Online Games, Marketing and Engagement – What Marketers Miss About FarmVille

Wide engagement with FarmVille and similar online games is the biggest web phenomenon of 2010. And while many marketers are tyring to learn from online games, most don’t really understand what’s behind the appeal.

Wide consumer engagement with FarmVille and similar online games is the biggest web phenomenon of 2010. And while I’ve read periodic stories and blog posts about advergames and what marketers can learn from online games, most of the writers don’t really get what’s behind the appeal of gaming. Customization and avatars and collecting and bragging are the big takeaways, then they’ll give the real point a quick aside at the end: games reward players for time spent. They offer a particularly fun type of engagement, and give players a reward for engaging in it.

The big secret is simply that they’re fair. The more you put in, the more you get out. It’s no coincidence online games boom while employment busts.

That’s important to understand when you’re trying to adapt games or even just game concepts to your marketing. Things like avatar customization, bragging rights and collectibles are really just subcategories of rewards, and focusing on somehow implementing customizable avatar and collectibles and letting shoppers build their very own custom princess pillow fort on your site is exactly the kind of pie-in-the-sky takeaway that can derail good ideas. They’re just different types of rewards. You spend some — or a lot of — time engaging in a fun little diversion, and at the end you get a reward.

But games reward players for their time in many ways. The most basic is that they get better at the game. It sounds stupidly self-fulfilling, but Pac-Man doled out precious little besides keeping score and showing a leader board, and people spent months of their lives engaging with those machines to get better at them.

Games today almost always give players a little something extra. Perhaps the reward is that you progressed in the game and feel some sense of accomplishment, or see more of an interesting story (games are incredible storytelling tools). Perhaps it’s collectibles and customizables that let you show off that progress to others with some flare, or in-game rewards that make your character better at the game. Perhaps you get to interact with friends at a time you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to, or have a new hobby to talk to them about.

The most successful games, like World of Warcraft, dish out hundreds of varieties of rewards: players progress, see more of an entertaining story, explore secret areas, find collectibles, earn bragging rights, build social networks … it’s practically Pavlovian.

So when you’re looking at games as a way to market your product, or just trying to find some new insight into your consumers, remember that’s it’s all about the rewards. And then you can start to think about games as a real marketing tool.

If you build an advergame, why not tie promotional offers to in-game achievements? Beat the game, get a coupon. It’s the simplest game marketing idea in the world, but no one’s doing it.

Or why not offer rewards on your site that mimic rewards players find in games? Imagine what your customers are going to say when someone finds out that putting two specific items in a shopping cart is rewarded with a secret discount? Or if after loading X number of pages on your site, you reward their time with some unannounced free gift with purchase?

Don’t get caught up in the cartoony, sparkly bits of the gaming phenomenon — they’re not the reason games are finding wide appeal. What can your brand offer consumers for playing that others couldn’t, and how can you get them to chase that and have fun at the same time? That’s what marketers can really learn from gaming.

You want engagement? Reward the time customers spend engaging. It’s only fair.

Can You Capitalize on DIY?

If high-end Swarovski Crystal and YouTube marketer Dynomighty can hit home runs with the same marketing strategy, it’s something every online marketer should think about. The strategy in question is do-it-yourself (DIY) community marketing. DIY projects get popular with consumers when times are tight, and are they ever tight now. These very different marketers are both benefitting from the buzz, brand interaction and organic customer rewards that DIY communities create.

If high-end Swarovski Crystal and YouTube marketer Dynomighty can hit home runs with the same marketing strategy, it’s something every online marketer should think about. The strategy in question is do-it-yourself (DIY) community marketing. DIY projects get popular with consumers when times are tight, and are they ever tight now. These very different marketers are both benefitting from the buzz, brand interaction and organic customer rewards that DIY communities create.

Last week I mentioned Dynomighty, which has had great success with earnest, compelling YouTube marketing. The other thing Dynomighty’s hit on is DIY marketing for its Mighty Wallet. The Mighty Wallet is made from Tyvek (often used in express mail envelopes), which, along with being nigh indestructible, is easily written on and decorated. In fact, Dynomighty sells the wallets in various blank colors (in addition to a ton of designs) for buyers to decorate themselves DIY-style, and encourages them through The DIY Mighty Wallet competition on its Facebook page. The first contest has already been won, another one’s launching June 15.

Dynomighty’s DIY contest reinforces a product benefit — the ability to customize its wallets — to get users to follow its Facebook page, and encourages them to make something they’ll want to show to friends. All for the cost of the creative and a $500 shopping spree. That’s great for a small, gorilla e-marketer like Dynomighty, but luxury crystal brand Swarovski Crystal is doing the same thing in a more formal, international way befitting its own reputation.

