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How Brands Are Unlocking Gaming as a New Advertising Channel

August 3, 2022

With a global audience of more than 3 billion players, gaming continues to thrive – sustaining the growth experienced during recent international lockdowns with new and existing audiences that are continuing to seek immersive virtual experiences.

On average, gamers are now spending almost 8.5 hours per week consuming gaming content, and that’s before we even consider the rapid growth of supporting gaming channels such as esports, video content and live streams.

As media evolves and the way consumers choose to consume and engage with it continues to change too, brands are now presented with an exciting challenge to be creative and utilise new and developing technologies to appeal to their target audiences and elevate both their brand impact and favourability in a crowded and hyper-competitive marketplace.

In-game advertising enables brands to seamlessly become a part of gaming experiences, bridging the gap between interactive entertainment and advertisers whilst providing a safe channel to communicate directly with a rapidly growing global audience.  

In this article, we deep dive into the opportunity that in-game advertising offers, unpacking trends and evaluating existing activation options to help advertisers understand how to unlock gaming as a new channel and how to navigate the medium successfully.

Understanding Your Audience 

Like any audience, gamers are nuanced individuals, defined by their own tastes, differing habits and preferences. The long-time negative depictions and associations of gamers being exclusively young, anti-social males continue to be contradicted, with female audiences now representing 45% of the market and older demographics such as 55-64-year-olds being amongst the fastest-growing groups of new players. 

With such a diverse global audience, a focus on understanding becomes paramount for brands seeking to explore the medium. By defining personas, identifying key passion points and evaluating motivations, brands can target, reach and ultimately engage with gaming audiences more effectively. 

In the context of advertising, understanding crossovers between target consumers’ interests and specific genres of games can assist brands in identifying key partnership opportunities to maximise value on investment for gaming activations.

At the 2022 Digiday Gaming Advertising Forum, Jason Brickell, Associate Director of Programmatic Product and Innovation at Xaxis, highlighted the significance of brands both recognising and truly understanding the expectations of gaming audiences. In his words, “Gaming advertising is a great way for brands to advertise to their audiences in a way that is fun and exciting. But it is so important that advertising in-game is done in a way that is non-intrusive to the gamer, being native to the game environment to maintain a positive association for the brand.”

Building an Impactful Creative 

Not all environments in-game are the same, nor is the message each brand is trying to convey to their audience. Therefore, brands must consider finding a format that balances the delivery of their message with the player experience – ensuring that the campaign remains a seamless and authentic part of gameplay. 

Programmatic in-game activations (common in sports, racing and open-world environments) allow programmatic display ads to be displayed in any natural settings that complement the game’s environment and, subsequently, the user experience. By opting for immersive ad placements, brands can remain highly visible and become an authentic part of gameplay without disrupting the playing experience for the end-user. 

When discussing best practices for building impactful creative, Will Stewart, Creative Director at Bidstack emphasised the importance of brands effectively integrating content relevant to the themes and environments of the gameplay experience. “Creatives that respect the game environments they sit within are more likely to create positive engagements with players. Brands should design creatives with the ‘less is more’ attitude – a simple, high-contrast creative will ensure the desired brand recognition without disturbing the player experience”. 

Travel and hospitality brand Marriott Bonvoy achieved notable success when it created a highly commended in-game activation across 23 top gaming franchises. The in-game branded assets were viewed over 46 million times, communicating with Marriott’s target audience of gamers with an interest in domestic travel.

The campaign, which ran across a range of platforms including VR, PC, Console, Cloud and Mobile devices, saw the brand brought to life in virtual stadiums, racetracks and in-game custom vehicles and player skins. Supported by amplification across social media channels, the campaign saw Marriott Bonvoy become the first global hotel brand to embrace branded gameplay experiences.

Finding the Right Format 

Programmatic In-Game Activations – For brands looking to deliver promotional content into natural gaming environments, programmatic activations provide an efficient and highly-targeted approach to engaging with audiences. Available across a range of premium games inventory, this approach utilises IAB-compatible formats to serve highly visible yet intrinsic advertisements into virtual environments.

