Think of online games and you probably think of connected consoles, or role-playing games such as World Of Warcraft. You might not think of Facebook, yet 1 billion hours a month are spent playing games on the social network.
This is the world of social gaming, a sector of the games industry that has largely been ignored by marketers and the media in favour of console games, but which attracts huge numbers of devoted players. Playing games is the third most popular activity on Facebook, after chatting with friends and looking at their photos. And it’s growing fast. According to research by PopCap, the company behind Bejewelled, one of the most popular games on Facebook, six months ago one-third of social media sessions involved playing a game. That’s now up to half. It’s also highly engaging; two-thirds of social gamers play for half an hour a session, and 40% play several times a day.
It’s not just the scale of social gaming that is making marketers pay attention to the channel. It also opens up a very different audience to traditional gamers, one that is particularly interesting to FMCG brands.
“The core group is 34-year-old women, although some games, such as Farmville, attract an older female audience,” explains Rumbi Pfende, UK country manager for casual games portal Zylom by RealGames.
So what is social gaming? Aren’t all online games in some way social?
The basic definition is that social games are played in social media, which currently means on Facebook. The site dominates the social network space in the UK, with research carried out for RealGames by TNS Global and Newzoo last year showing 63% of people who play games or use social networks use Facebook. The next biggest sites are Friends Reunited, used by 16% and MySpace by 13%. This dominance leads Pfende to say that Facebook is the only place marketers interested in social gaming need to think about. The huge reach of Facebook also gives it a significant advantage over dedicated games portals offering similar casual games.
“Zylom does 10 to 12 million impressions a month,” she says, “but Scrabble alone does 20 million impressions on Facebook.”
But Pfende, with her experience of both casual games on dedicated portals and social games, believes what makes a social game is more subtle. For her, the key distinguishing feature is that social gaming is about how you are perceived by your friends, which in turn influences the types of games people play and how engaged they become. This is backed up by Sebastien de Halleux, co-founder of social games company Playfish.
“The real promise of social games is bringing games to people who may never have played before, by providing a utility beyond just the game itself,” he says. “That may be playing with friends, or it may be a game that touches on a particular passion, such as sport.”
Xbox is one brand that has worked with its media agency, Universal McCann, to use social games to reach out to this different audience.
“Social games are a great way of enabling more casual gamers to associate with Xbox and make our brand seem more relevant to them,” says Paul Evans, head of media, Xbox EMEA. “Typically, these new gaming audiences – broad family and female groups – are either not aware of Xbox, or are ambivalent towards the brand, so this kind of engagement is both beneficial and essential to making a compelling connection. Social games have allowed for interaction and play with Xbox properties without appearing to ’try too hard’, due to the integral fun component of the games.”
Xbox has also stepped outside Facebook to reach a new target audience for Xbox Kinect, young women between 16 and 34, via specialist social network Stardoll.
For advertisers, the high degree of engagement offered by social games, and the relationship between the games and social network within which they sit, is crucial, as Pfende explains.
“People are looking for a haven when they go online, away from the busy-ness of interaction. As a result, games are becoming their own mini world within Facebook, and gamers are 100% focused; they won’t shut down the game. This means advertisers get volume, but they also get reliability.”
There are a number of opportunities for brands looking to use social gaming as a marketing channel, of varying degrees of complexity. The simplest is pre-roll advertising that plays before the game starts, just as it would before a video clip. Then there’s game sponsorship; last year Mazda in the US sponsored Bejewelled Blitz on Facebook and offered prizes for high scores. But perhaps of greatest interest is in-game advertising, which can take the form of integrating the brand into the game, or of the brand enhancing the game experience for the players.
For advertisers, one of the great attractions of the integration route is that the players often actually want them to be there, rather than seeing them as an annoying intrusion.
“Brands have not had much role in social gaming so far,” explains de Halleux. “But they are becoming much more important as players seek more realism in games. For example, we have a game called Restaurant City, and there is a strong pull from the player community to get more brands involved. It’s similar to the development of video games ten years ago; as games evolve, brands tend to surface.”
De Halleux gives the example of a Coca-Cola campaign in Restaurant City just before Christmas last year.
“The week before Christmas, players had access to a Coke vending machine, so they could give Coke to their guests. For Coke, it was part of the holiday spirit. For players, it gave them a benefit in the game.”
De Halleux likens this approach, known as sponsored virtual goods, to product placement in films. And it isn’t restricted to the virtual world.
“For Valentine’s Day last year, we did a campaign in our game Pet Society in which players could buy a virtual rose for their Valentine. It was done with online flower vendor FTD, and it offered players the choice of giving someone a real flower and having the virtual flower as a by-product. We sold millions of virtual roses and tens of thousands of real roses, but you have to be careful to find the right, contextually relevant product.”
This note of caution is echoed by Adam Yates, sales director EMEA for games media company Wild Tangent. He points out that, although a number of brands have looked to integrate themselves into games, you can’t target your audience by location. This can be a problem with using social games to promote movies if they’re not released globally at the same time.
“The same is true if the offers you’ve got don’t match across the world. That’s the sort of thing that gets you burned in the blogs.”
De Halleux agrees.
“There are very few brands that can fulfil globally, although as a company we have global reach,” he says. “This means there’s a big opportunity for e-retailers to get involved, and also for anyone who’s got a product that can be distributed digitally.”