Create Your Style with Crystalized – Swarovski Elements is Swarovski’s international DIY blitz that combines in-store demonstrations, contests, conventions, tie-in products (namely crystal jewelry design books), social media marketing and other initiatives to promote the Crystalized line of DIY jewelry supplies. From its Facebook page:

“CREATE YOUR STYLE is the global creative community of CRYSTALLIZED™ — Swarovski Elements, the ultimate crystal brand. It connects like-minded people with a passion for expressing themselves through personal design. CREATE YOUR STYLE has devoted itself to the creation of an inspiring and interactive platform where crystal aficionados from all over the world can exchange creative ideas and obtain advice from experts while getting design and style tips as well as information on international competitions and whatever else their creative heart desires!”

The Swarovski product line is specifically made for DIYers, but the strategy is very similar to what Dynomighty is doing: Promote social networks based on the exploration of your product’s benefits, create product evangelists and reward consumers for interacting with your brand. Swarovski puts a lot more money into its program, but both are attracting followers.

It’s a tactic that can be applied to many products at varying levels of resource commitment. If you sell shoes or clothing, challenge customers to customize fashions. If you sell electronics, build a community around installation and optimization. If you sell collectibles, share techniques for users to make their own, and offer supplies to do so. When your product becomes a hobby, enthusiasts become more committed to your brand and they’ll try to spread that fever to like-minded individuals. DIY is really a breed of highly contagious viral marketing.

How can you create a DIY movement among your customers?

5 E-Marketing Lessons from Social Media News Links

“The stories and issues that gain traction in social media differ substantially from those that lead in the mainstream press,” says the Pew Research Center‘s Project for Excellence in Journalism in a recent study, expanded here on Journalism.org. “But they also differ greatly from each other.” These differences highlight traits in these mediums that e-marketers must understand to effectively market through social media channels.

“The stories and issues that gain traction in social media differ substantially from those that lead in the mainstream press,” says the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism in a recent study, expanded here on Journalism.org. “But they also differ greatly from each other.” These differences highlight traits in these mediums that e-marketers must understand to effectively market through social media channels.

1. “Bloggers gravitated toward stories that elicited emotion, concerned individual or group rights, or triggered ideological passion,” according to Pew’s report on the study. Obviously this highlights the partisan boil of recent U.S. politics, but it also exhibits what bloggers want: something to talk about. To have a marketing or PR campaign picked up in the same way, it has to be a conversation starter, something that inspires bloggers and their readers to comment. If you’re going to feed bloggers, make sure there’s meat on the bones.

2. Bloggers gravitate toward newsy items more than opinions. According to Jounalism.org’s expanded report, 83 percent of the news items bloggers link to are news reports, and only 13 percent are opinion pieces. This makes sense when you consider that bloggers want to voice their own opinions on subjects, and are therefore more likely to pick up stories that report — or publicize — core facts about which they can pontificate. Your own opinionated items tend to speak for themselves, and could get picked up by bloggers more to argue against than discuss.

3. For Twitter users, “the mission is primarily about passing along important — often breaking — information in a way that unifies or assumes shared values within the Twitter community.” Twitter is known for its discussions, but it’s not a great discussion space. Updates are fast, widespread, easy to ignore and perfect for passing on actionable information: “Company X is giving away free thingamajigs! LINK. #YourCompany.”

4. YouTube’s “most watched videos have a strong sense of serendipity. They pique interest and curiosity with a strong visual appeal. The ‘Hey, you’ve got to see this,’ mentality rings strong.” However, videos don’t have to be funny or outrageous. Outrageousness can seem like the only videos that go viral because that’s what shows on the web and TV (“Web Soup,” “Tosh.0”) make famous. But any video that’s really interesting can go viral and drive sales. Companies like Dynomighty Design have had success driving whole product campaigns with simple videos showing how cool their products are, such as this video for the company’s magnetic jewelry.

5. “Across all three social platforms … attention spans are brief.” This goes both for the length of the message and the length of time it’ll remain relevant. The majority of top stories remained top stories for no more than three days, especially on Twitter. The study also found that social media picked stories up much more quickly than traditional media. Combined, these traits mean lift can be short from any one message. A marketing or PR message delivered on Sunday and picked up by Tuesday will likely lose its buzz before the weekend.

Are Ads Ubiquitous, Intrusive, Irrelevant and Offensive?

I’m reading “The Next Evolution of Marketing” by Bob Gilbreath, and he delivers an interesting message about how marketing that has meaning is more effective than traditional advertising. However, Gilbreath drives his message home behind a point that consumers are irate at ads and avoid them like deadbeats dodging collections agents. But me, I don’t hate advertising, and I don’t think most people care that much, either.

I’m reading “The Next Evolution of Marketing” by Bob Gilbreath, and he delivers an interesting message about how marketing that has meaning and adds value to consumers’ lives — before they buy anything from you — is more effective than traditional advertising. It’s an interesting book I’ll probably talk about more in a couple weeks.

