Verizon Sponsors Microsoft Xbox Online Event

In a bid to win gamers to its broadband services, Verizon will sponsor a free weekend of premium service for Xbox 360 users. The promotion, Xbox Live Gold Weekend, running from March 31 to April 2, is also aimed at helping Microsoft win subscribers to its Live service.

“With this sponsorship we are providing free access to the Xbox Live Gold platform to all Xbox 360 users,” said Verizon spokesperson Sahu Habibi. “The sponsorship is part of our corporate branding campaign. Our messaging proposition is Verizon Broadband provides gamers a richer deeper broader experience.”

The weekend schedule includes ongoing multiplayer game sessions on Xbox 360 titles, Xbox Live Arcade leaderboard tournaments, Xbox live Play and Win contests and Xbox Live veterans hosing new gamers on Xbox Live. As part of the sponsorship, Verizon will give away one million Microsoft Points, in 500 point increments, for use in the online venue’s marketplace for digital downloadable content.

“In the past, Microsoft as a media platform has been about MSN. Now Microsoft as a business is looking to extend its network,” said Microsoft’s Chuck Frizelle, group product manager for Xbox new media. “A program of this nature is cross media; it hits Xbox.com, Xbox Live, Microsoft.com/games and MSN.”

The free weekend will be promoted across all those properties with branded and co-branded banners. It will also be promoted by the Official Xbox Magazine, published by Future U.S.

Microsoft began selling the Xbox 360 around Thanksgiving and sold a reported 600,000 units by January. By June, Microsoft expects to sell four and a half to five million. Frizelle reports that about half of all Xbox 360 owners are Live subscribers. The number includes two subscription tiers.

Industry analyst Harry Wang from Parks Associates likens the free weekend to the early days of cable when premium channels would open their broadcasts to non-subscribers. Subscription sites like the Wall Street Journal Online have also used similar tactics. “I think this can potentially be very successful, the first task is making sure all the Xbox users are aware of the free weekend, and make sure they leverage it and convert 20 percent or even more,” he said.

The pairing of the Microsoft Xbox 360’s online portal and broadband provider Verizon is a natural. “Obviously Verizon is trying to piggy back on this and sell subscriptions,” said Wang. “Verizon is trying to leverage this campaign.”

Wang adds that Verizon has ongoing initiatives on the gaming front. “Hopefully they can spread the word of other gaming initiatives offered by Verizon, so they have a twofold purpose,” he said.

Verizon’s Habibi said he does not expect direct conversions from this sponsorship. “The sponsorship allows us to reinforce our brand image, which we find is working to communicate a couple of things: We have the best products and services for living the broadband life and when you want to buy what we sell, you get quality and value not available anywhere else,” said Habibi. “We think gamers should appreciate that as well as moms and dads and other consumers.”

Microsoft offers two tiers of online service for owners of the Xbox 360 console: silver and gold. Silver access includes Xbox Live Marketplace access, game downloads, text and voice messaging and access to only to a certain class of multiplayer games, massively multiplayer. Gold service, which is offered during the Live Gold Weekend, also includes multiplayer gameplay, additional downloadable content and a skill-matching service for multiplayer games.