What Marketers Can Learn From Gaming

Gaming has been a big part of our culture for decades, but it’s becoming ubiquitous thanks to mobile devices. Even people who wouldn’t describe themselves as “gamers” are playing every day. But despite an amazing record of success—and the promise of continued growth—few marketers have looked closely at the smart business strategies of the mobile gaming industry. You could certainly credit the mobile industry to explain why gaming is so huge, but to grow by 50 percent year after year, the key players in mobile gaming must be doing something right.

How do they achieve that kind of growth? In some cases mobile gaming companies employ the same approaches used by console game companies (familiar to me from my days running the marketing team at PlayStation). In other cases mobile companies are teaching the “traditional game companies” new tricks.

Here are some of the lessons any marketer could take from the playbooks of mobile gaming companies:

  • Give the consumer control

One of my favorite PlayStation game franchises of all time is LittleBigPlanet, launched by Sony in 2008. In addition to introducing the world to “Sackboy,” it put creative control squarely in the hands of the consumer, allowing us all to create our own characters and wildly imaginative game levels. User-generated content (UGC) wasn’t new, but the notion of the “user’s content” being the game was. In the mobile space, Draw Something(introduced last year) allows users to take turns drawing with a friend, with gameplay dictated through peer interactions rather than the game clock. Both are examples of gaming companies being ahead of the curve of giving up some control of the brand to the consumer to realize a bigger win. Today, more and more “non-game” companies are looking to develop a personal relationship with customers (largely through social media) that yields a deeper connection and potentially, greater lifetime value.

  • Create a dialogue—and a community

Social media has allowed business to tell its own stories and create content that is shared on platforms such as Facebook. The mistake many businesses make is limiting social media to one-way communication. Many gaming companies used social media early on as an extension of the game experience, using forums and chats to foster dialogue. The result is more than a relationship that instills trust between customers and a brand, which is something any business can perpetuate. The other light bulb that went off for gaming companies was that once these forums or communities were set up, it was more efficient for customers to get feedback and solve problems in the community than to call a help center.

  • Digital discovery is crucial

Word of mouth has always helped consumers discover and share products. Today word-of-mouth marketing has gone digital, and customers rely on online tools to learn and discover. In its early days the gaming industry expanded in part because there was a social currency to being an early adopter and “in the know” on a hot new game or gaming system. Today it’s expected that people will look to social media and other platforms for recommendations. Regardless of the product or service marketers are selling, they must look beyond traditional marketing techniques to aid customer discovery.

  • Emotional connections matter

If you look back through the history of console gaming, you’ll find a set of characters that became cultural icons. People wore characters on their shirts, wrote songs about them, and dressed up as their favorite characters for Halloween. Angry Birds has done the same thing in mobile gaming. In fact, Rovio describes themselves as an entertainment company and are in everything, including theme parks and TV and programming.

These types of connections can help any business grow. Starbucks is a great example of a brand that has fostered a powerful emotional connection with consumers. It has created a “third place” where customers can go when they aren’t at work or home and feel comfortable. Starbucks has always focused on its product—except the product isn’t necessarily the coffee, it’s the entire experience.

Not every brand will become the next Angry Birds or Starbucks, but there’s an insight to be gained: customers who feel an authentic connection with a brand will return. If you are a business, identify what makes your app or brand resonate with consumers and make sure it remains a focal point.

Break your business model

A lot of people won’t pay for your product. Just ask a music executive. Finding the solution to this has vexed old media companies that built their business on selling content. However, this doesn’t mean the business opportunities end. What mobile gaming companies have learned is that simply gaining customer’s attention is valuable. Of course, they also understood that new technology and consumer trends don’t just make new business models possible, they actually require that you innovate the model.

Just a few years ago, as the app phenomenon was taking off, most apps were paid for. And why not? You’re supposed to pay for things that have value. Today app developers make a lot more money from a new business model where they give their product away for free. This free-to-play approach attracts more users from whom mobile game companies can extract micro-transactions. And the larger audiences can be monetized via advertising revenue, as well.

These are just a few of the marketing lessons from which any company can learn—gaming or otherwise. So, the next time you see someone playing a game on their phone, you might want to think hard about why they are spending so much time doing it—and how your business can command the same attention.

Peter Dille is chief marketing officer of Tapjoy.

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