However, Gilbreath drives his message home behind a point that consumers are irate at ads and avoid them like deadbeats dodging collections agents. He sharpens this attack with facts and stats such as 76% of Americans joined the National Do Not Call Registry, most people who own a DVR skip commercials, and software for blocking banner ads (Adblock Plus, and yes, it blocks regular, static banner ads, not just pop-ups) won PC World‘s “best product” award. Gilbreath describes a world where people hate advertising the way the Tea party hates taxes, and over the course of the first chapter says traditional messaging is “everywhere,” “intrusive,” “irrelevant” and “offensive.”

He’s certainly not alone in that opinion. Comedians and consultants alike love ranting about stupid advertising, and I’ve edited more than one article about advertisers basically wasting their money. The tradiitonal, godawfully expensive commercial is easy fodder for anyone recommending a new approach.

But me, I don’t hate advertising, and I don’t think most people care that much, either.

The squeaky eyeball gets the Visine, so when someone complains about advertising it makes the news — Gilbreath points out that a handful of calls can get companies to pull national campaigns. But I’m in my thirties, and I’ve got a lot of positive memories of traditional advertising. The Bud Bowl, Geico’s Gecko, pretty much any ad run during the Super Bowl … they can add to the fun, so I give them a chance. Same with movie previews — I really don’t know if I want to see a movie or a new show until I see some ads for it — and coaster ads at the bar. I commute by train, so I relish reading something, anything, interesting on a billboard while waiting for a late one.

Ads can annoy me — anything can annoy me — but I’m not hostile to them. If commercial breaks are reasonable, I’m liable to let them run. I’ve even flipped channels to find spots I was interested in. If someone puts an ad in the restroom, I really couldn’t care less (unless it’s lookin’ at me; that gets weird). I give web banners a chance to catch my click so long as they don’t take 60 seconds to scroll down, stall my browser, or do something else ridiculous to tick me off (many do in fact do ridiculous things that tick me off, but that’s for another future post.)

It’s easy to overstate consumer hostility toward any for-profit project, but it’s a mistake to attribute isolated outbursts to the whole audience. No one complains about marketing messages that interest them and convey information they want. And I think we’re all going to be shocked by just how many consumers are happy to participate in initiatives, like Facebook’s new privacy settings and global “like,” that help you target marketing to them even more.

(If you want me to look at a book, send it to me at the NAPCO offices: 1500 Spring Garden St., Philadelphia, PA 19130. I make no promises. We’re not doing book reviews or a book of the week or anything that relies on me consuming more than a dozen pages a weekend. But I will take a look at anything you send. If it sparks an idea, I’ll work it into Ways of Thinking.)

What Do We Really Know About Consumers?

Turns out American’s didn’t splurge on trivial junk during this recession, and that means many experts don’t know today’s consumer as well as they thought they did.

Turns out Americans didn’t splurge on trivial junk during this recession, and that means many experts don’t know today’s consumer as well as they thought they did. At least that’s the takeaway from this article by Mina Kimes of CNN Money.

The prevailing assumptions about recessionary spending were based on studies of consumer spending during past recessions that showed Americans spending more on cheap indulgences during hard times. But as Kimes points out, that hasn’t held true during this recession. iPhone sales spiked while lipstick, liquor and candy dropped.

Some of those trends saw ups and downs (a previous report by Kimes indicated general cosmetics doing well last year), but overall, 2009’s cash-strapped consumers seemed to make purchase decisions more thoughtfully than in recessions past. Instead of cutting expensive items and indulging on the cheap, they made more complex calculations. They often saved money to buy expensive items, for example, sometimes by cutting out the very indulgences consumers might have wallowed in during “simpler” times. It appears that many took control of their finances instead of living hand-to-mouth, with some surprising retail results.

I wonder how much of that reflects a psychological shift in consumers, and how much reflects shifts in the retail market. Many goods are available at relatively low prices these days thanks to several decades of the biggest retailers competing on price (i.e. Wal-Mart). I’m not sure indulgent lipstick’s that much less expensive than a pair of bargain shoes. On the other hand, consumer electronics is not simply an entertainment purchase. People spend their careers using their personal laptops and smartphones as tools; so spending more can mean more money or better opportunities. Consumers are well versed in the investment calculation of these items: If you have to buy a phone and phone service anyway, why not choose the one you can carry with you and load with apps that make you more productive, or at least more entertained?

Consumers have changed, but the retail landscape may have changed even more. What can you assume about a nation of potential customers who constantly consider that?

That’s probably not surprising to those of you who read Target Marketing or All About ROI, which often talk about the importance of testing and verifying assumptions about your audience. At heart, direct marketing is a numbers game, and those successful at it know what my football line coach used to sum up: to “assume” makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”

But even extensive testing doesn’t really take assumptions out of the equation. Who spends resources testing something they don’t expect to work? When you try something new, where did the idea come from? Usually an assumption. So even with testing, there’s a bias to test toward what we believe to be true. Adaptability is learning to recognize and react quickly when things we thought we knew turn out to be wrong.

So have consumers changed during this recession? Has that been the case for your customers? Are they acting against type, buying or not buying in ways that defied your expectations?