It’s a strange time for brands. Once-upon-a-time you could plan out your digital strategy by getting a website and maybe even a Flash-powered micro-site just for that product you are pushing.
Or, maybe you could even have a mobile application that would require the user to jump through 15 hoops to see something, well, distinctly underwhelming.
Then things started to change through large consolidated websites, allowing brands to engage with their audiences on a deeper level - social networks. At first it was cool to see a brand on Facebook, then by following your brand you could get access to some exclusive competitions, and because entries were relatively low, you actually had a real chance to win.
Now, things are moving again, your favourite brand has spammed your wall with often banal messages, you no longer have a chance of winning competitions and there are too many followers making you part of the crowd rather than the inside fan. We need to make customers feel they are wanted.
I find digital platforms have provided excellent ways of engagement but often can fatigue users, especially as the digital lifespan is usually quite short - do users want to invest their time in a platform that may not last?
Despite these platforms providing the base for two-way conversations between themselves and their audience, I think there are other ways to engage and excite.
Video games have a huge potential to bridge the engagement gap. Games have become a standard throughout our lives; core computer game fans are no longer sweaty pariahs in society, but are informed, socially aware and have a disposable income.
With the gaming demographic extending its span due to Facebook social games such as Farmville - 20 million monthly active users, 60% female with an average age of 43 - brands have a powerful way of interacting; the rise of casual games as a form of engagement is an opportunity not to be missed.
However, the disconnection between most brands and gaming is vast, especially considering how aligned the platforms can be.
Often brands do not understand what makes a good game, and game developers don’t understand what makes a good brand. This is where a convergence between brand agencies and game developers should be key.
For instance, I’m still amazed by the lack of engagement with car brands and racing games. Eons ago, I helped build a simple PC racing game for a well known car maker costing £300k - now that may sound a lot, but after receiving 10 million unique visitors to their site it was a huge win. Not only that, most car makers expect to license their cars to racing titles and often miss out on an extensive audience.
Some brands - for example BMW - understand the opportunity. Over the past couple of years I have seen BMW showcase its products through AAA console racing games; I mean, what could be better than driving a virtual BMW then getting in the real thing.
It also didn’t restrict itself to the console; its advergame BMW xDrive Challenge had at its peak 6,000 daily players with a peak of 90,000 a month.
BMW seemingly has a handle on the power of gaming and understand how brand alignment with a rich gaming perspective enhances its brand perception with a core audience. Now to really impact, I would like to see more consolidation, integrating game play deeper into its existing social channels; creating game competitions and broadcast to drive traffic to experiential events.
Now, let’s have a look at game building, a different beast to digital production. Firstly make sure you are working with people who know how to build games (games studios), they will also have the contacts with publishers who will help provide visibility for the game, otherwise you are all alone.
Then, identify the correct platform, 90% of the time mobile due to cost of entry. Make sure it is good - a flippant remark I know as there are several factors, but would you play it?
Build in longevity, this can be done by building games that allow you to share easily with friends, provide more random elements (physics based games) which ensure gameplay is not repeated and finally keep gameplay simple.
Identify opportunities to socially seed and do not make in-game branding too in-your-face’ - gamers are clever, they have tried hundreds of games and being subtle is the route to success.
Different markets require different games: Asia and the West like different gametypes, they also like different mechanics - for instance, in the US gamers feel it is acceptable to buy a bigger gun (pay to win) whereas in Asia this is not the done thing.
Platform measurement, something still largely underestimated by brands. I have seen clients excited with 5,000 unique visitors on their website for their procured Flash game, when really they should be looking at 250,000 downloads on the app store - this expectation needs to be adjusted. Make sure you build a game where the market is!
Right, maybe something you didn’t think of: gaming pays. Any commissioned game can provide a healthy financial return - you may even make the next Angry Birds. Ok, it's expensive to build a quality game,for instance mobile games are having higher and higher production values, the days of one developer and one artist producing a hit are rapidly diminishing (still does happen though).
Now, spending £150-200k on a mobile game would be quite good value for most game publishers, as long as it fits within an eco-system that will be certain to generate income.
In the case for brands, unlike many games you shouldn’t charge for download as you want maximum uptake. However, you can create games with social hooks which will promote in-game micro-transactions, this is where as a brand you can recoup your investment and increase the engagement considerably as users spend much more time with a compelling game.
But don’t think you have to build a game to engage with the casual gamer, partnerships with established games are powerful, in-game items that can perform a boost to gameplay and that are branded are easy wins.
For instance, let’s say a certain running shoe makes you perform slightly faster, gamers will align performance with the brand or product, and sometimes pay for it. Or consider brand placement: when Zynga can guarantee a billion views on a game, why not pay to build a virtual house within CityVille for instance, that gives users rewards.
Consolidation is key, by using gaming elements to power awareness, experiential togenerate conversation and digital (social+web) to bind the content together, this can be the route to a sustained and successful campaign.