Real Brand Opportunities In A Virtual Economy

Chances are, a good portion of your target audience is actively engaged in online games. And if they're there, you should be there, too.

Gamers are not passive observers; they're active and motivated participants. Brands have a chance to be part of that experience -- often in the very moment when players are willing to give something to get ahead in the game. This is a level of attention that few, if any, other media can offer.

People who play online games are willing to take actions, like watch a commercial and then answer some questions, or might choose to fill out a market research survey in between gameplay, in exchange for a virtual item or currency.

Casual and social online games -- played on Facebook, Yahoo Games and many other websites that offer them -- are increasingly popular with a wide swath of online users. Likewise, more and more brands are present, discovering a way to connect with people who want to earn points or advance their gameplay -- motivated enough to give some of their focused attention to advertising messages and even going a step further: giving feedback.



There are a few different ways brands can engage in the gaming experience, depending on the interaction desired: display ads or videos, either within or around the games; cost-per-action (CPA) offers that let players earn virtual currency for taking a particular action; and sponsored/branded virtual goods, a sort of product placement for online games.

There are compelling reasons to make your brand part of the virtual economy:

  • Online game publishers enjoy massive scale. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 68% of American households play computer or video games. The top 10 Facebook game publishers have 140 million active daily users combined, as reported at Zynga's games alone attract roughly 65 million daily active users and 225 million monthly active users.
  • The demographic is wide -- online games are not just for boys. The ESA reports that 40% of all players are women, and women over 18 years of age are one of the industry's fastest-growing demographics. Today, adult women represent a greater portion of the game-playing population (34%) than boys age 17 or younger (18%).
  • The viral nature of games is a huge benefit for your brand. People typically play games more than once, and often share the games they like with their friends. In a Blockdot poll of casual game players, conducted in October 2008, 74% of respondents said that if they play a game title once, they will play it an additional four or five times, and 67% said they pass along game links to their friends or challenge them to beat their high scores.
  • Games drive results, often more effectively than regular display ads. ValueClick reports a typical click-through rate (CTR) of 0.5% for its display ads, while the online gaming offer industry has seen ads deliver CTRs higher than 10%. Even without a completion, impressions are being rendered.

How to Play

But with so many games and ad networks competing for your advertising dollars, how do you choose your partners?

The key is in knowing your audience and where they play, and finding the games or networks that can help you create a presence there in a way that makes sense for you and for your audience.

It's not always enough to find the publisher or network that can promise access to your coveted demographic. Find partners who can demonstrate they:

  • Know how to place your ads or offers where they'll get the most attention;
  • Know how to merchandize those ads to maximize response rates; and
  • Have a proven record of quality and enjoy the confidence of their players and other advertisers.

Here are some things to look for:

Find partners who promote offers in a positive way, where recurrence of participation with valid information is rewarded. With a robust reward system in place -- virtual currency in exchange for completing a survey with successful information, for example -- the publisher or network should consistently deliver legitimate customer leads.

Find partners who inspire confidence and trust among their players and their advertisers. In return, be a trusted partner. Ad networks have their own reputations to manage, as well, and the good ones will work hard to filter out any questionable offers from advertisers that might not be forthcoming (asking a user to sign up for a membership trial that is then hard to cancel, for example). Insist on transparency from your partners, and provide it in return. Monitor your own metrics to determine how the offers or ads are being received. If unusually large numbers of people are abandoning the action mid-way through, that might be a sign that players don't like what they see when they get further into the action.

On the same note -- make sure the ad or offer messaging is clear, so players know exactly what they will receive by interacting with offers. This helps increase participation when they see how easy it can be to accumulate virtual currency by taking your desired action, and in turn reduces incompletes and fosters trust.

From social gamers to devoted MMO shooters, users have distinct profiles based on gaming habits, offering a huge value for ad targeting. Find publisher and network partners who can give you detailed audience demographics and analytics. Ask for specific examples of how they've been able to react to player trends by shifting ad placement to enhance results.

Look for partners who offer you a way to truly stand out, by displaying certain ads outside of the existing or standard ad container, in prominent locations and with high interaction potential. Think about a wide variety of ads and ad units so that all types of users will be shown something suited just for them. Creating easy-to-complete offers to be presented in the early stages of gameplay is a successful way to earn users' trust and build repetitive behavior. Work with your partners and the data available to figure out the best strategy and expected results.

Casual and social focused games are serious business for advertisers looking for opportunities to boost their bottom line. Know how to connect with your audience in a medium in which they are comfortable and active, and the virtual economy will turn real profits for your brand.

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