Product Experience and Advertising: Part 2

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Who Owns the Audience?

The casual gaming revolution brought billions of new consumers into the world of video gaming. A lot of the early marketing was designed to distance casual gaming from the stereotypes of hardcore gaming. Casual games were easy to learn, didn’t require a lot of time, and they were rewarding. Hardcore games had the reputation of being difficult to learn, unforgiving, and requiring many hours. You could pick up a casual game and play it within a minute: a hardcore game could require a lot of time. Hardcore games typically required on-going commitment to understand and remember the intricacies. Specialists played hardcore games. Hardcore games had the stigma of addiction. Casual games were easily set aside and available for spontaneous play. Casual games were positioned as games “for the rest of us.” Casual games were designed for non-gamers.

To further differentiate casual games, some companies promoted their games as healthy. Sharpen your mind and improve your cognitive skills. Take a short break. Feel good about yourself with positive feedback. Escape from the pressure and stress of life. Reenergize. Casual games were safe environments for everyone. The goal was all about building trust and opening the doors to legions of new consumers. Some products and brands were even presented in an envelope of positivity. If the brand was kid friendly, parents could rest assured that language, imagery, audio, theme, and gameplay were sensitively mindful. Consistency was key.

Third party advertising was common in casual gaming, even in the early days when companies struggled to find viable business models. A few companies went out of their way to curate the ads that were displayed to reinforce the healthfulness of the games. They studiously avoided certain forms of advertising for products associated with addiction or poor health, such as pharmaceuticals or fast foods. Casual game developers and many publishers gave consumers the opportunity to set aside their problems and go into a safe, healthy mental space. The goal was to build markets and build brands.

Years ago, I remember being approached by an advertising executive with the words, “Your audience of 45 year-old women casual gamers is highly desirable for the pharmaceutical advertisers. They really want that audience.” It was an uncomfortable moment when I said, “We’re not willing to display pharmaceutical ads.” I went from being a friend to an impediment in less than two seconds. I explained the rationale, but it was too late.

Our consumers valued our games because it was a safe escape from the burdens of life. And here was a set of advertisers, knocking at the door to provide reminders of life’s challenges. Highly targeted reminders. Perhaps even beneficial, but reminders that worked against the value we had created in escape.

No question about it—there was money to be made from the advertisements, but in the long-term, those ads worked against our goals to deepen the connection we had with consumers so that we could help them get the most out of our game, and deepen their trust in other games we were bringing to market.

There are wonderful innovations happening in the world of advertising that have many benefits. There are native ads that are contextually relevant. Sponsorships can be well integrated, appropriately timed and placed. Personalized ads can speak directly to consumers. The list goes on.

Some key questions remain for marketers and product teams. What do the ads say about your product? What do the ads say about what you value? What do the ads say about who plays your games? Do they stigmatize and stereotype your consumers? Are the ads competing with your product, and if so, at what cost? How much of your product mindshare are you willing to invest in advertising?

Advertising can be a very healthy way to grow your business, build your product, and bolster your reputation, but product and marketing teams need to intentionally anticipate the effect on the product. Consider the long-term effects of advertising on your customer and your product. Mind the intrusion and make advertising a great intersection for your customer, for your business, and for the advertiser.

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