Some of today's most advanced online marketing strategies are being applied in the video game industry. The digital environment is the perfect space to market a digital product, and the male youth target had been difficult to reach before they all congregated on the web.
The powerful combination of digital advertising for a digital product in a digital environment has meant that game marketers have a greater ability to measure the effectiveness of their advertising, tracking at least some portion of sales and customer lifetime values in ways that are still elusive to other marketers. Video game marketers strive to build their brands but can also measure the real-world effectiveness of, and return, on their online advertising with the detail and precision of direct marketers. This has yielded data that have changed the way we approach brand marketing.
Here are a few things we've learned in our experience working with some of the leading gaming brands in the world.
In the last half-dozen years, the gaming market has changed dramatically. What has been traditionally the domain of young males has expanded greatly. Online games, social games, and mobile games have significantly expanded the audience. Today, somewhere around 60 to 70 percent of all Americans play video games. In social gaming, women make up the majority of players. These new female players are as passionate as, or more passionate than, their male antecedents. According to a 2011 study by Doritos, the majority of women stated they preferred online gaming over shopping or sex.
In a short period, the media universe for our clients changed dramatically. Traditional media outlets to reach gamers were still important for a segment of the market, but many new players entered the mix. Traditional audience metrics, demographics, and psychographics proved to be instructive as an initial guide to media planning, but the true value of media could only be judged by experimentation. Two major media outlets targeting nearly identical audiences with similar creative executions and costs could have dramatically different effects on sales. Maddeningly, these discrepancies in media performance are not always consistent, and every buy provides new insights.
Running an ad campaign with a single style of execution is like putting all your retirement savings in a single stock. Creative diversification is a relatively inexpensive cost compared to media budgets, and a properly optimized creative mix can multiply the effectiveness of your media spend several times over. But few advertisers embrace this approach, despite the proven results.
One area that has been particularly effective is interactivity and gaming within ad units themselves. Everyone likes to take a break and "play," if only to see what's new, different, and entertaining on the web. We've all heard that "engagement is the new reach," but while raw reach numbers will always remain important, engagement analytics are quickly catching up as an equally significant metric. And, if engagement is assessed based on the length of time a user interacts with an ad, what's more engaging than a game?
Entertainment and consumer packaged goods (CPG) marketers are already on to this, and while promotional microsite games are losing ground to Facebook executions, creating an immediate opportunity to play around within a display ad is a compelling, measurable, and creative strategy that establishes a positive emotional association with a brand.
Of course, this approach can be abused with negative consequences. The "gamification" of brands can only be effective if there's some inherent element of competitive discovery of a relevant outcome. The user should be rewarded with a benefit tantamount to the brand experience, which is easier for video games as the brand experience is play.
Often, by the time one of our campaigns finishes, we will only be using half the sites with which we initially started. There may be several additional sites added that were not part of the initial mix. Why, after doing this for over a decade, with hundreds of gaming campaigns under our belt, can't we accurately predict what sites will perform the best with anything better than 50 percent accuracy?
Agencies love to say that "every campaign is different," but few act as if this were truly the case. Every campaign is different, not because the media plans change, but for the same reason Heraclitus said you can never step in the same river twice: "All entities move and nothing remains still." This is especially true of the gaming-media landscape and customer base. It is also increasingly true of all marketing efforts.
Most agencies work to create and execute on a single media plan with the expectation that it will be successful based on past experience. In the gaming space, because there is so much change, we approach buys with both plans and contingency plans, and look at the constant change as part of the process, rather than the result of failure.
While the historical definition of gamers as geeky kids may be inaccurate, the future of advertising looks very geeky. Our media departments need to act like scientists and researchers, treating each campaign as a new experiment. In our creative departments, skilled programmers are taking their places alongside designers and copywriters.
Strategy and execution are no longer etched in stone. The days of simply establishing creative and media plans then executing them are over. Direct marketers have always known that every marketing effort yields two things: sales and information. What doesn't work is as illuminating as what does. It's not unusual to test a dozen creative approaches at once, across hundreds of relevant sites. Online advertising programs are simultaneously research projects. Optimizing target audience identification, creative effectiveness, and media efficiencies are all baked into execution.
Will Akerlof is president and co-founder of Liquid Advertising.
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"Computer gaming at internet cafe" image via Shutterstock.
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