Since the very early days of this century (and the very late years of the last), games have had a presence on the web. I’m not talking computer-based, multi-player action or graphic role-playing games, but games as ads – part of an overall marketing strategy to promote a brand online. We’ve watched them morph from pop-ups offering virtual volleyball and golf (which, believe it or not, used to run on NYTimes.com) to social networking apps that draw in millions of users each month.
Brands employ “gamification” – the process of incorporating games into digital technology in order to make it more interactive – because of its ability to engage consumers. Branded game play equates to extended brand exposure, which in turn can boost brand recall and even affinity. It’s a desirable direct path to potential customers. In Q1 2012, Zynga, the largest provider of social game services and owner of eight of the top 10 Facebook games, reported ad revenues of $28.2 million, an increase of 117 percent over the previous year. And studies show that social site gamers are a valuable bunch: 79 percent have a college degree or higher; 44 percent earn over $50,000 per year.
Not all games are social games, however, and many advertisers would sooner create a custom game than purchase a banner on FarmVille or a branded virtual item on Mafia Wars. While in-game advertising can be effective, custom games provide a more immersive brand experience along with the opportunity to educate consumers about the product. It’s the difference between an outdoor billboard intended to increase brand recognition, and an in-store product demonstration. One does a good job of showing you the product. The other shows you how it works.
That’s what’s at the core of today’s most interesting branded online games, including two created by New York-based digital agency Canvas for the Smithsonian Channel. To promote the network’s new program “Aerial America,” which offers a bird’s-eye view of the country and its landmarks, Canvas devised a Facebook-based trivia game that would “bring the show’s themes to the limelight, reinvigorate the program, drive tune-in, and uniquely engage with viewers in the digital space.” In “Where in America?” players can compete on behalf of their home state by answering questions like “Which state is known as the ‘Pine Tree State’?” The questions incorporate video and photo content from the show, giving the user a sneak peek at what they would get if they tuned in. According to Canvas, players spend an average of 10 minutes with the game, and half of all players return to play again.
For the Smithsonian Channel’s “Forensic Firsts” program, Canvas built a gaming microsite. This one challenges players to consult a series of clues to resolve previously unsolved murders. With a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-type format, players are asked to make choices that impact the outcome of the virtual case. The experience mirrors the TV program, in which experts examine past cases to explore the different ways forensic science helps detectives solve crimes. For consumers who enjoy playing the game, watching the show is a natural next step.
Regardless of your campaign objective, there’s an online game for you. Augmented reality company Total Immersion works with consumer brands like Bloomingdales and European telecom Orange, along with Ford and Wendy’s. To promote Wendy’s Kids’ Meal product, the restaurant company partnered with Animal Planet and Total Immersion to create a 3D web-based game. Wendy’s customers were given Print Tracker Cards that they could use to sign in to the game, which incorporated a web-cam for a more personalized experience.
If you’re thinking of making gamification a part of your 2013 marketing strategy (and you should be), here are a few best practices to keep in mind.
- Make it fun first. Consumers will only engage with a branded game if it holds their attention. Promote your brand, by all means. But don’t lose sight of the entertainment factor that will ultimately determine whether or not your audience takes part.
- Give your game a purpose. “Branding” as a campaign goal isn’t enough. Get specific with your objective, and make sure it translates into a meaningful call-to-action. If you’re hoping to increase sales of a new product, offer a coupon to those who complete the game. If you’re eager to enhance awareness, make your game experience dependent on social media shares.
- Be visible. Both within your game and without. Make it obvious to consumers that your brand is behind the gaming experience, and make it easy for them to find the game online. A featured position on your brand site home page and a place of honor on your Facebook page and in your Twitter feed are a must for ensuring exposure.