Is gaming the next big marketing frontier?

Mary Meeker’s recently-released Internet Trends 2017 report, which focuses on the defining trends of the digital world and what they might mean for the future, featured a prominent section detailing the steady rise of gaming in all forms across the globe.

Meeker dedicated a 70-page section of this year’s report to a wealth of statistics analyzing the explosion of popular gaming and what it means for various industries.

Meeker’s report traced the evolution of gaming from single-player arcade games through to the Massive Multiplayer Online collaborative games, or MMOs, of today and the vast eSports competitions that draw in millions of spectators both online and offline.

Her statistics paint a compelling picture of gaming as the next big frontier for marketing and brand advertising. Gaming is now ubiquitous in our lives, from the video games in our living rooms to the mobile games that we carry around in our pockets, to the “gamification” that has crept into many aspects of our social media, learning and messaging tools.

It has the ability to engage audiences in a way that nothing else has yet achieved. On top of this, gaming has been the proving ground for some of the technologies that are hottest in the marketing world right now, such as live video, virtual reality and augmented reality.

Once sidelined as a niche pastime, the province of introverts and shut-ins, gaming has now moved into the mainstream – and marketers would be short-sighted to miss out on the opportunities it provides.

So what do marketers need to know about the global rise of gaming, what new avenues does it present for connecting with consumers, and how can marketers incorporate elements of gaming into their campaigns?

Why should marketers pay attention to gaming?

Two statistics cited in Meeker’s report illustrate almost single-handedly why marketers should pay attention to gaming. According to estimates by Electronic Arts and Unity Games, in 1995 there were 100 million gamers globally. 11 years later, in 2016, the number is estimated at 2.6 billion – an increase of 2,600%.

The global revenue of gaming, excluding video game console and PC hardware, was pinpointed at around $100 billion in 2016, with the largest proportion by far – $47 billion – concentrated in the Asia Pacific region. North America and Western Europe trail behind with revenues of $25 billion and $17 billion respectively.

Any marketer who wants to target consumers in their 40s or younger needs to bear gaming in mind. As Meeker’s report says, these generations have been “gamified since birth” – starting with Generation X in the 1970s and 80s, Millennials in the 90s and 2000s, and of course Generation Z in the present day.

No wonder that the global population of gamers is exploding – every new generation born is a generation of gamers. And gamers are by no means exclusively young people: since 2003, the average age of gamers has remained relatively stable at around 35, according to the Entertainment Software association.

Therefore, although gaming does present an opportunity to engage with a young demographic in particular, marketers can still use gaming to appeal to a broad consumer age range.

Nor is the gaming demographic concentrated on a single gender. Although gaming remains an excellent way to target a male demographic, Meeker’s report specifically highlights the “rise of [the] female casual gamer” beginning in the year 2000, with the release of games like Bejeweled and The Sims.

Few marketers would argue with the worth of marketing on social media, given that massive segments of the global population have at least one social media account, and many spend hours of their time engaging with social networks. But according to Meeker’s report, video games command more attention – in terms of daily minutes spent engaged – than Facebook does. Data drawn from a variety of sources shows that users spend an average of 51 minutes per day engaging with video games, versus 50 minutes engaging with Facebook.

King mobile games, which encompass popular titles such as Candy Crush and Pet Rescue, take in an average of 35 minutes’ engagement – outstripping Snapchat (at 30 minutes) and Instagram (at 21 minutes). So marketers who want to enjoy the undivided attention of a truly engaged audience might want to consider forgoing the Instagram advertising campaign for a mobile game sponsorship.

Tobias Sherman, global head of eSports at talent agency WME-IMG, went so far as to state in an article for Ad Age that, “If you are a CMO and you are not in eSports in 2017, you are going to risk getting fired.” While the situation may not be quite that drastic just yet, it’s clear that gaming is a phenomenon well worth CMOs paying attention to, if they aren’t already.

But if brands want to integrate gaming into their campaigns and tap into the huge potential market that it offers, how can they do so?

What opportunities does gaming present for marketers?

In a digital world saturated with media, it is becoming more and more challenging for marketers and advertisers to gain the attention of consumers via traditional means.

