Commentary

Marketing Innovation Sorely Needed in Video Games

A lot has been written lately about the disappearing 18 to 34 year-old men. As time goes by, I expect we're going to see continued deterioration of younger audiences in general - they're going to become a lot tougher to reach through tried-and-true media like TV and radio. They're still consuming media, but through a greater number of channels, making it tougher to rely on what consumer marketers have relied upon in the past.

One medium that seems to be soaking up young people is video games. (Actually, from a composition standpoint, video games are hitting a lot of older folks, too, but coverage-wise, it's very much an important medium to the younger set.) People are spending tons of time with both PC and console-based games and very few marketers are taking advantage of this fact. What's even more amazing is the investment that gamers are making in their hobby. A good console game will set a player back $50-60 dollars. Many gamers are also paying monthly fees to play games online, particularly in the realm of MMORPG's (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) like Everquest and the Sims. In this genre of gaming, players are paying to log into huge communities of other players in order to interact with one another.

It's mystifying to see that mainstream marketers haven't done much experimentation in this medium. Gamers can spend hundreds of hours interacting with a single game, working toward finishing it or simply building up their game characters. Following the eyeballs just seems a natural reaction to the widespread defection of people to the channel. But why hasn't that happened in a big way? It probably has something to do with the lack of proven models in the category.

The first video game program that I can remember that was flagrantly commercial was Kool-Aid's program to distribute their "Kool-Aid Man" game cartridge for the Atari 2600 and Intellivision. I count myself among the geeks who saw the game on the back of a tub of Kool-Aid and sent away for it, only to find out that the game was, well, decidedly lame. But in the end, I did pay for a game that was centered on a corporate mascot, I did spend time playing it, and it did make some impression on me. Back then, we didn't even have Internet connectivity through game consoles like we do now, so there was very little chance that Kool-Aid's marketing people could have reliably gauged usage of the product.

But we have that now. There's no good reason why a marketer couldn't distribute a game through tested channels (like bundling them with gaming magazines), measure its usage, and get people to spend time interacting with a brand. While some marketers are paying game developers for product placement, I haven't seen anyone completely underwrite the cost of a game and distribute it at no- or low-cost to end users. Imagine the flow of gamers to a corporate website if it offered a free download of a good quality PC game, or a way to send away for a console game with proofs of purchase and a small fee to cover shipping and handling. Marketers could track interaction with the game when it connects to the Internet.

Or maybe a marketer could sponsor only the live connectivity portion of an existing game. Wouldn't it be cool if Sims players could have their monthly access fees waived in exchange for playing on a Unilever or P&G server where all the products used during the course of the game come from that marketer?

Brand marketers are going to need to look into this channel seriously. And they're going to need to employ agencies and consultants that can execute programs in the medium. Otherwise, the increased fragmentation of younger audiences will catch up to them and they won't reach as much of the target as they need to in order to grow their business.

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