Like Mario or Toad revving their karts before a race, advertisers are jostling for pole position in the lucrative gaming market, which is projected to be worth $320 billion by 2026. With over three billion gamers worldwide and record M&A growth, gaming giants are keen to capitalize, too: PlayStation and Xbox are both in the running with free-to-play gaming ads.
As the smash-hit success of HBO’s “The Last of Us” adaptation shows, gamers are entertainment’s biggest influencers. The medium is not only near universal (80% of the world’s online population are gamers); it is also built for deep-rooted engagement with an uncluttered ad experience. Its audience is surprisingly diverse. Almost half of US gamers identify as female, while parents playing games with kids are one of the sector’s fastest-growing segments. Moreover, fans spend an average of 13 hours per week in play mode.
While American gamers are more open to in-game ads than many believe, any such activations must bear the hallmarks of creative and technical excellence. This vertical is prone to low-quality, disruptive and irrelevant ads – particularly in mobile games – which the tight-knit gaming community won’t hesitate to call out. Brand trust is hard-won and all too easy to break. But nevertheless, the opportunity is massive.
A tailored approach
As in-game ads lead a new era of immersion, some brands are trying to figure out where they fit and how to tailor their approach. Traditional CTR campaigns are the antithesis of a meaningful gaming environment. That’s why brand awareness, not response, has to be the key objective. It’s unrealistic to expect any player to interrupt their game to click on an ad.
In such an immersive environment with deeply engaged users, in-game branding needs to feel seamless and authentic to the experience. That means aligning the creative with the context (the storyline or gameplay) as closely as possible to add value and capture attention. Virtual billboards or customized locations, products or clothing can all work if they are integrated smoothly. Brands that are a good match can align themselves with the positive effect of a particular game or community without it jarring the audience.
Creative best practice also lies in a precisely targeted strategy that accounts for nuance across a mega-diaspora of game users. Your average Minecraft gamer will be quite different to someone who plays Sims 4. Elsewhere, gaming may bring unexpected bounty for brands associated with meditation, vegetarianism or even professional development.
The gamer mentality
Gaming, therefore, is not the place for copy-and-paste. For activations to work, advertisers need to think like game developers, leaning on next-level creativity and content immersion. Meghan Trainor’s in-game takeover on Candy Crush Saga last year is a great example. Players could swipe along with the performer as she debuted her new music video throughout the gameplay, unlocking special treats and hearing her voice some of the game’s cult phrases.
Meanwhile, Spotify entered the Roblox universe with “Spotify Island,” an audio paradise where fans could connect and explore “sounds, quests, and merch.” Likewise, the Fortnite x Jordan collab invited users to compete for the iconic Air Jordan XI Cool Gray, with top players landing exclusive access to a virtual museum and basketball court.
These placements are clearly high-profile with enormous budgets, but the same principle applies to any brand. Gamers are fun people who delight in highly creative, customized and interactive experiences. As an advertiser seeking resonance, you need to zero in on what adds value to the user interface.
Gaming is the gateway to the metaverse, so if the ad industry can get in-gaming monetization right, the impact is huge. New guidelines for in-game advertising measurements, issued by the IAB, are a welcome move to contain what could easily become a Wild West scenario. Other regulatory and brand safety headaches also loom as the industry migrates from interstitial to dynamic in-game ads on a multiplatform stage.
These issues, however, round back to the question of creative alignment. If brands can unlock the user profile behind a particular game, crafting an immersive experience that fits effortlessly within its gameplay, the drive for higher standards takes care of itself. By adopting a user-centric focus, advertisers can tap into very specific, cross-generational and global communities that interact deeply and engage for life.
“Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.