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When successful, such campaigns can propel brand awareness and take on a life of their own, and the allure of that possibility grabs marketers. In an age of YouTube, marketers are seeking to create a viral campaign so compelling that it becomes a juggernaut, spreading rapidly around the Web from in-box to in-box.
Those efforts at gaming have brought varying degrees of success, but marketers are of one mind in their beliefs that testing is important and results aren't always measured in leads or sales.
In a JupiterResearch survey fielded earlier this year, 8% of social marketers—which was about 40% of all online marketers it surveyed—said they have created a game for an advertising campaign.
In addition, 13% said they plan to create a game as part of their ad campaign. "As the Web becomes a richer environment, advertisers want to be a part of that," said Emily Riley, an analyst at Jupiter.
Viral marketing through the use of games has long been the domain of consumer marketers, some of which have had great success.
For example, a simple online viral game created as a promotion for Microsoft Corp.'s "Flight Simulator" game for Xbox 360 employs a distinctly low-tech object: a paper airplane. The game, first released last December to coincide with the flight simulator game launch, has attracted 159.3 million players and spawned a second version of the viral game that debuted in July.
But experts contend b-to-b marketers may also reap rewards if they create games compelling enough to pass along.
"B-to-b marketers tend to think these kinds of consumer tactics won't work for them, but it's still real people buying from real people," said Andy Sernovitz, CEO of GasPedal Ventures and author of "Word of Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking" (Kaplan Publishing, 2006).
"If it's compelling enough that they'll forward it, it will work just as well for b-to-b as it does for b-to-c," Sernovitz said.
Generating buzz for brands
While so much of b-to-b marketing focuses on lead generation, the more amorphous goal of driving brand awareness and generating buzz is the objective for many of these games.
Experian's QAS created a game to educate customers and prospects about its business. In "The Great Delivery Race," a graphical online game reminiscent of "Pac-Man" lets players transport items from one location to another, racking up points as they weave their way through suburban streets and overcome obstacles. Silverscape Studios, a Web design firm, designed the Flash-based game.
Frank Days, VP-marketing and business development at QAS, called it a "fun, educational way to tell our story," and the idea of delivering items to the right address gets to the heart of QAS' address verification business.
"We wanted to find ways to shake ourselves out of the rut we were in," he said.
"B-to-b marketing is quite a bit more mechanical than if you're selling Coca-Cola. We wanted to find something fresh and new."
The game was promoted in June by e-mail to 100,000 customers and prospects in QAS' marketing database. The idea grew out of a brainstorming session between the marketing and public relations department.
UPS is another example of a b-to-b marketer that created a game conceived in the PR department.
"It was a communications brainchild," said Donna Barrett, public relations manager at UPS. "It wasn't marketing's idea," but they supported it. "We worked closely with the marketing folks who saw the vision."
UPS is launching an international return service and a paperless invoice service next month, so the idea was to begin building awareness beforehand.
Like QAS, UPS also wanted to bring sexiness to b-to-b marketing. "We wanted to [promote the new services] in a fun way, because shipping in general is not exactly sexy," Barrett said.
In the "International Paperless Adventure" game, created by agency Going Interactive, the player picks a starting point and a destination, then flies a floating UPS package across continents, avoiding birds, stacks of paper, jumping sharks and killer whales, while gobbling up clouds and computer mice to increase speed.
At the end of the game, there are links to learn more, play again or e-mail it to a friend. "It was designed to have a viral component so they could send it to a friend," Barrett said.
Banner ads promoting the game ran on the UPS site.
In the past two months, traffic has been good, Barrett said. There had been more than 1,800 visits by the end of November, and visitors spent an average of 3.5 minutes playing the game. About 5% of those players sent the game to a friend. In January, the game will be added to UPS sites in Australia, Hong Kong, Ireland, Jamaica, New Zealand, the Phillipines, Singapore and the U.K. Already, international traffic accounts for 21% of the visits.
Engaging but low ROI
QAS managed to engage the customers who visited its game and drove a fair amount of traffic to its site by asking players to register high scores, but it was not a clear win for the company. Of 100,000 e-mails sent, 4,000 clicked on the link and played the game. Forty percent came back to play again, and QAS even had a few business inquiries. Pass-along statistics, however, were not high.
"From a pure ROI standpoint, it's pretty tough to justify it," Days said. "Comparing it to all the other pieces in our marketing mix, it's probably not as productive." Trade shows, webinars and paid search, he said, garner the majority of the marketing budget.
Despite the murky results, Days said, it is important to "keep pushing the envelope" and he vowed to "continue to test different types of social media."
Describing himself as a scientist at heart, and ruthless about where he invests marketing dollars, he said the more testing of innovative tactics, the better.
"It's part of our continuing to experiment and innovate. Did I want to generate a lot of transactions? Yes. We want to generate dollars. We're a demand generation business and we're a pragmatic team, but with new media, you have to test it first. The devotion to ROI allows us to take a risk once in a while."