Yates is another who backs the sponsored virtual goods route for brands. According to him, it works because brands offer players items they’d normally have to earn virtual currency or complete tasks to acquire.
“The offer is made in the game,” Yates explains. “Players opt in, and to get the item they have to watch an advertising message, typically an interstitial ad, then they get the virtual item dropped into their game.”
But Yates warns advertisers against creating custom items for games.
“It’s better not to shoe-horn your brand into the game. Brands should only do custom items if they fit with the game, the way Green Giant did with Farmville.”
There’s another advantage for brands using social gaming, at least in its early stages – the fact that they exist in the social space.
“Social games get a lot of earned media attention,” says de Halleux. “Conversations happen outside the game in social media. They are very visible to non-players of the game.”
Evans at Xbox, too, sees this as a big advantage: “The viral nature of these games in terms of earned media from secondary exposure from status updates and ’shares’ means that doing it right reaps incredible return on investment for media spend,” he says.
“Our learnings for social games are: keep it simple, keep it fun, make it easy to share and make it very rewarding. More rewards means more updates on social site, means more earned media exposure.”
brand in the spotlight
Conspiracy for good
A developing theme in social gaming is the re-emergence of genuinely social games; those that are played by groups of people. Last summer Nokia developed a hugely ambitious experiment in that space, combining social gaming with flash mobs, mobile content and social responsibility.
The Conspiracy For Good emerged out of a conversation in Hollywood between Nokia’s head of services, Tero Ojanpera, and Tim Kring, creator of hit TV show Heroes. At the time Nokia was developing its Ovi content and app store and Ojanpera asked Kring if he would be interested in developing content for Ovi.
“Heroes talked a lot about changing the world, but as fiction,” explains Kring. “I had been working on an idea for a narrative that would spill out into the real world and create positive change. I brought that idea to Nokia and matched it with the idea of creating content for the Ovi store.”
In return, Nokia opened up all its technology to allow Kring a new platform to tell his story. The result was what Kring calls Social Benefit Storytelling, and its first incarnation was the Conspiracy For Good. It told the story of a library planned for a village in Zambia which had its books stolen in transit. A young man from the village came to London to try to find out what had happened, then disappeared, leaving only some video footage. The online audience was then asked to solve the mystery. The first three months’ activity took place online, in an alternate reality game and three casual mobile games, while in the final four weeks the game moved onto the streets of London every Saturday to play itself out using Nokia technology in a giant scavenger hunt.
For Kring, a key factor was the realisation for brands that the link with an audience is very easily broken, and that the way to maintain it is authenticity.
“Nokia was very good about allowing this to be attached to them in a very subtle way,” he says.
“Our success measures were that we wanted a real tent-pole piece of exclusive content for Ovi, and we got that,” explains Kasey Farrar, Nokia’s global communications manager. “We wanted to create a couple of casual games for download to advance the narrative, and we got just short of 1 million downloads. And we wanted to highlight the different opportunities available through Nokia and Ovi, not just to consumers but also to developers and storytellers.”
top trends 2010/11 predictions
Head of media EMEA, Xbox
2010 was a defining year for social gaming, as the category appeared to fulfil its promise of delivering scalable economic value from the maturing global social network infrastructures. There will certainly have been many more branded failures in this territory than the much-trumpeted success stories of Volvo, McDonald’s or Disney, and so I would urge caution in any potential experimentation in this area. Every marketer will need to address the challenge of how their brand genuinely will make a difference to the gamer. Expecting audiences to migrate from the ’” destinations will be a tall order for most brands, and so avenues such as in-game advertising and branded content via partnerships with existing players offer a safer way to explore the potential of social gaming environments.
Beyond that, ask yourself how you can mirror the attributes and motivations exhibited through gaming, such as points, rewards and competition, so that consumers can interact with your brand through their usual touchpoints – a call centre, CRM campaign, or packaging – but receive an unexpected and entertaining social gaming experience without actually playing a social game in its formal definition. That would really begin to change the category for the benefit of brands and consumers.
Vice-president marketing, McDonald’s UK
The social gaming space will become even more crowded in 2011. For brands to stand out, they’ll need to find smart ways to engage, entertain and reward their fans. Successful brands will remember that creating a digital buzz is important, but they’ll also focus relentlessly on the actual customer experience – whether that’s online or on the high street. A great strategy is only as good as its execution.
At McDonald’s, we’ll continue to use our Flavourhood platform, which is a long-term platform on Facebook that can be used for year-round promotional activity with the aim of driving brand affinity with users through simple, easy and entertaining ideas, to bring a sense of fun and excitement to our loyal fans.
Business leader, Procter & Gamble Team Innovation
Social gaming is now a serious consideration for marketing investment within the digital and wider communication channels alongside other gaming opportunities such as dynamic and integrated gaming. Procter & Gamble has had a number of successes with social gaming right across our broad portfolio of brands, from Herbal Essences to Duracell to Pringles. The most successful have been fully integrated with a wider communication strategy, and engage the gamer both from an entertainment and product education angle. A focus on the core product benefit is key within the creative as we strive to stay on equity without delving into areas where the gamer would find our brands overly disruptive or irrelevant to the gaming experience.