Let's start with a little quiz. Can you tell what the following strings of characters symbolize?
AK47 - MP5 - M1A1 - M16 - UMP (I'll stop here before my blog shows up on national security queries)
If you are a gamer, chances are very good that you will correctly answer the question: they are all firearms. If you have played enough First Person Shooter games (like I have), you can go even further and tell me an amazing amount of detail about each weapon: ammo type, effective range, handling, accuracy, where and when to use each, and more.
I am a peaceful, anti-war individual who has never even touched a firearm in his entire life, let alone fire one. I advocate a gun-free society and do not plan to own any sort of gun any time at all. In short, I am nowhere near being in the market for guns. Yet why does my brain retain such intimate knowledge of the products in question?
Let's look at a less inflammatory example: I have never been in the market for a Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini or some other similar car either. Yet there was a time I could almost write up a factsheet about each one from memory. Why did I care?
While you think about that, let me turn back to the original question of why people play games. Playing and playtime are not limited to just humans. Many mammals, particularly those of the predatory kind, make use of games and playtime as an integral component of development of the individual. At its core, playtime is an opportunity for the mind to learn about risky situations, and to master the skills of dealing with them, without taking any actual risk of getting seriously hurt or wounded. This strong association of playtime with learning of skills that are crucial to survival, has shaped our brains into being incredibly receptive to new knowledge and information that we are exposed to within the activity of playing.
It is even more so when the knowledge and information is directly related to winning. Millions of years of evolution has sharpened one trait the most, common in all organisms alive today: competitiveness. Often times there has not been enough room on this planet for everyone. When that is the case, the one that survives is the one that wins over the competition. This is why the need to win (whether as an individual or as a group) is the mother of all motivational systems that our brains rely on. Any skill, knowledge or information linked to that primary motivation is sure to get the utmost focus of our perception and cognition. Playtime, particularly the structured sort, takes advantage of this fact by offering rewards to be won, and defining the set of rules, skills and knowledge to be used in reaching that goal. If the reward is enticing enough, the brain puts a flashing neon MUST-LEARN tag on all relevant information. Let us call this The Relevancy Factor.
A most beautiful advantage of playtime is that it allows for practice of skills and use of knowledge out-of-context. A cat does not need to wait for mice to show up, to hone her skills. In other words, you can simulate a particular experience as many times as you want, without having to rely on external conditions. Neuroplasticity studies have recently shown us that it is a highly competitive environment inside our brains, where the skills and knowledge that we do not frequently use tend to wane, and the ones we frequently use grow to occupy larger space. It is known as the use-it-or-lose-it principle. In this way, playtime allows for much more frequent use of skills and knowledge. Each round of playing reinforces the importance of the subject in question. After enough rounds played, the brain now puts a flashing MUST-RETAIN sign on all relevant information. Let us name this The Stickiness Factor.
Now we have the context for transitioning from Reach x Frequency, to a measure that is more appropriate to marketing with games; Relevance x Stickiness.
Reach vs Relevance
John Nelson Wanamaker, the father of modern advertising as they say, is often quoted in saying: "I know half of my advertising is wasted. I just don't know which half." Over time it has become one of the main struggles of marketing to reduce that ineffective half to smaller percentages by careful media buying, segmentation, geo-targeting, etc. Yet still when one airs an ad on any media, they are still paying for the eyeballs of a good number of people who are not even remotely in the market for the advertised product.
The limitation is that people pay attention to only what they deem is relevant to their lives. I am sure I will purchase a car in the next five years, but I have no pressing need right now to pay close attention to auto commercials. I may think about buying a house in the next ten years, but for all those real estate ads on the newspaper I am quite out of reach right now. And yet they pay for my eyeballs nonetheless.
But what if, as a marketer, you did not need to catch people at that perfect time in their lives to get their attention? What if you could seed the information now and reap the purchase interest later?
This is one advantage of marketing with games: you can make the information relevant by presenting it within an appropriate motivational context. I may not care for a muscle car, but if I am playing a racing game, I need to learn which one is the best, which one can turn the tightest corners, etc, because I want to win. Once the relevancy is established, the message is not going to waste anymore.
Compared to mass media advertising, your marketing does not need to be divided into Effective and Waste portions. Instead of that, it creates Effective and Collateral segments, the latter of which has a higher chance of triggering interest (compared to Waste) at later stages of the consumer's life.
Since relevancy means superior engagement of the consumer, we can also use the term Engagement Factor.
Frequency vs Stickiness
Frequency relies on mere repetition to cement the information in the minds of the audience. It is a passive method of "learning," requires constant upkeep, gives diminishing returns, and is also hard to manage. In short, it is grossly inefficient.
Stickiness, on the other hand, relies on the use-it-or-lose-it principle of neuroplasticity. When marketing with games, it occurs from constant self-exposure of the consumer to the marketing message while having fun. The fun factor engages the individual and keeps them coming back for more, allowing for many more instances of direct experience where they can actively use the information. When the use of information is directly relevant to the structure of the game, this allows for the brain to retain high volumes of information with an unusual level of detail about the product that is marketed. This is also how people learn more about European history, from games like Europa Universalis, than they do in many years of history classes in school. Compared to mere repetition, this retained knowledge also lasts much longer in the brain before it starts to wane due to lack of use.
A hybrid: Reach x Engagement x Stickiness
In order to have a succesful marketing campaign with games, you need three components:
- The game must get in the hands of the audience. If it's a commercial game, it needs to sell. You can distribute it for free to get the highest degree of reach.
- It needs to engage the user with your message. Your message needs to be relevant to the game at its core. Absorbing the information should be as closely tied to the game goals as possible.
- The game needs to be fun. This might make you say "Duh!" but it is surprising how even some commercial games miss that simple target. If it's not fun enough to keep the user coming back for more, it will hurt the duration of exposure to the message. The brain will not retain the information.
It is also easy to see through such thinking, that people who have a deep understanding of both worlds (marketing and digital entertainment) will be in high demand in the future, as the video games sector continues on its path to becoming the dominant media.
If you are interested in learning more about neuroplasticity, I highly recommend reading The Brain That Changes Itself.
I should also note, the Engagement x Stickiness may also be worth thinking about if you are in education.
As always, for questions and comments, please feel free to use the comments section here, or email me at taykad-at-hotmail-dot-com.
(Addendum: JP Sherman has written a nice expansion to this post, applying the same principles to video game marketing itself. Check it out.)