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.