What’s Next: Social Game Marketing

by Ryon Harms on December 20, 2010

I was asked to write a book proposal on social game marketing. I ultimately had to turn down the offer, but I thought you might get something out of  what I started to write for the proposal below.

Does somebody you love waste every spare moment on FarmVille? Your loved one isn’t playing alone. More than 200 million people around the world spend countless hours exchanging gifts and raising barns together in simple yet addicting social games like FarmVille and Millionaire City. These games have proven to be so immersive that social gaming recently surpassed email as the second most popular activity on the web. So if consumers are spending more time on social games than on email, why aren’t brands doing the same?

Don’t let the cute and approachable avatars in social games fool you. Social gaming is a booming industry that’s expected to generate in excess of $6 billion by 2013. More than 20 percent of the U.S. population is playing social games, but they’re not your stereotypical 13-year old boys wearing out their controller thumbs in Mom’s basement.

It turns out the most committed player of social games is also the king maker when it comes to key purchases for the home and family – Mom. If want to reach Mom in an uncluttered marketing environment where she’s deeply committed and highly engaged, you might not consider those virtual farms such a waste of time after all.

What Makes a Game Social?

Social gaming is the natural progression from social networking. While social networking brings friends together, the best social games are the ones that help those friends create and build deeper relationships. What separates social games from other multi-player games and the single-player gaming set is the real world social resonance of their activities. At their best, social games hold the promise of allowing us to have a little fun together while simultaneously creating meaning.

Who Has Time for Social Games?

What if I told you that the average age of a social gamer is… 48? Several studies have shown that the average social gamer might actually be your target demographic. And among these 40-year-olds, 90% reported the same or increased game play over the last three months. Where are they finding the time? Well, they’re spending less time reading books and magazines and even less time watching TV or going to the movies. The image of a 50 year-old sitting at home playing games “alone” might sound sad to some, but in reality social games might actually be the more socially astute activity.

Planning Social Game Marketing

Game developers won’t let you mess with their franchise games enough to disrupt the fun. Your goal will be to push the interests of your brand, but with a keen understanding that changing the game in a way that suspends disbelief in game play will have a negative impact on your brand. To save yourself some time and disappointment from getting turned down by a developer for an in-game promotion, you should consider these three points:

  • Find a game that best represents your brand. If you’re an association for the advancement of women, don’t start a campaign on Mafia Wars. If you make products for kitchens or restaurants, then Cafe World might be a fantastic option.
  • Have a deep understanding of the game itself. Start an account, get into it for a few weeks and ask your friends that play the game why they love it so much.
  • Understand the gamers mentality. Where are they deriving value from the game? How can you add a little steroids to that value to make your brand the hero?

How to Deliver Value

As great game developers like Greg Thompson will tell you, “The game is just the engine to acquire and retain users, the money is made from the creative goods.” The same holds true for marketing. The currency used to purchase creative goods in games is called Virtual Currency. Virtual currency is purchased with real world currency and it’s a market with unbelievable growth. Starting just a few years ago, it is expected to be a $6 billion dollar industry by 2013.

Players are so committed to their games that they’re willing to exchange real money for virtual currency used to purchase items like a $20 tractor in FarmVille. Players make these purchases to make their own game lives easier and sometimes they give them away to friends as gifts. Marketers have a very attractive opportunity to work with game developers, who enjoy immense profit margins, to purchase creative digital items in bulk that have a high perceived value to the end user.

If there’s one thing most gamers love, social or not, it’s what I call little white cheats. Little white cheats don’t change the long-term fundamentals of the game. They are short cuts that make life slightly easier and give the player some immediate relief from the pressures of the game. Stress relief is actually why 45% of social gamers play (according to a recent study by ISG), which is ironic when you consider that playing social games can actually be quite stressful as you try to keep up with the pressures of game play.

As a marketer, your job should be to figure out ways to position your brand as the hero by providing these harmless, but sought after little white cheats that lighten the stress load- something that can’t be done so easily in real life.

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