Low pass-along numbers are currently the norm for viral marketing. Fifteen percent of viral campaigns prompted people to pass them on, according to an August JupiterResearch report titled "Viral Marketing: Bringing the Message to the Masses."
But Andrew Frank, VP- research at Gartner, a research firm and Jupiter competitor, said there are ways to improve pass-along performance.
"When you talk about viral specifically, there are ways—scientific ways as opposed to just artistic ways—to improve one's performance on pass-along metrics," Frank said. That includes both embedding the pass-along mechanism within the game itself to make it easy to share and, at the same time, giving people a good reason to share it. "Thinking it's cool might be a reason, but I think there needs to be other reasons. There needs to be an incentive to share that is connected to the experience itself."
Frank said "basic marketing rules apply" to viral games. "It's more about how do you cut through the clutter and reach people in a clever way than the particular form it takes," he said.
Office Depot's viral snow globe
Office Depot launched a game targeting both consumers and small-business customers that has a strong pass-along incentive. Tied to a holiday sweepstakes, a promotion incorporating viral games debuted Nov. 19. The office supply giant's Gift of the Day Giveaway features a chance to shake a holiday-themed snow globe to win one of nine holiday electronic gift items. An e-mail promotion that can be forwarded to friends was sent to several million current customers promoting the contest. Once on the microsite, customers can enter the contest as well as play another game called "Snowball Standoff" wherein players throw snowballs at a cartoon reindeer, scoring points for direct hits.
Ted Stedem, senior director of retail marketing at Office Depot, said "[to date] the amount of game play has surpassed our expectations" and the pass-along rate has been close to 10%.
Last week, Office Depot added more marketing support to promote the games by running banner ads through Google's AdSense contextual ad program.
Samsung recently used viral gaming to generate awareness, and, while its pass-along was low, it got something better in the bargain: the attention of the blogosphere.
Commonly recognized as a consumer electronics purveyor, Samsung wanted to promote its line of commercial laser printers to an audience of IT professionals who were unaware that Samsung made printers. IT people are also hit heavily with marketing messages, so Samsung wanted to stand out in that environment.
"IT people are bombarded with ad messaging all the time, so we wanted our messaging to come through in a different way," said Erik Johnson, director of integrated marketing for the information technology division at Samsung.
"This was a good chance for us to talk to the IT managers and decision-makers and tell them, `Yes, Samsung does make printers', and the biggest problem they are contending with is reliability," Johnson said. "It's a very emotional topic."
So emotional that Samsung decided to poke fun at itself and the product, and let its target audience express their frustration by creating the "Destroy a Printer" game, an homage to the scene in the cult film classic "Office Space," in which office workers take a printer out into a field and smash it to bits.
Players are given weapons including a baseball bat with which to destroy the printer in a noirish back alley, while the printer spits out paper printed with taunts like, "My Grandma hits harder" and "Oh. You're still here?" The game was created by RTC Relationship Marketing, a division of Wunderman.
"To speak to the IT decision-makers, this was a cost-effective way to get their attention,"Johnson said, noting that Samsung also ran print, banners and search ads beginning in September.
Samsung had a link to the game on Samsung.com. In addition, someone using the alias "miker430" posted the game on YouTube in July with the comment, "I helped make this game." (That post fetched just 241 total hits at press time.) Probably more important was the fact the game was mentioned by bloggers, which resulted in an average of 15,000 unique visitors per month to it.
"There was an interesting amount of fluctuation that I can only assume [related to] which blogs were covering it," Johnson said. There would be "a week or two trail-off, and then another blogger might discover it." He said the majority of traffic to the game was from bloggers' mentions and very little in the way of "forward to a friend" pass-along.
"We want to continue to better understand the blog space and how we can communicate better through viral," Johnson said, zeroing in on the power of the blogosphere to get the word out.
"We did this for less than $100,000 from end to end to touch people and had many unique visitors with an average play time of over three minutes, meaning they interacted with our messaging. Many came back to play again. We consider that very good ROI." He added that the tactic also provides real-time feedback, and called the viral game a "good first experiment."
"I think we can look forward to doing more activity in the viral medium," he said. "It's a nice way to monitor live the impact the campaign is having rather than do a focus group."
Skeptics question value
Skeptics of viral gaming for b-to-b marketers suggest there are no clear-cut branding benefits in most cases.
"I question the whole viral trend," said Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, a marketing strategy firm. "In the best case, the ad becomes well known, but it usually doesn't bring anything back to the brand, and most times people don't even remember the brand."
Ries added, "I don't think it's a terrific idea for b-to-b. In particular, b-to-b is serious. These are serious products and people in their offices, and I don't see the natural correlation. Should they [marketers] really be doing crazy Internet games to take people away from their jobs?"