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Why Marketers Should Pay Attention to Booming Game Trend

by Reuben Steiger / July 1, 2010

Note: This blog entry is available in English only.

In 2002 a startling announcement was made: sales of video games had finally surpassed the movie box office in the U.S. Over the past two years, games have catapulted to an even more impressive level. Farmville, a game that allows players to tend to a virtual farm with their friends in Facebook, is currently played by 70 million people per month. That’s one in four Americans. Kleiner Perkins, the legendary venture capital firm, announced that Zynga is the fastest-growing investment they’ve ever made. To give this some context, consider that Kleiner was the first investor in Google.

I believe this trend represents something much bigger than just explosive growth in the gaming industry. For years, many of the world’s smartest people, from psychologists to behavioral economist to marketers, have been studying what motivates people to perform specific actions. In marketing terms, the most important of these is the purchase impulse. Today, the research on buying behavior is beginning to be reframed in terms of gaming mechanics.

Game mechanics are the rules and rewards that make a particular game fun and gratifying. I eat a ghost in Pacman and get 200 points. I pull a lever on a slot machine, three cherries line up and bells ring while money pours into my hands. Farmville and other social games have mastered these mechanics to combine highly addictive positive feedback loops with viral social play. Users compete with each other for status, measured in “levels,” while paying real money for virtual items that enhance their gameplay.

Marketers need to pay attention to this for a few key reasons. Most obviously, there is a large consumer audience attached to these games. Farmville just launched a massive in-store campaign with 7-Eleven that includes broad in-store co-branding while rewarding cash purchases of hot dogs and Slurpees with Farmville currency. More important, however, is applying the lessons being successfully demonstrated by these games to promotional and branding efforts.

Rewards and loyalty programs have been doing this for years in the form of points and frequent flier miles. These strategies have proven extremely effective, but can now be applied to digital and other marketing efforts to even higher levels of engagement and brand loyalty. A good example of this is Bunchball, a San Jose-based start-up whose technology allows brands to integrate challenges, leaderboards and virtual rewards into their website. Their customers, which range from NBC to Victoria’s Secret, are delighted to be able to map any desired activity to a reward. For example, a user might be given 500 points to visit a particular page on the site or 1000 points for joining the brand’s Facebook group.

I see this “gamification” as a trend still in its infancy, but one with great promise. Can you think of other ways this might be applied in the future?





  1. Troy Ginbey on August 09, 2010

    Great article Ruben. I think you hit on an excellent point. Obviously driving participation alone has been around for years, but the thing lacking was a way to get passive audiences involved - people who would usually sit on the sidelines in a real life situation. The great thing about this trend is that because they're often virtual experiences, you get a much wider reach, appealing to active and passive audiences.

    Social Networking app Foursquare already does gamification quite well, although I can see potential for expanding this trend into consumer media with large passive audiences like television or digital publications.

    From there, the challenge is to finish the loop, and drive aspiration back to the products or services involved.