NVision Makes a Game of Better Marketing

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NVision Design has leveraged pass-a-long video games, like its most recent "Elf Bowling," into a viral marketing program that helped grow its business 900 percent in 1999 to $3 million in profits, according to the company.

The free games are attachments sent from friend-to-friend via e-mail. When the game concludes an advertisement for the Dallas firm, complete with a link to the company's site www.nvisiondesign.com appears.

The effort has resulted in a 23 percent click-through among users, according to Michael Bielinksi, CEO of NVision. This is well above the one-half of one percent click-through rate traditional banner ads provide.

This success is not surprising, according to Kent Allen, e-commerce analyst for the Aberdeen Group in Palo Alto, CA. "Any kind of viral marketing will result in higher click-through because it comes from a qualified sender [like friends or family]," he said.

Games like "Elf Bowling," which includes cigarette smoking elves that "moon" Santa Claus as he tries to knock them down with a bowling bowl, "Big Willie Hunting," "Frogapult," and "Y2K: The Game" began as a low budget way to show off the NVision's design skills. However, they are now reaching one million players per week, according to the company which uses its patent-pending software to track usage. "We were a small company without a budget to get our name out to corporations," said Bielinksi. "We were trying to think of different ways other than putting up banner ads."

While most users aren't interested in hiring the company as Web designers, through wide distribution the games have reached enough clients who are. "It's marketing to a million people who are seeing our logo and getting our message," said Dan Ferguson, president of the company. "From there it's a numbers game because only a small fraction of the players actually need our type of work."

The current popularity of its games like Frogapult, which features a crocodile tearing misfired frogs to shreds, has attracted such blue-chip clients as AT&T, Miller Brewing Company and Texas Instruments.

Additionally, the company's e-mail marketing division, NStorm, has been hired to create a game for Lucent Technologies called "Mission Possible," which will be sent out to Lucent's database of customers in mid-December or early January. "Tango Towers" a game created for Tango Software will also be released shortly.

Despite the apparent success of the games, many major companies are hesitant to try such marketing efforts. "Viral marketing doesn't have a proven track record. It's still so new," said Ferguson. "You can't guarantee it will work."

One of the disadvantages of such a campaign is the attachment itself and the possibility of transmitting a virus. "The attachment is the problem," said Allen. "You don't want you to bring [a virus into the workplace], especially as a knowledge worker."

Another problem is, much like the ubiquitous "Dancing Baby" programs that were popular in the not-too-distant past, users may get tired of the games. "Even when banner ads first came out and they were new and novel, they had decent click-throughs, but novelty wears off and this company will have to keep raising the bar," said Allen.

With this in mind, the company is holding off on its two newest games "Chicken Archery" and an untitled monkey game because of fear of overkill. "We're getting too much attention. We have to create a demand for the new games," said Ferguson.

The games are distributed to a list of 150,000 to 200,000 users who have signed up to receive them. Initially, only 200 people received "Good Willie Hunting" and within ten days as many as five to 10 million people were playing, said Ferguson.

Although the games are doing their job by reaching millions, the company's Web site has crashed repeatedly from the volume of users looking to download new games or post their high scores. Neither site was accessible at press time. "We're getting creamed," said Bielinski.

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