I have always been sceptical when someone has told me that games – or game mechanics – can be used successfully in a marketing campaign.
Since the start of 2017, I’ve invested at least 200 hours in games such as Football Manager, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Overwatch – with each game capturing my attention for different reasons.
But when someone has told me that games can be used to drive online marketing, I’ve tended to smile politely and gently nod my head while concealing my thoughts that they’re more gimmicky than effective.
So when Team Cooper – a BAFTA nominated digital agency that creates online and mobile games for brands – contacted me to ask if I’d like to look into the topic, I decided to dive in headfirst to see what I would discover.
To my surprise, I found out that companies do see tangible benefits from using branded games within their marketing efforts. But while they certainly can have a positive impact, companies need to think carefully about how their business, brand and the game they’re creating come together to ensure they actually benefit.
Getting in the game
Before exploring the games and their benefits to businesses in depth, the first thing I wanted to find out was why businesses commission games. And the answer can be broadly summarised in one word: engagement.
Stephanie Schönmann is the e-business manager for Optiswiss, an independent lens manufacturer based in Switzerland. 98% of orders for its B2B business shop come online. For Schönmann, an online game was seen as a way to help build and maintain a relationship with Optiswiss’s customer base.
“The aim originally was to motivate more opticians to subscribe to our online shop, increase shop visits of existing customers and to thank them for their loyalty,” she explained to me.
James Butler, website manager for DFDS UK, echoed that sentiment. He told me that the company dipped its toes into the gaming water to give a handy bump to sales from existing customers.
“We use these games as a sales boosters and a vehicle to enhance engagement, [and] our main measurement is bookings off the back of a game,” said Butler.
And part of the appeal of using a game to do this instead of another tool in the marketing arsenal is to provide a softer experience that consumers appreciate.
Optiswiss, for example, has a relatively complicated online shopping site due to the nature of the optician’s industry. Schönmann argues that a game had the potential to act as a palate cleanser to help customers through the experience.
“We wanted to offer an entertaining contrast in our otherwise sophisticated shop structure,” she said. “But we also like to keep close contact to our customers and seeing that many optician employees using our shop are between age 20 to 35, a game offers the perfect platform to communicate our values in an entertaining way.”
Games can also be used within a company’s broader community engagement strategy, including to support corporate social responsibility.
Beazley, a specialist insurance company, has been sending out games to its client base for Christmas for the past seven years. Jon Labram, Brand and Design Manager for the Beazley Group, told me that a big reason why they do it is to save money so they can spend it on other causes.
“Instead of sending out printed greeting cards during the festive period, we donate the money saved to our chosen charity and develop a game to email out to our broker community,” he said, suggesting that the digital aspect of video games can lead to unexpected advantages.
A closer look at the games
While it’s clear that engaging customers through entertainment is one of the main reason businesses turn to games in marketing, a closer look at the games reveals an interesting divergence in goals between businesses.
Rather than there being a one size fits all approach to either strategy or game mechanics, the games representing each company differed in a number of ways to help them reach their objectives.
One of DFDS’s games took this into account with its second title called Jack’s Quayside Kickabout. The game challenges players to rack up points by hitting targets with a football. Anyone who secured a four figure score in the game – which was timed to coincide with Euro 2016 – was entered into a prize draw to win PS4s, footballs and even a mini ferry break. This motivated players to check out the DFDS website, but also sign up for news and information about the company.
Optiswiss took a slightly different approach with the games it created. The company’s festive Christmas Game is an infinite runner that gets players hurling Santa across rooftops for as long as possible.
If a player cleared 250m on the first day, they received a free Lindt chocolate in the post. But if they kept coming back and beating a higher target over each of the following four days, they could boost their chocolate total to five – encouraging players back to the site.
And for Beazley, the unifying theme of their games, such as Festive Flurry and Jingle Jet – is providing a simple shot of fun as a thank you to their partners, with an emphasis on Christmassy content to tie them back into their role as card replacements.
How well do the games perform?
Having sat down to play each game, it’s fair to say they’re pretty simple and won’t be threatening my Rocket League addiction any time soon.
But their simplicity is in their favour. The stripped down nature both makes the game casual enough for a broader audience to enjoy and simple enough for it to be released quickly in line with a carefully conceived marketing campaign.
And, despite my scepticism, the convergence of lightly compelling casual game mechanics and tangible business actions – such as driving a sign up or getting a customer back to the website the next day – seemed to do the business.
Despite working within a niche industry, Optiswiss’s Christmas Game was played by nearly 4000 people 75,000 times. The game averaged 19.5 plays per customer, with session lengths of over 6 minutes as players battled to hit the daily target. This, according to Schönmann, had a positive impact on the company’s business.
“During this time [of the Christmas Game campaign], we’ve recorded a strong increase in shop visits and also new subscribers,” she said. “Furthermore, our customers started to create groups on Facebook and other social media channels informing other opticians about the game and discussing strategies on how to beat the goals. These outcomes are difficult to measure, but they surely have a positive impact on the company’s image”.
In Beazley’s case, their most recent game received over 60,000 plays from their client base during the Christmas period – suggesting that their customers responded well to the concept.
And DFDS have doubled down on their commitment to games since the release of Jack’s Quayside Kickabout. The company has worked with Team Cooper to release two additional games featuring their mascot Jack the Pirate to support their marketing objectives.
Having spoken to businesses about the impact of games on their marketing efforts, it’s clear that I underestimated their potential usefulness to companies. Although the level of interaction and play time in their games was well below what I’d expect in the games industry, the average 18 minute play time across the Team Cooper portfolio is well above the average interaction time for most digital marketing offerings.
But why was that the case? To my mind, there were three reasons why games proved particularly successful for these companies.
First, they were simple engaging titles based on games that have already been wildly popular. Businesses wishing to use a game in a marketing campaign must accept that casual titles are the obvious way to go, both to engage as many players as possible and to ensure development time and costs do not get out of hand.
Second, each campaign benefitted from seasonality. As opposed to most casual online and mobile games, which offer long-term services, businesses benefitted from releasing their games to coincide with holidays and sporting events. This suggests a game is best used in a marketing campaign when the people who it is aimed at are likely to have some free time on their hands.
Third and finally, games seem best suited to driving community engagement and retention rather than direct sales. In comparison to something like a Facebook app install ad, which has a direct goal and straightforward purchasing model, the games I examined had an important – but less tangible – impact on their audience. Games should therefore supplement other campaigns, rather than solely drive them.
So games can be part of a marketers toolkit. But it’s important that businesses think carefully about what they want to achieve, when they want to achieve it and which type of game they want to promote.
George has written for consumer publications such as The Guardian, PCGamesN and Eurogamer, as well as penning pieces for business sites such as Games Industry Biz and Pocket Gamer Biz.