Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Has in-game finally reached a “plateau of productivity?”

By NDA monthly columnist Dan Plant, Executive Head of Strategy, Starcom UK

A couple of months ago, my column on NDA discussed the challenges of launching a big brand when no-one leaves the house any more, and so all those wonderful, brand-building poster sites have a fraction of the audience they once did.  I hoped that we would start to learn to use “indoor” media with the impact and brand building effect that the Outdoor industry has been so good at over the years.

Now, thankfully, the Outdoor industry is seeing signs of recovery, and I still hope that the long-term prognosis is good, but I still strongly believe that we all need to get better at building brands in a digital world. So in the meantime, I’ve been looking at potential digital opportunities that could start to at least fill some of that hole.

One case study that recently jumped out at me was Samsung’s campaign for the launch of the Samsung A51 this Summer (run by Starcom Spain).  Facing the outdoor challenge outlined above, and also needing to connect with a younger audience than Samsung typically recruits, my Spanish colleagues found their audience using poster sites in the virtual worlds of all their favourite mobile games. And it worked – driving significant uplifts in unaided awareness for this lesser known of Samsung’s range.

Now this is the kind of advertising innovation I love.  My philosophy is that the best media planning should actually add value to the environment it inhabits – value for the consumer that is. Too much of our industry ends up exploiting audiences where we could be enhancing their experiences.

When in-game advertising like this is done well (emphasis on “well”), it can improve the experience for the gamers. By having relevant, current ads on sites that mirror the real-world placement, it adds a level of realism which improves the immersive nature of the game rather than distracting from it.

And it does a great brand building job as well. Gaming is a powerfully emotional medium. The highs and lows are palpable, and more importantly they are memorable. Having brands integrated into those moments is the holy grail for brand building, creating an emotional connection beyond simple awareness, and sending implicit signals that this is a brand for you.

But, I’ve been here before.

In 2006, I had fully drunk the Kool-aid on in-game advertising. Massive Inc and IGA had both launched dynamic in-game advertising products (i.e. you could serve ads into existing games rather than being hard coded) and the industry was predicted to be a $2billion industry by 2010.

I had so much bought the dream that I even tried to launch an in-game advertising department at the media agency I was working at – I really thought it was the future.

Later that year, Microsoft bought Massive Inc for about $400million, so they clearly thought there was something in it. However, by 2010, instead of In-game being a $2billlion business, Microsoft were writing off a half billion-dollar loss and folding the Massive Inc business. So I guess I’m lucky that no-one took my in-game department seriously!

Given this history, I was intrigued this year to watch the fortunes of Bidstack. Bidstack started out as one of many companies trying to provide a digital Out-of-Home marketplace, but a couple of years ago in the face of heavy competition, they pivoted into programmatic native In-game advertising.

This pivot was initially greeted with enthusiasm by the market which subsequently subsided. However, market enthusiasm aside, they have been steadily building their business and this year they saw a resurgence in their share price as everyone was suddenly stuck at home with not much else to do but play games.

When I looked at the share price just this year, I thought the curve looked really familiar:

The early enthusiasm dropped rapidly, but in the back half of the year it has seen a steady sensible growth.

That shape reminded me of the Gartner Hype cycle. In-game advertising has definitely had a period of inflated expectations, and then the corresponding “trough of disillusionment”.

However, as programmatic technology for in-game has developed further it feels like we’re just starting to understand how to use it and maybe, just maybe, it can become a productive part of the digital brand building tool set. It doesn’t feature on the latest Gartner Hype cycle for Digital Marketing, but maybe 2021 will be its year.

I personally hope that it is. This type of activity is just what digital media needs to move beyond a performance mindset and start to deliver scaleable, memorable, even famous brand campaigns.