The Maturing Market For Brand Integration With Social Games: Light Integration

Brand engagement through social games covers a wide range of efforts from labeled in-game items to entire games built around a recognizable name. This week, we continue our exploration of the three levels of brand engagement with social games by examining light integration.

Light integration can most easily be characterized by branded items available for sale or display within a game for a limited amount of time, like Coca Cola branded energy boost or a Ford Prius car decoration. Light integration can also be characterized by simple “adver-games” where a brand features a playable simulation on its own site or Facebook page, something like the Super Bowl browser ad powered by digital advertising company SocialVibe in conjunction with Zynga as part of a Kia Motors campaign. Anything beyond this level of integration, say, a character from a motion picture with whom players can interact or branded items only available through a playable quest longer than a two-click interaction, we will confine to medium integration and beyond, which we’ll examine in future articles.

In social games, light integration evolved out of offer walls where players could watch a video, complete a survey, or sign up for a service in exchange for in-game currency. To add value to users, games began rewarding players with more than just virtual currency for their participation, sometimes giving them branded items in-game that served a specific gameplay function. For example, AVG Technologies recently ran a campaign with Zynga’s FarmVille where players could earn a free Biplane item and three Instant Grow boosts in-game by purchasing AVG’s PC Tuneup between February 24 and March 2. The Biplane is purely a cosmetic item while the Instant Grows actually provide utility to the player, making the brand integration more valuable to them.

Costs and Benefits of Light Integration

Light integration campaigns are comparatively cheap and easy to execute for established social games. Chris Cunningham, CEO of brand-to-game integration service appssavvy, says that the typical sales cycle for planning and executing a campaign is between three and six months. In the case of Zynga, which worked with appssavvy on brand campaigns for McDonald’s and Coca Cola in FarmVille and Cafe World respectively, there are several options that allow the developer to activate a brand campaign even more quickly, like integrating video ads, user surveys — or both.

The result, Zynga Global Director of Brand Advertising Manny Anekal tells us, is that his company really only needs six weeks to activate on a brand.

“To put that into perspective, in the traditional console space, you really couldn’t integrate into a console game in six weeks or less, so I think that’s an advantage Zynga has,” Anekal says. He describes the successful relationship the developer enjoys with movie studios who like partner with Zynga for short-term campaigns to promote upcoming film or DVD releases. “In general, movie studios plan in advance so we’re lucky they have very long [lead] times in their planning schedule, but we can execute in the near term if needed.”

Anekal goes on to describe how a movie may sometimes want to increase light integration within in a game with less than a week’s notice. To pull that off, Zynga partners with SocialVibe to deliver combined video/survey ads in-game that rewards users with virtual currency.

“We recently did a program for Disney’s Toy Story 3,” he says. “What SocialVibe has told us is that for our video engagement ads, you’re seeing time spent north of a minute long. People are not only sitting there watching [the] trailer and getting exposed to that, they’re actually engaging with the brand.

“So for Toy Story 3 it was actually ‘Watch the Toy Story 3 trailer, then tell us about your favorite childhood toy.’ You can then share that into your Facebook feed, so there’s a viral element to that. And then, the user gets something. ‘Thank you for watching our trailer, thank you for participating with us, here’s some virtual currency.’ That’s a way in which we can execute very quickly.”

As for costs, it varies both by brand type and by game. Larger games with monthly active users in the millions and daily active users north of 500,000 offer advertisers a more valuable audience with the potential to reach new customers, while smaller games with a niche audience are more about deepening the brand connection with existing customers. Light integration is usually paid for via flat rate fee to cover production costs. We’ve heard that small niche games can fetch between $10,000 and $25,000 per month for brand integration, and mid-sized games range between $25,000 and $50,000 per month.

Beyond the fee, payment comes from cost per engagement or impressions from social game players. In cases where a branded virtual good is for sale, the developer and advertiser share revenues from the sale.

The Future of Light Integration Is Depth of Engagement

Light brand integration depends heavily on how much an advertiser feels a game’s audience is worth, but the real power in the dynamic comes from developers. Most game developers will not do campaigns with brands that don’t offer some added value to players, no matter how much money the advertiser offers the developer.

“The brand target needs to match the target of the game,” Anekal says. “We have said no to brands where it would detract from the gameplay or take away from the audience. We’re taking baby steps to make sure our advertising is done right.”

As the market evolves, we expect to see light integration formalize into specified relationships between games and brands and also to see a set of advertising companies try to position themselves as campaign brokers between the two. For Zynga’s part on light integration, Anekal hints at a more regular set of weekly campaigns to promote upcoming Friday releases of films. Cunningham, meanwhile, describes appssavvy’s upcoming platform service for advertisers that would allow them to purchase a specific in-game activity (e.g. buying a good, completing a poll, etc.) as opposed to planning out an entire campaign.

As these relationships develop, we expect to see the price of light integration shift upward as advertisers try to work out how much a user’s action is worth compared to the current value of cost per engagement or impressions measurements, while the overall cost to developers shifts downward through standardized integration mechanics like the Toy Story 3 video ad. Join us next week for a look at medium level brand integration with social games. To find out more about specific branded campaigns within social games, sign up for The Facebook Marketing Bible.

[Toy Story 3 promotion image via]