Sims Takes Its Virtual World to the Social Web

EA Stokes Interest Among Fans Online by Letting Them Create Avatars Ahead of New Edition's Release

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Most gamers know what to expect from the Sims family: a chance to create characters and take them through many stages of life. To generate publicity for "The Sims 3," the first new edition of the game in five years, Electronic Arts will allow potential players to craft Sims characters ahead of the game's release that can travel with them as they surf the web. It's just one part of a multipronged marketing attack around the game's June 2 debut.

Fans can create Sims characters ahead of the game's release that can travel with them as they surf the web.
Fans can create Sims characters ahead of the game's release that can travel with them as they surf the web.
When "The Sims 2" launched five years ago, social networking wasn't even a buzzy catchphrase among the hip. Now, said John Buchanan, senior director of marketing for the Sims, it's an essential avenue for reaching consumers between 16 and 24, who often look for information and entertainment around the clock, not just when it's on TV at a specified time.

To reach those influential customers, the company has altered its media mix from the previous launch. "Traditional media was a very important part of any marketing campaign, just like it is in 2009," he said. "The big change has been the amount of online vehicles that are available to you." Where about 60% of the marketing budget for "The Sims 2" was devoted to traditional media, Mr. Buchanan said, the rise of social networking and other digital-media platforms has evened up the media spending for this launch -- about half for traditional media and half for emerging media.

Broader shift
The effort reflects a broader shift in how to get consumers excited about a new entertainment property, whether it is a TV show, a new album or a video game. Time was, fans of a particular release were treated just like anyone else. They got news when others did, even though they were more likely not only to watch or buy the product but to talk about it for weeks or months ahead of launch. Now many entertainment companies see value in tapping fan bases and generating interest in a product through a range of methods both obvious and subtle.

EA is offering "free trial" experiences via "Sims Sidekick," an application that allows users to create Sims characters with specific personality traits. The ersatz avatars can follow their masters as they surf from web page to web page, and each will exhibit different behaviors based on the characteristics a user has chosen. One website may cause the figure to jump around; another might case it to spin. "There will be a very specific response based on the personality traits," Mr. Buchanan said. "Current players will think it's neat they can take their Sim anywhere on the web. We think it will also entice new players to go and learn more what Sims is all about."

'The Sims 3' billboard in Times Square.
'The Sims 3' billboard in Times Square.
To stoke the interest of core players, the company is also unleashing something it calls the "Sims Friend," an application that allows users to have e-mail conversations with the Sims characters they've built. Responses will vary according to the personality traits selected, Mr. Buchanan said. "They may or may not do something you expect."

'Groundswell of interest'
Even out-of-home advertising is designed to get conversation about the game flowing online. EA has posted big billboards and signs in important commerce areas such as New York's Times Square. The idea "was to start to build a groundswell of interest through iconic billboards," Mr. Buchanan said, as fans of the game take pictures of the billboards and post them online. "We have people who aren't even casual players taking pictures with digital cameras or iPhones or BlackBerries, and then sending these billboards around the worldwide web through Facebook, MySpace, community pages."

To create further interest online, promotional videos will be available through MySpace and YouTube. The company will also run a game on both Facebook and the Sims site itself that lets players learn about the game.

In addition to the complex efforts to attract consumers via digital media, EA continues to work with TV and other mainstream ad platforms. The company is using traditional media to create mass awareness as it works more surgically to go after its core demographic in the younger age range. "It was incumbent upon us to make sure we had significant online investment that was supported with more traditional media like TV and out of home and print," Mr. Buchanan said.

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