Audiences are becoming blind to banner ads, or are otherwise choosing to block them; skip through video advertising whenever they can; and overall are thought to have shorter attention spans now than ever before (while this is almost certainly a myth, it is likely that consumers are becoming more discerning about what they pay attention to).

Yet as Meeker points out in her report, “In [an] era of perceived disengagement… ‘Engagement’ [is] rising”. We have already seen that video games and certain mobile games command more collective attention than various social media platforms. According to Unity Games, the average daily mobile gaming session duration has increased by 33% over the course of 21 months, between July 2015 and April 2017.

Consumers are choosing to devote more of their attention to gaming than ever before. Gaming therefore presents an opportunity for brands and marketers to convey their message to consumers via a medium where they are already highly engaged. Here are some ways that they can do so.

Event sponsorships

eSports, or electronic sports, is a form of competitive video gaming that has risen to huge popularity since the late 2010s. Usually taking the form of organized, professional multiplayer competitions, eSports tournaments have evolved into events of incredible scale that draw in audiences of millions, and take place in sold-out stadiums.

The world championship for League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle arena PC game, drew in 43 million unique viewers in 2016, a 19% increase from the previous year. And these audiences don’t hesitate over spending money to support their favorite games: Meeker’s Internet Trends report points out how fan in-game purchases of things such as virtual items, levels and other in-game content can boost eSports prize pools by millions of dollars.

Major brands have already begun to seize on the potential for engagement and revenue that these events present. Red Bull, which has built its brand image around high-octane physical sporting activities like space jumping and sky diving, has expanded its repertoire to include eSports with events such as Red Bull Kumite, an international fighting games competition, and Red Bull Smash Gods and Gatekeepers, a Super Smash Bros competition.

Red Bull has gone so far as to build up a substantial base of content marketing around eSports, covering new developments in eSports games and interviewing high-profile players. It even has a dedicated Twitter, @redbullesports, for promoting its eSports-related content and event news.

In 2014, Coke Zero also launched a partnership with Riot Games, the video game developer behind League of Legends, to create the League of Legends Challenger Series, a minor league series for amateur League of Legend gamers to compete for a place in the professional league.

Notably, Coca-Cola passed up the opportunity to sponsor the Super Bowl, which that year drew in 111.5 million viewers, in favor of organizing the tournament, explaining that an eSports event like the Challenger Series came much closer to its desired demographic than a traditional sporting event like the Super Bowl.

The massive scale of global eSports competitions makes a persuasive argument for the rise of competitive gaming, but it can also make it more difficult for smaller brands to get involved in the space. The world of eSports mostly revolves around major tournaments, in contrast to the world of traditional sports, where casual matches and local competitions take place all the time.

However, this could provide an avenue for smaller brands to create or sponsor affordable events that cater to the demand for live eSports in between global competitions.

In-game advertising

Event sponsorships are all well and good, but what about the brands who want to access a demographic outside of the world of eSports competitions – such as mobile gamers? Free-to-play mobile apps and games have long relied on advertising as a source of revenue, and this can be an easy way in for brands who want to dip their toes into the lucrative world of gaming.

By partnering with a gaming ad platform, brands can run a variety of different types of advertising within mobile gaming apps, such as:

  • Display ads – Banner ads and full-screen pop-up ads
  • Native ads – Sponsored messaging and events
  • Rich media ads – These include forms of advertising such as mini-games, surveys, and full-screen interactive display ads
  • Video ads – These include expandable video banners and rewarded video ads

A full-screen interstitial mobile ad for a free-to-download mobile game
Image by FriscoFoodie at English Wikipedia, available via CC BY-SA 3.0 

The engagement with these ad formats can vary, as with different ad formats on any channel. Banner ads are likely to be more effective for brand awareness, while interstitial pop-up ads can risk annoying users, but might see more uptake if they promote a relevant and interesting product, such as a free sample or discount.

Rewarded video ads, which are full-screen video ads that users have the option of watching in exchange for in-app rewards, are more likely to drive engagement as they can provide access to coveted in-game boosts or currency that users would otherwise need to pay for. Their opt-in nature is also more likely to generate positive sentiment with users, although many may lose interest once the reward interaction is completed.

