19 Tips for In-Game Advertising

I wrote down these thoughts some time ago for a project we did together with Futurelab; they were intended as closing remarks for a larger work on in-game advertising.  Some of these tips may seem trivial in the real world, but turn out more useful in the context of a game space. Others may be less intuitive to someone unfamiliar with the medium.  I hit a writing block at #19; perhaps you could add one more to round it off. 
  1. Ask yourself the “why” question. Why are you choosing games as a medium for your message? Is it to reach an otherwise elusive audience? Is it to demonstrate your product to a small but influential group of trend-setters?

  2. Set clear and measurable objectives. Games are among the most measurable media where you can track everything from detailed exposure to the otherwise elusive “engagement.” Tying the metrics to sales will require innovative thinking but is not impossible.

  3. Treat in-game advertising as R&D investment, not marketing expense. Online commerce has changed a lot during the decade since the first web shop was opened by Pizza Hut in mid-1990s. It will continue to evolve and game-like 3D environments are one possible direction the evolution may take. Acquire the basic skills now to stay ahead of the game, so to speak, tomorrow.

  4. Play. Games have changed a lot since you last played your Nintendo in high-school (or ColecoVision, for that matter). Familiarize yourself with the mechanics, the jargon and, in case of multi-player games, the etiquette. Play at least one game to the end even if it will take you 20 hours. The downside: you will die a lot. The upside: you can mark it as research. Treat an in-game campaign as a foray into a foreign country where you have to learn a new language, socially-accepted behavior and fashion sense.

  5. Whatever you do, don’t step off the trail.” In Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”, the participants in Time Safari are instructed to keep to a narrow catwalk or risk upsetting the delicate balance of history. To paraphrase, whatever you do, stay in character. If you product doesn’t fit a particular game, turn to another one or try advertising through a proxy -- a fictional brand that resembles the real one closely enough for you to take the credit if things go well and deny involvement if they don’t.

  6. Each medium requires its own creative. You wouldn’t play a radio spot on TV. It’s just as ineffective to reuse web banners to advertise in a computer game. Games are a medium with its own set of characteristics and it is in the best interests of advertisers to take full advantage of them.

  7. Remember Confucius’s “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand?” The interactive nature of games lets customers “do”.

  8. Challenge and surprise. Offer players interesting things to do with your ad unit and let them discover these things themselves. They will spread the knowledge through their communities along with your brand.

  9. Don’t twist players’ arms. There have been games that threatened players into passing by a billboard, “or else”. In other words, these games made an interaction with the ad a condition required for progress. Providing extra incentives is ok, but remember that gamers have already paid north of $50 for playing the game they have been expecting, in some cases, for months.

  10. Games are inherently “multimedia” and your ads don’t have to be limited to graphic units. The available options range from short secret codes to lavish branded mansions. Take your imagination for a soar (but don’t step off the trail).

  11. Integrated marketing is one of those industry buzz-words that actually make sense. If you are targeting gamers through games, complement your efforts through other media they consume. You can also create a “360-degree” brand experience right inside some of the games by designing multiple points of contact – through a fictional magazine, points of purchase, a sound bite. Another useful emerging buzz-word is “transmedia branding” meaning that each participating medium tells only one part of the brand narrative. Don’t repeat within the game what you are already saying on the campaign website; instead, develop the story further through new elements, characters or dramatic twists. Besides, creating a strong bridge between the virtual and the real gives an eerie Matrix-like feeling.

  12. Provide the right tools and the right incentives and enjoy the bliss of consumer-generated content. Game makers have enjoyed creative player participation for a long time and have learnt that letting players tinker with the product contributes to the bottom line in more ways than one. Make spare parts available and see how players re-assemble your brand in unexpected but exciting ways. Bonus: player tinkering provides invaluable (and measurable) insights into consumers’ perception of your brand.

  13. Be prepared for a strong word-of-mouth effect, even more so in the multi-player environments were inter-player communications are in real time. Your successes and failures alike will be amplified on player forums or virtual water coolers (or dragon caves, as the case may be). Where there is a community, there is a need for a community manager who would follow the conversations and address player concerns on the fly.

  14. Be prepared for graphic manifestations of player discontent. If things go wrong, expect sit-ins, demonstrations and defacing. The fact that all those forms of civil disobedience take place in a virtual world makes the challenge a double-edged sword. On the one hand, “it’s just a game”. On the other, there is no police to disperse the angry crowds. And whatever happens, don’t step off the trail. If you have to deal with player resentment, do it in-character. Don’t have the game administrators ban the offenders from the game. Instead, ask them to summon a fire-breathing dragon to protect your property.

  15. To quote a Second Life resident Prokofy Neva, a branded t-shirt you give away in the game may be worn forever because it needs no washing.

  16. If you are advertising in a virtual world, become its engaged citizen and not a foreign capitalist intruder. Don’t just show up for one-off press events or, worse, not at all. Give your brand a live face, even if it’s a face of a pink orc.

  17. Don’t simply mimic the layout of your real-world branded spaces; design your virtual presence in accordance with the world’s physics. Allow for comfortable camera movements so that players don’t hit the wall when they try to take a closer look at your merchandise. If characters can fly, make the ceilings taller and put an entrance on the roof.

  18. Deal with the demographic uncertainty. Game audiences vary by genre, size, complexity and even distribution channels. Very few games today can be put in a narrow demographic bucket as they are often played by groups that extend beyond the original customer. Be prepared to have your ad unit seen by someone on the opposite end from your intended target.

  19. Learn from the mistakes of others. If you are yet to plunge into in-game advertising, you have the advantage of knowing what has worked for the pioneers. Often, the arrival of a new medium prompts similar advertising solutions.

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