For six weeks (or so) in July and August, the American (and even global) public was consumed with capturing Pikachus, Zubats and Jigglypuffs. And marketers were salivating at the possibilities of capturing these gamers while they were out and about.
There had been augmented reality games before. Even Niantic, the Google-spun-off company behind Pokemon Go, had created their own game, Ingress, in 2012, that also melded the real world with an enhanced one.
But it was Pokemon Go that caught on.
Maybe it was the Pokemon brand’s 20th anniversary (heralded in a 2016 Super Bowl commercial), or the social features that allowed users to share pictures of Pokemon living in real-world locations. Or maybe it was just a quirk of the calendar — people looking for something to do in the summer. Whatever the reason, the game’s success caught everyone by surprise, even its creators.
“We knew it would perform well; we didn’t expect it to go viral the way it did,” Archit Bhargava, global marketing manager at Niantic, told MediaPost.
By all measures, the game was an unabashed success. Two months after its release, the game had been installed 500 million times — 50 times more than Niantic had initially predicted in its best-case scenario. It reaped huge revenues from gamers making in-app purchases, becoming the fastest game ever to make $500 million, according to market researcher App Annie.
Consumers took to social media to show off pictures of their captured Pokemon, traded tips and trips, and met new friends while venturing out to PokeStops and taking down PokeGyms.
“It was a combination of a well-built game with novel mechanics that took people out and about. At the core was the Pokemon brand,” Bhargava says. “A lot of people were out playing the games, [and they] became walking billboards in a way,”
As with any viral success, marketers began looking for ways to monetize these wandering consumers.
Articles about how to take advantage of one’s proximity to PokeStops flooded the Internet, like dropping Pokemon lures or offering deals to gamers from certain teams. Brands like Stonyfield yogurt and Zipcar reportedly tried to capitalize on the Pokemon craze by creating game-adjacent promotions — such as advertising on apps people used concurrent with the game, or offering rides to PokeStops).
“We were well aware [of its marketing potential] from the beginning,” Bhargava says, relaying the story of a Portland ice cream store on the verge of closing that was saved by using his proximity to a Poke-stop to attract gamers. “What surprised us was how the small and local businesses saw the potential of the game.”
Though buzz and game play have dropped off since the summer, Niantic sees the game’s marketing value moving forward. After launching updates that included buddy pairings and a Halloween-themed live event, the company announced its latest game update in December, which — in addition to featuring more catchable Pokemon — also included partnerships with brands such as Starbucks and Sprint. (The brands’ stores will become PokeStops and PokeGyms.)
This follows an initiative in Japan that did the same with McDonald’s. The updates are part of a five-to-10-year plan to keep players engaged.
“[Sponsored locations] were something we tried before with Ingress,” Bhargava says. “Advertisers can tap into [the game] and make promotions a part of that [to] enhance the experience. We’re excited and humbled by the reaction we got, and we’re not trying to take anything for granted.”
Moving forward, it’s likely other brands and tech companies will look to Pokemon Go’s success for their marketing plans. That means we could soon be flooded with gaming apps that also lure people into areas where they become somewhat captive and engaged audiences. For its part, Niantic welcomes the competition.
“This is still the early stages of real-world gaming,” Bhargava says. “We’d welcome more people doing this and trying to prove this category out.”