Influencer marketing

Influencer marketing has generated a significant amount of interest over the past few years as a means of connecting with audiences. “Influencers”, a term which refers to any well-known individual with a platform and a following, can command an engaged audience which trusts their endorsement when it comes to brands and products.

Just as social media, fashion, blogging and numerous other channels and niches have their own influencers, so does gaming. Many gamers have built up huge followings through posting gameplay videos, such as ‘Let’s Plays’, to YouTube, while others are well-known through the competitive circuit.

PewDiePie, the most subscribed user on YouTube with more than 54 million subscribers, and a frequent poster of video game content, might be a poor example to feature in this section given that he has become something of an influencer marketing cautionary tale, after anti-Semitic comments in his videos led Disney and YouTube Red to drop him from major brand partnerships.

However, there are plenty of other prominent gaming influencers who have yet to blot their copybook. YouTube gamer W2S, who posts videos about FIFA soccer video games, created a video in partnership with Samsung in which he filmed a trip to a trampoline park with a Samsung Galaxy S6 in order to showcase the phone’s durability.

Competitive eSports players often also attain brand sponsorships in the same way that traditional sports teams and players will be sponsored by brands. More often than not the sponsoring company will be in some way linked to gaming, such as gaming monitor manufacturer BenQ, which sponsors leading eSports teams such as ‘Evil Genuises’, ‘Cloud9’ and ‘Flash Wolves’.

Korean StarCraft pro gamer Kim Jung Woo is also sponsored by sportswear brand FILA, and had a commemorative airplane model made for him by Korean Air following his Korean Air Starleague championship win in 2010.

Even without direct gaming partnerships, it is possible for marketers to benefit from the global rise of gaming by incorporating aspects of it into their marketing campaigns. So how can this work in practice?

How can marketers learn from gaming?

Meeker’s Internet Trends report lists a number of different skills that are deeply intertwined with gaming, from leveling up and competing with others to collaborating, creative storytelling and puzzle-solving. Think about ways that you can incorporate these elements into your marketing campaigns and “gamify” them.

Competition and collaboration

Running a competition is a tried and tested marketing technique, but introducing elements of collaboration and team play can be even more fun. For example, outdoor clothing retailer Moosejaw ran a gift card sale in which $10 gift cards went on sale for an initial price of $1, which would increase rapidly to $5. The quicker consumers reacted, the better their chance of grabbing a deal.

To get more players involved, Moosejaw included a Team Building feature in which participants would invite their friends. The more friends a player invited, the better the chance was of scoring a deal, and all team members would receive the lowest price locked in by any player in the team.

Puzzle-solving

Brands have employed a number of creative strategies to gamify their content marketing, creating puzzles and challenges for users to complete for a reward. In 2013, Heineken used Instagram for its “Crack the US Open” contest in which users had to follow clues in the captions of a mosaic showing a tennis match audience, reach the final photo, and leave a comment to win game tickets.

In the same year, M&M’s launched the M&M’s Pretzel campaign, which among other things, featured a Facebook ‘I Spy’ game challenging users to find the tiny ‘pretzel guy’ hidden amidst the M&M’s candy. The post was hugely popular, generating more than 25,000 likes, 6,000 shares and 11,000 comments.

The ‘Crack the US Open’ Instagram mosaic by Heineken

Leveling up

Brands can incorporate points-earning and leveling up into a reward card scheme, like the M&S Sparks loyalty card, which allowed M&S customers to see what they would be able to afford with their points, and make gradual progressions towards a goal.

You can give out virtual badges to your consumers as they reach different milestones, giving them a sense of achievement and a tangible record of their progress.

Progress tracking

This is a very simple gamification technique that nevertheless works extremely well. Create a progress bar which tracks your user’s progression towards a certain goal, such as filling in their data in a profile page. LinkedIn uses this technique to great effect by giving users a ‘Profile Strength’ progress bar which increases as they fill in more of their information.

A LinkedIn profile strength progress bar which is almost entirely filled in. The caption reads 'Profile Strength: Advanced.'

You can introduce a social element by allowing users to share their progress with friends or creating a ‘leaderboard’, encouraging competition. Nike does this very well with the Nike+ activity tracker and app, which allows users to both track their running and compare it with friends on an ongoing basis.

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