Late last month, Microsoft unveiled a massive new ad campaign for its Xbox 360 console and its Xbox Live online service, designed to connect with people through emotional moments tied to individual Xbox experiences. But it is not the only company expected to spend big on video game marketing this holiday season — rivals Nintendo and Sony will also blanket airwaves and print outlets with ads, as will many individual game publishers looking to stand out in a competitive gaming market.
But video game companies, which have relied on traditional print and television in the past, are increasingly following their elusive, 15- to 34-year-old male target online — primarily with viral campaigns, but also with other tools, such as microsites and branded contests.
Much like the movie industry, video games have a built-in marketing advantage, because so much of its audience is passionate players eager to learn all they can about upcoming titles. That means much of the marketing around games — including screen shots, trailers and demos — is viewed as entertainment by this audience, which is increasingly willing to provide personal information in order to get at that content.
“In terms of direct marketing, we can track the people who are interested in particular types of games, which is very helpful to gaming brands trying to determine their target audience,” notes Kevin Barenblat, co-founder/CEO of San Francisco-based social marketing company Context Optional, which has run a number of successful game-themed applications for publishers on Facebook and other social networking sites.
“Games are naturally social and so to take a game and make a social-networking version is very compelling,” Barenblat continues. “In many ways, these programs are similar to companies using banners to drive consumers to a microsite, but instead of taking them outside the social network, we’re building the app right into Facebook.”
Video game publishers are still using straight banner ads online, but are also increasingly looking to augment those buys with more targeted programs, says Keith Kane, SVP of marketing and sales for online entertainment portal Giant Realm.
“Publishers know they have to reach the right audience quickly and [turn to] contests, tailored editorial, contextual ads and sponsored tournaments that are essentially branded entertainment,” he explains. “With the right program on the right site, we can get up to [a] 12% click-through [rate].”
And, despite the sheer volume of dedicated gaming Web sites, publishers and console makers also realize that video games are a lifestyle, so they are expanding their programs to include music, fashion and even collectible-themed blogs and portals.
“We look at the game title and then try to figure out what content we can create that will appeal to core bloggers and lifestyle sites,” explains Jeff Tammes, SVP of strategic marketing at Cornerstone Promotion. “In the case of 2K Games’ BioShock, we had Moby remix some the game’s soundtrack and then offered it to music sites like Pitchfork and StereoGum.”
“Consumers know these are branded campaigns,” adds Hyder Rabbani, VP of sales and business development for Brickfish. “But you need a launch platform to kick [them] off, so we recommend initially leveraging high-traffic Web sites or home pages and a targeted blast to a group of online gaming forums that direct people to a specific URL.”
And, because the community is so vibrant online and eager to share the latest demo or cheat code, Barenblat notes, “The user ends up doing much of the direct marketing for free.”
San Diego-based Brickfish oversaw this online contest for the spring 2008 launch of Codemasters’ Turning Point: Fall of Liberty. The competition to create the best poster for the game garnered more than 500 entries and 1.3 million engagements, largely by leveraging a core group of enthusiasts to promote the contest through viral, peer to peer interaction, resulting in the top branded designs appearing on hundreds of game and lifestyle sites.
Cornerstone Promotion made this series of branded two to three minute entertainment news show segments for Microsoft and the Xbox 360. Featuring comedian Aziz Ansari previewing games and interviewing bands such as Vampire Weekend, the campaign is part of a growing trend of creating game-themed marketing that consumers view as entertainment. The video segments were originally posted on the Xbox Live online service and later ported to music sites and YouTube.
Facebook application mini-game
San Francisco-based Context Optional created this mini-game for a Facebook page as part of the marketing for Electronic Arts’ trivia-themed Smarty Pants for the Nintendo Wii. Launched last December, the mini-game — which allows users to challenge friends with trivia questions — was played 1 million times in the first 50 days. In total, 7 million people have been exposed to Smarty Pants through Facebook, proving the value of social networks as a marketing channel for games.