Written by: Sara Francis, CEO at Joystick

It’s official – playing games can help us during the Covid-19 pandemic: the World Health Organization (WHO) itself is urging people to #PlayApartTogether as a way of helping continue social distancing efforts. But could it also help brands?

Unsurprisingly, during the first week of quarantine, video game usage surged in the US – some 75% during peak hours according to Verizon. This usage is bound to come back down slowly over time but without an end to our distancing in sight, this behavior will most likely become an ingrained part of the new normal for quite some time.

From gaming to in-ad games – lessons in engagement

Gamification, which applies typical elements of gameplay to other areas of activity such as advertising, is by nature engaging but is so far underutilized by brands in meaningful ways. See this not as a fad, but as an engagement tool – one that can help build a sense of community and shared experience – something all the more important, especially now.

Marketers are striving for that right balance between personalized experiences and mass-market appeal – performance plus brand, all in one packet. But that’s not often as easy as it should be, particularly as the digital ecosystem has long placed a premium on ROI. The ambiguity in measuring engagement has caused marketers to move away from campaigns that don’t directly convert to sales.

However, a strategy of gamification and its emphasis on engaging experiences and interactivity is, perhaps, the truest expression of how marketing can bridge the gap. So why aren’t we seeing more of it?

Michael Colella, Head of Studio at true[X], a leading advertising engagement platform, comments on how in-ad games can result in high levels of brand viewability. “We see bringing gaming, brands and interactivity together as a big opportunity for advertising,” he says.

“While our engagement ad format guarantees advertisers a minimum thirty seconds of full attention when we add interactive gaming and competition elements to the creative we find consumers spend as much as three times the minimum.

“This holds true across categories from financial services to fast-casual dining. Some of our most successful executions have drawn inspiration from classic games like car races, quiz shows, Bop It, and Pac-Man. People like to play and win, which makes gaming and interactivity a new and dynamic way to get consumers excited about brand messaging.”

‘Gamers’ come of age for marketers – welcome to the mainstream

Over recent years we have seen a number of brands dip their toes into the gamification waters, though investment has typically lagged behind consumer appetite for gaming. This could be that the perception of people who play games are only “gamers.”

If ever were that true, it certainly isn’t today. In fact, with the advent and uptake of mobile gaming, players are a diverse bunch and often comprise the very audiences that advertisers most want to speak to.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, in 2018 adult women represented a greater portion of the US video game-playing population (33%) than boys under 18 (17%) – with the majority being men over 18 (70%). Some 60% of Americans played video games daily, it found, with the average age of players 36 (something I find true in my own household).

By the end of 2019, the global gaming market was estimated to be worth $152 billion, with 45% of that, $68.5 billion, coming directly from mobile games.

Those figures are likely to have skyrocketed of late, with global lockdowns accelerating trends we were already seeing, such as multiplayer gaming. Apps such as Houseparty, which combines video conferencing with in-app games, have recently become more popular with adults. In socially distanced times virtual communities matter more now than ever.

Changing consumer behaviour is accelerating – don’t get left behind

It’s why now – as brands recalibrate so many aspects of their marketing in light of the Covid-19 crisis and its aftermath – they should seriously look at the possibilities of a gamification strategy.

There are many ways to deploy such a strategy. This can be done through games served in ads that are contextually relevant. Or to sponsor a game where the content in the game is unlocked by interacting with the brand. There are some great examples of brands organically integrating with the game’s story, such as Wendy’s involvement with Fortnite.

The gamification market had already been projected to grow from USD 9.1bn in 2020 to USD 30.7bn by 2025 – but the savvy marketer should be considering its role and entry point in order to capitalize on accelerating consumer behavioral change. This may be a great time to test and learn.

So, what’s the right approach for your brand? Games that tend to work well in an ad environment are casual games targeted at a wide, mass-market audience. These have lightweight gameplay mechanics that are fun, simple and easy to understand in 5 seconds.

Games with universal appeal and well-known elements that require little explanation are best. Familiar gameplay with a simple user interface and a productized twist works well on mobile devices.

For brands looking to take engagement to the next level, developments in technology have paved the way for multi-player game ads, offering untapped opportunities and novelty.

More than ‘just an ad’

It is important that gameplay resonates with the brand values and messaging. If an icon or brand character can be featured, so much the better, but ensure that the narrative brings something of value to the player(s) while also staying true to the brand and its objectives.

In doing so, the brand is elevated through a positive connection. A good gamification strategy can give advertisers more opportunities to interact with consumers in an entertaining way, which is something we all need right now. Experiences like these will continue to pave the way for future communications strategies and models.

The WHO #PlayApartTogether initiative is supported by a number of game industry leaders including Activision Blizzard, the company behind World of Warcraft. Its CEO, Bobby Kotick said: “Games are the perfect platform because they connect people through the lens of joy, purpose and meaning.”

But its message as easily applies to brands seeking to connect and build connections. Those that lean into delivering meaningful experiences to their audiences, big and small, will thrive in a world where people expect more than an ad.

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