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Zack Sullivan 

Gaming is set for the advertising big time, but it's no easy play

Gaming is set for the advertising big time, but it's no easy play

Understanding audiences is critical to effective engagement, and with gaming that means setting aside some deep-seated assumptions, writes Zack Sullivan

Anyone who thought gaming was already growing fast needs to brace for supersonic ascent. Before COVID-19, the industry was gaining steady appeal, with users up to 2.5 billion and market value due to reach $180 billion by 2021. Now, global lockdown has powered a rapid acceleration.

Numbers of concurrent gamers are breaking all-time peaks — hitting 20.3 million in a single weekend — as is interaction with popular titles such as ‘Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’; climbing to over 10 million players in a day. Even sports like Formula 1 and the World Boxing Series (WBS) are embracing gaming alternatives, with real-world events currently off the menu.

Unsurprisingly, this audience surge is catching the attention of brands looking for new ways to expand their reach. But while gaming might be set for the advertising big time, harnessing this opportunity is no easy play; when trying to connect with gamers, technique is everything.

Gaming is for all the players 

Understanding audiences is critical to effective engagement, and with gaming, achieving that means setting aside some deep-seated assumptions. Almost from the moment Pong started the video game revolution, the gamer stereotype took root: young, male, and often playing alone — helped in no small part by persistent gendered marketing. But this image was woefully outdated, long before COVID-19 fuelled a mass need for online entertainment.

As the market has evolved, games have attracted a wider and more diverse range of players that obliterate the restraints of demographic groups. Recent research shows women now make up nearly half of the world’s gamers (45%), and in the US, video games are played by 73% of African Americans aged 13 and over. In fact, age has ceased to be a factor — with 40% of 55-64-year-old women playing mobile games — and gaming itself is becoming a shared experience; both via multi-player options and the growing trend for live streaming.

In other words, there is no such thing as an ‘archetypal gamer’ and for brands hoping to tap the potential of gaming, using a one-size-fits-all profile is not going to fly.

Picking the right marketing moment

Gaming campaigns should therefore be no different to any other: aimed at providing a great experience for consumers by putting their needs first. So far, most advertising initiatives have strived to keep disruption low by embedding messages directly into games.

Though there are benefits to reaching gamers in play — such as high viewability — too much concentration on the act of gaming could mean brands are missing a vital chance to influence audiences when they are highly receptive to relevant information: the pre-play stage.

Both games and consoles are large investments, especially for contenders in the growing and lucrative world of esports. A study conducted by Future between February and March 2020 shows gamers usually expect to pay £418 for a next-generation console, such as PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X; and while wider opinion is divided on whether launches will or won’t go ahead amid COVID-19 chaos, players remain determined – 59% still plan to update their current console.

But, as might be expected, high price tags make for cautious buyers. New or old to the scene, the majority of gamers (65%) approach purchase decisions with care and conduct their own research across multiple sources, from peer reviews to game news on trusted sites. And it’s this crucial content that offers the most fertile ground for targeted advertising.

The power of content

Moving marketing focus away from games to the start of the purchase journey makes sense for multiple reasons. Firstly, pre-game advertising isn’t competing for attention with the enthralling virtual content players want to immerse themselves in — and even more importantly — it also avoids the risk of driving negative brand association by interrupting play.

Secondly, connecting with gamers in the consideration phase poses a valuable opportunity to influence their choices, and the advice they give to others. As well as uncovering that 10% of gamers are still uncertain about which console they want to buy, the Future study found 36% of respondents are influencers; the experts family and friends rely on for gaming guidance.

As a result, ads placed beside or natively inserted into high-quality, game specific content can have a ripple effect, increasing engagement among long-term gamers and amplifying brand awareness across new audiences through personal recommendations. That’s not to mention the possibility of fostering stronger relationships with those who frequently return to reliable gaming sources for general news about fresh trends and developments.

Gaming is booming but the way brands make their advertising play will be the factor that determines success. Achieving cut through with the audiences already invested in gaming and entering the virtual world in search of greater entertainment requires a finely tuned balance; minimal disruption is key, but so is when, how, and where they reach their audience. Smart advertisers will look beyond the obvious in-game ads; getting in early when users are ready for a new experience and providing tailored, valuable content to assist their search.

Zack Sullivan is UK CRO, Future

Join Mediatel on 28 May The Future of Gaming, a free lockdown event where we speak to the brands, tech platforms and agencies investing in gaming and e-sports to discover the potential of this new media channel.

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