You see them every time you log onto Facebook: status updates from friends who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time playing games about farming and the mafia. Well, your friends are just a drop in the bucket; about 100 million people in the U.S. and U.K. now play social network games on a regular basis.
As popular as social games are, they still pale in comparison to other forms of online gaming. According to consumer market research firm NPD Group, consumers spent 10 percent more time on console online gaming last year, taking their time to an average of 8 hours per week. And a Nielsen report released earlier this year found that after social networks and blogs, online games (along with instant messaging) are, in fact, the most popular online activity for global consumers.
This interest in online gaming and willingness to dedicate hours upon hours to the cause isn't lost on brand marketers. For years, advertisers have been employing branded online games, in-banner games, and alternate reality games to increase brand and product engagement, recall, and purchase intent. Now more than ever, though, it seems Internet users are primed to take part.
Social Gaming Gets Cheesy
One of the latest attempts comes from Frito-Lay's Cheetos brand. Launched earlier this month, Battle of the Cheetos pits two of the brand's product varieties - Puffs and Crunchy - against each other in a multi-player online war.
Players must choose their allies, form an army, and provide it with a name, design a flag, and select existing players to become their opponents. Even more interesting, however, is where the battle takes place.
Battle of the Cheetos is being promoted through several content partnerships with social sites like Break.com, Gizmodo, Digg, and Mashable that are running banner ads (and in some cases sponsored content pages like this one). Perhaps as a nod to where so much of today's snacking is taking place, these sites as they appear on your computer screen become the battleground upon which tiny Puffs and Crunchy Cheetos execute their attack.
Whether personally into Cheetos or not, one can't deny that the brand has a cult-like following that most certainly extends to a stalwart preference for one product over another. Battle of the Cheetos is a way of inviting consumers to align themselves with their chosen snack food for all the Web to see. It's comparable to posting a product review on a blog or "Liking" a brand on Facebook; the player feels so strongly toward a brand or product that she's willing to demonstrate her affections and allegiance in the public eye.
Not only does this bode well for the marketer, who can leverage this super-fan status by providing special offers or exclusive content the user will value and pass along to peers, but it also allows the consumer to express her personality by association, and in an entertaining way.
"X" Marks the Spot
In May, Sony Pictures joined a long line of online games promoting upcoming films. The alternate reality game "Day X Exists" - based on the new Angelina Jolie flick "Salt" - invited players to stop a terrorist threat. As junior agents, players had to identify both Day X spies and the location of main character Evelyn Salt, who is suspected of being one of these enemy operatives but claims to have been set up.
The nine-week long game, which came to a close last week, used a series of episodic first-person point of view videos to immerse the player in the experience. The player was asked to complete a challenge in association with each game installment, such as to determine whether to tell the truth or bluff about Salt to an agency superior, or click to take pictures of potential Day X agents. Each task was scored and each successful completion of an installment (a new one of which was launched every week) unlocked another mission badge (each mission was also followed up with clips from the film).
In true social style, players could also connect with Facebook through the ARG site to personalize their gaming experience. After completing a mission, the player had the option of posting her progress to the social site for friends and other players to see.
Like the digital marketing campaign for last year's offering from Sony Pictures, the action film "2012," Day X Exists worked because it invited consumers to engage with the film's plot - even before the rest of the world knew what that was. Branded games, blogs, YouTube channels, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and other social and viral channels give potential moviegoers a sneak peak at what they can expect to get for their 12 bucks. But they also encourage consumers to make an investment in the film's plot and characters - one that, if all goes well, is so deep that it necessitates a next step: watching how the rest of the action plays out by paying to see the film.
Whether hooked on social and online console games or appalled by the amount of time spent on these activities, consumers are likely to find increasing appeal in the plethora of branded online games coming their way. There will surely come a time when few product categories won't be represented through this medium; it's just a matter of how soon digital marketers are willing to start playing along.
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Tessa Wegert is an interactive media strategist with Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy and services agencies, serving such brands as Bioré, Bratz, Food Network, illy, Hunter Douglas, Jergens, and Olympic Paints and Stains. An industry veteran, Tessa has worked in online media buying and planning, marketing, and online copywriting since 1999. She is an active freelance writer specializing in interactive marketing who has contributed to U.S. and Canadian publications, including "USA Weekend Magazine," "Marketing Magazine," "The Globe and Mail," and "The Montreal Gazette." She is frequently quoted as an industry expert and speaks regularly at industry conferences and events.
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