The Social Game Dilemma

In the gung-ho world of social engagement, it's hard not to get excited whenDisney invests over half a billion dollars in a social gaming company. Instantly one's brain starts to click with the marketing potential. As any marketer (or economist, for that matter) knows, commerce is essentially a game. And the more we introduce interesting and relevant mechanics to inspire game-like behavior, the more engaged a targeted customer will become. It would seem a given that blending the worlds of marketing and social gaming would be a winning formula — no pun intended.

Yet, as my guests on this past week's episode of The BeanCast

 so skillfully pointed out, that blending may be harder to achieve than would seem immediately evident. Just as product placement in films is subject to the inconsistent whims of producers and writers who may or may not be on board with the effort, so too game developer buy-in (or even skill) may greatly affect outcomes. Then add in the newness of the platforms and the lack of proven case studies and you quickly uncover the risks of involving a brand in the space.

As was mentioned on the show, some tie-ins are born winners. The example of Miracle Grow being introduced to Farmville as a beneficial fertilizer was particularly notable. But such tie-ins are few and far between and as Mike Monello noted, it would be better for a brand to build a social game from the ground up than to inhabit a space with so much uncertainty.

Which brings up the case of location-based social games like Foursquare and Gowalla and the topic that started the show.Forrester says wait, when it comes to most brands involving themselves in such platforms. The panel agreed for the most part, though offered the insight that even Twitter and Facebook were insignificant 4 years ago. 

So what do we do?

There was an interesting point made during the show that may have been overlooked. Jeffrey Hayzlett quoted Sheldon Adelson (the man behind COMDEX) who said to him once, "Attendees beget exhibitors and exhibitors beget attendees."

Clearly if we want a social gaming experience to be a powerful platform for marketing, we have to be willing to invest in the platform itself. That means advertising and promoting our commitment and involvement on the platform to our customers at the same time we're marketing to users already on the platform. It also means moderating our expectations in anticipation for future returns. And it means doing all this carefully with a clear exit strategy.

But ignoring the opportunities of the platform completely until it's fleshed out would be like Microsoft saying that COMDEX was too risky to participate in during the 80s. Such a move in hindsight would have been foolish. So too, we have to at least recognize that there is a natural synergy between marketing, social networking and games. That synergy is worth some cautious exploration at the very least.

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