Editor's note: Julie Shumaker, senior vice president of sales and marketing for DoubleFusion and a source for this article, will be a speaker at iMedia's Breakthrough summit March 16 through March 19 in Rancho Mirage, California. Request an invitation.
Someday it will be a textbook case in Marketing 101: How 7-Eleven managed to sell Slurpees in a virtual world.
Last November's announcement by the convenience store chain that it would start selling Nexon Game Cards to teen- and 'tween-aged fans of the mega-multi-player video game MapleStory signaled an attempt to bridge the growing gap between virtual-world consumption and traditional retail. The cards can be redeemed for virtual in-game accessories like clothes, pets or hip haircuts, cutting out the need for mom's credit card. Players can also visit a virtual in-game 7-Eleven store and, perhaps, sip a Slurpee.
With millions of users all over the world, MapleStory is a high-value marketing channel in the booming world of casual gaming. But there are plenty of other gaming channels with varying demographics, reach and ad-content potential.
The premier titles in console games like "Test Drive Unlimited" and "Battlefield 2142" offered on console game platforms or a PC are accessible through in-game advertising networks like Massive and Double Fusion. Or many brands are using advergaming, which are games developed especially for brand sites and their target demographic. Each type of game advertising has advantages when considering target audience, time schedule and cost. But they all have huge potential for reaching the consumer, says Julie Shumaker, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Double Fusion.
"Advertisers who are trying to reach the consumer in games have to recognize the importance of the game to the player," Shumaker says. "The teenager playing World of Warcraft for 19 hours a month is no more engrossed than the 40-year-old woman playing solitaire on Pogo.com for the same amount of time."
Billboard or battlefield?
Building a virtual 7-Eleven store into a game requires a coordinated effort between the brand and the game's developer and hence more time. Many brands instead choose two-dimensional billboard ads or posters that are easily inserted into games.
Intel, for example, spotlights its message on buildings in the futuristic "Battlefield 2142."
In Atari's "Test Drive Unlimited," automakers feature their latest sports models in virtual dealerships where gamers can customize the vehicles before taking them out for a spin.
And in Kuma Game's "DinoHunters," a 3D version of the crashed airplane in the ABC series "Lost" is part of the backdrop.
More complex branding worked for Burger King when it placed a three-dimensional King in Electronic Arts' "Fight Night" but the chain also had runaway success selling a boxed version of its own casual game at its restaurants.
Online versions of Hearst Media's magazines offer advergames like "Editor’s Assistant" that emphasize the brand's reader demographics and interests.
So what's the best game for your brand to play?
A big plus on the advergaming side is time. Casual game producers like New York-based Arkadium can "reskin" a game and place it on a brand's site within a week, says Jessica Rovello, the company's chairman. Arkadium, which developed content for Hearst, National Geographic and Mattel, among others, has a portfolio of games that can be matched to a product or a target audience. For Mattel for example, the company designed a complex, 30-games-in-one virtual world for the toy company's U.B. Funkeys collector toys.
For client Suave, Arkadium used a Match 3 game that showed the product. "For a site that targets women you can't go wrong with a mahjongg game or a spider solitaire game," says Rovello.
Indeed, while graphically complex console games like the Xbox 360's "Need for Speed" appeal to dedicated, mostly male gamers, easy-to-learn casual games are the growing purview of women, report game developers. "(The games) are a great stress reliever," explains Rovello.
Nevertheless, in-game ad networks like Massive say the popularity of their console game titles insures greater gamer involvement. Male gamers spend 12 to 20 hours per week on average playing their favorite games, says Alison Lange Engel, Massive's global marketing director. Console game developers are also rapidly moving into family-oriented, social gaming like Activision's "Guitar Hero," which reportedly appeals to a wider demographic. "Our business has really grown around the content," says Lange Engel.
Getting in the game
The potential in video game advertising continues to grow as developers seek more fans with free, downloadable, ad-supported games. Internet-connected games for the PC mean dynamic advertising -- or ads that can be constantly updated while the game is being played -- will become cheaper and easier. Matching different versions of an ad to different geographic areas, more narrowly targeting ads to different user demographics, and interactive ads are increasingly the rule in video game advertising.
"I think the growth is in scalability," says Double Fusion's Shumaker. "The innovation in our business is the business model that can hone in with even greater detail on the ad format."
Advertising in mobile games is also growing up fast. Ad-supported downloadable mobile games are becoming more sophisticated as handsets advance. eBay, for example, was featured in a soccer game developed by Israel-based innerActive Smart Media, which works with telecom operators and online sites to distribute its games. "Games are becoming more complex while (phone) screens are getting bigger, the memory better and games work faster," says Ziv Elul, co-CEO of innerActive.
What the buy buys
How to best reach gamers depends on the creativity of the developer, ad network and ad agency. And whether a brand's name appears on a roadside sign, a pre-game video or as part of a storyline within the game depends on the brand's campaign, audience and message. While the CPM is going to be higher than for a regular internet banner ad, game advertising can guarantee better returns.
"The guarantee is about CPMs: did that gamer see your ad in the time frame you bought. If you bought one million impressions against young men I could guarantee you'd get one million impressions," says Shumaker.
Meanwhile ad-supported, internet games and advergaming can measure how many people played the game, for how long, and how many times, says Arkadium's Rovello. And because the technology is ubiquitous, requiring just a keyboard and mouse, casual games have a bigger potential audience. In January the New York Times quoted a report from game industry researcher DFC Intelligence stating that advertisers spent about $150 million last year buying space in casual games or on casual game sites, up from $74 million in 2002.
Whether PC or console-controlled games, downloadable or bought off a store shelf, in-game advertising is just beginning to exercise its versatility and strength. "There is a compelling range of opportunities for marketers to connect with their audiences through video games -- there is no silver bullet," concludes Lange Engel.
Mira Schwirtz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer covering the culture and business of technology. Read full bio.