5 rules for integrating ads into social games

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With 56.8 million consumers, or 20 percent of the U.S. population, playing social games (NPD Group), marketers need to have a social game strategy. Unfortunately, most marketers don't know how to successfully integrate their brand message into this incredibly dynamic and personal space. While engaging consumers through social games and turning them into passionate brand advocates is possible, there are certain rules to live by.

In this article, we'll take a look at those rules: Adhering to them will allow marketers to leapfrog the norms of standard media and deliver far more effective, and measureable, social campaigns.

Rule #1: Make it relevant
Connect your ad to the audience in meaningful ways by offering content delivered within the context of the social game. Relevant integration within social gaming drives more traffic to the marketer's website and builds more loyalty than standard banner campaigns.

For example, when Bing advertised in FarmVille, it made the call-to-action relevant to the game's players in two ways: First, it placed sponsored ads in the game directing users to become fans of Bing's Facebook page, mentioning that, "Whether you want to buy a horse or a tree, Bing can help you decide!"; secondly, Bing awarded FarmVille virtual currency to players who became fans of Bing on Facebook. The result? Microsoft gained 400,000 Facebook fans in one day.

Bing was then able to use its Facebook status updates to drive search on Bing. "Any FarmVille fans out there? Try using Bing to get the most out of your crops and animals." By linking that post to Bing search results for "farmville animals," players were encouraged to use Bing instead of Google. And because most Bing Facebook fans that day came in through FarmVille, the update was heavily commented and "liked," increasing viral reach.

Rule #2: Add value
Provide social, competitive and/or game currency benefits. Adding value within social gaming provides far more brand exposure -- as well as deeper and more meaningful loyalty -- than trying to force traditional means into a social environment.

Social games require players to work to achieve benefits. Players "win" by outfitting their avatar or space with items that express their personalities. Before players can acquire their desired virtual goods or achievements, they either have to play the game at length to earn currency, or use real cash to purchase items.

In this context, advertisers get to be the hero, offering virtual goods for free or providing a competitive edge within the social game. The brand or property that provides items that are creative, popular, or attractive enough to spur user interest also "wins" by engaging consumers to opt-in as brand ambassadors.

For example, when organic brand Cascadian Farm teamed up with Zynga to become the first-ever branded crop on FarmVille, they provided a range of bonus benefits to players. In addition to providing the opportunity to quickly enhance their farms, players received coupon offers, as well as organic farming and green living tips. During the week-long partnership, branded Cascadian Farm organic blueberry crops was the most profitable FarmVille crop offered in the game, to beginner and expert FarmVille players.

Rule #3: Give choices, but never interrupt
The user did not show up to see your ad. Make ads a part of the experiences that they have already chosen to participate in, and let them choose to engage. By providing compelling choices, marketers can achieve rates of engagement that are never possible with standard media.

For instance, a recent anti-smoking campaign by Truth (American Legacy Foundation) let WeeWorld users choose to engage by completing a quest or taking a quiz. By doing so, the users earned goods, currency and trophies (the elements they most desire within social game.). In addition, these activities provided entertainment without getting in the way of what users had logged into the site to do in the first place -- express themselves and chat with friends. By following the rules, Truth generated 236 million viral impressions in two months, engaged users to complete 26,000 quests and download 607,000 virtual goods.