How social games became influential and what companies are doing about it.

Let’s play a game. Raise your hand if you have never played Farmville, Mafia Wars, Cafe World, Texas Hold’em Poker, or any other game on Facebook or on your phone. Anybody?

You don’t need to be psychic to know that there were very few hands in the air, you just need to look inside the huge social games phenomenon, which was born within Facebook and which has grown remarkably since.

Merchandising Through Popular Games

The numbers speaks for themselves: Zynga, the biggest social games producer, has more than 232 million active users per month. In 2009 they booked $235,4 million, more than doubled that in 2010 ($597,5 million), and in only the first three months of 2011 they have already made $235,4 million (the same amount they made in all of 2009). SharesPost, an exchange that connects buyers and sellers of privately held companies, has valued Zynga at $15.4 billion, making it the most valuable U.S. game company ahead of Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts. And the good news for Zynga doesn’t stop there as the company is gearing up to open its doors to investors to the tune of $1 billion in their initial public offering.

“With this offering we are inviting you to join our mission. Invest with us because you believe in the potential for the world to play together. Evaluate us by how many of your friends and family play our games. Before you invest, we hope you will play our games. And, if you’re part of the hundreds of millions who have already played our games, thank you. You’re part of the future.”, said Zynga founder and CEO Mark Pincus in an open letter for potential shareholders.

Pincus’s words are very interesting to be sure, but why should digital marketers care about that? Simple answer: Games are creating a whole new media space, one that is full of possibilities and which presents a fresh environment for innovative marketing strategies. More important, it’s a space in which there is already an enrapt audience.

For Pincus, “the key to Zynga`s success is in the ability for play to become as much a part of the internet`s core as search, share and shop currently are.”

Many brands are already exploring social games as a media via a sponsorship format, including Amazon, HBO, Discover Financial Services, General Mills, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s, Target, Walmart and Coca-Cola. In such cases, the brand seeks to nothing more than merge into the game experience, offering virtual-goods for sale within the game’s digital world. The games already generate huge traffic, so these “sponsors” need to worry only about reaping the benefits. Take Coca-Cola, for example, which sold virtual Coke in Zynga’s Cafe World game. According to Zynga, during the promotion 2.5 million virtual Cokes were sold and 80% of the game players “took action post-advertisement,” meaning that some of the players ended up purchasing a real Coca-Cola product.

According to ThinkEquity LLC, a San Francisco-based research firm, the worldwide virtual-goods market is expected to more than double in 2014 from the $9.28 billion realized in 2010, reaching total sales of $20.3 billion.

Creating a new branded game: Doritos- Dip Desperado

Rather than piggybacking marketing efforts on existing games, a number of companies are instead opting to face the big challenge of building traffic and creating their own branded game. One recent example of this strategy is a UK-produced Doritos campaign called “Dip Desperado”.

The creative idea behind Dip Desperado is based on the concept of throwing Doritos, leading the brand to create a game in which participants need to throw the product at targets to rack up a score. The higher scores eligible to win one of the 1000 prices offered, such as an Xbox, holidays to Florida, and track days at Silverstone. The game is available via a Facebook page (in much the same manner in which Zynga’s games started, and continue to grow stronger and stronger), and there are also versions for iPhone and Android. Also, players can increase their chances of winning by buying actual Dorito’s products to gain special codes which can be entered into the game.

What is most interesting in the case of Dip Desperado is that the internet action was not designed to support the offline traditional campaign, but just the opposite: Doritos made a commercial video introducing the story behind the idea, which also served as an invitation to play the game.

Dip Desperado itself is not social, as it does not require that people invite friends to play, but it has the same fun appeal and is found in the same environment as the socials. It is too early to tell whether the game will achieve impressive results, but the potencial is certainly there.

In Conclusion

After all, what is it that makes games — especially social games — so successful and appealing to the public? In Pincus’s opinion, “play is one of life’s big macros-it’s an activity people love to do and do often.” And he continues, saying that “games should be accessible to everyone, anywhere, any time. They should be social, free, data driven and, finally, good.” Now raise your hand if you think he is onto something.