advertisers clearly can't ignore these kinds of numbers and demographics for long, especially with the high level of engagement provided by these activities.
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As founder and CEO of Overdrive, Harry Gold is the architect and conductor behind the company's ROI-driven programs. His primary mission is to create innovative marketing programs based on real-world success and to ensure the marketing and technology practices that drive those successes are continually institutionalized into the culture and methods of the agency. What excites him is the knowledge that Overdrive's collaborative environment has created a company of online media, SEM, and online behavioral experts who drive success for the clients and companies they serve. Overdrive serves a diverse base of B2B and B2C clients that demand a high level of accountability and ROI from their online programs and campaigns.
Harry started his career in 1995 when he founded online marketing firm Interactive Promotions, serving such clients as Microsoft, "The Financial Times," the Hard Rock Cafe, and the City of Boston. Since then, he has been at the forefront of online branding and channel creation, developing successful Web and search engine-based marketing programs for various agencies and Fortune 500 companies.
Harry is a frequent lecturer on SEM and online media for The New England Direct Marketing Association; Ad Club; the University of Massachusetts, Boston; Harvard University; and Boston University.
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