Cosmetic Focused Content – For brands simply seeking awareness and recognition amongst audiences, in-game cosmetic content such as skins, wraps and camos can prove a practical approach.

Luxury goods conglomerate LVMH succeeded with their partnership with Riot Games, where Louis Vuitton branded skins were available in-game for players to purchase in League of Legends – a game estimated to have an active monthly player base of over 180 million worldwide. In addition to generating revenue for the game publisher, the partnership saw Louis Vuitton feature prominently in the 2020 World Championship event in Shanghai, China and was watched live by a concurrent peak audience of over 45.95 million viewers. 

In-Menu and Rewarded Video Activations – For brands looking to remain highly visible at scale, both in-menu and rewarded video can provide a cost-effective approach to getting your brand in front of significant audiences whilst still being an ‘opt-in’ option for the gamer. The format benefits from allowing players to control their level of interaction, with the content never interrupting gameplay and players opting to click on the content if they wish to pursue further information around the promotional content.

Experiential Activations – For brands seeking to truly stand out from competitors, there is the opportunity to create custom experience-based activations in which audiences will engage with developing technologies for value-driven experiences.

Bidstack, in partnership with Starcom Worldwide, worked with fashion and perfume giant Paco Rabanne to launch the award-winning “Scent of Victory” campaign, a VR-driven experience in Rezzil’s Player 22 game. The campaign saw the launch of the “Invictus Challenge”, whereby players were able to compete against each other to complete a virtual reaction wall alongside US sporting icon Tim Howard to promote the luxury men’s fragrance in the run-up to the holiday season.

On the success of the campaign, Andy Etches, the Founder of Rezzil, stated, “Creating branded experiences like this within the metaverse offers a glimpse of the future potential for brands. With this campaign, we’re proud to have been able to deliver on our core product offering in a way that respects and enhances the player experience”.

Respecting the Art

Authenticity remains key when utilising in-game advertising as part of your media strategy. Game development is an art form that encapsulates several years of passion, creativity and significant work into a physical product to be consumed by audiences of avid fans.

Brands should seek to not only define objective success through immediate impressions but also consider the level of engagement their in-game activations attract, understanding how long audiences interact with their content and how this may influence their decision-making.

Environments and genres remain an essential consideration for in-game ad placements. Inappropriate ad placements and content that detracts from the gameplay can draw audience criticism towards the game studio itself and the featured brand.  

Recent high-profile examples demonstrate this, with studios being subject to backlash from audiences around campaign activations being disruptive and not in line with the expectations of a premium gaming experience. This reinforces the importance of effective implementation, ensuring that creative remains in line with consumer expectations regarding both gameplay environments and the overall user experience.

Managed correctly, in-game advertisements can contribute significantly to the realism of a gaming experience, recreating real-world environments within which audiences have come to expect the presence of advertising, be it in billboards, banners or even product placements.

Leading mobile publisher Turborilla specialises in action sports games, developing titles that have been downloaded over 120 million times. Turborilla has effectively utilised a range of in-game advertising formats as a supplementary monetisation channel within its titles, including their award-winning Mad Skills Motocross series. 

When speaking at Pocket Gamer Connects London earlier this year, Bryan Stealey, CMO at Turborilla highlighted the success the studio and publisher had experienced implementing custom branded cosmetics and programmatic in-game activations, achieving notable new revenue sources whilst providing unique and engaging content for players that complimented the gameplay.

“We want to be one of the mobile games that shows how effectively this type of advertising can be implemented. Whereas some forms of advertising can be annoying to players, we think native in-game advertising, when done well, can actually enhance the player experience”.

Creating Experiences and Brand Value

As campaign objectives vary, so does the implementation of in-game advertising. Whether central to the activation or complementary to a broader media mix, brands can utilise the format to create experiences that captivate the audience’s attention and establish long-term brand value.

This same principle applies to B2B relationships – brands can utilise the format of gaming to establish and maintain a presence in the mindset of partners and clients. Gaming experiential activations can provide a unique opportunity to create direct contact between brands and decision-makers, enhancing relationships and unlocking new commercial opportunities.

A recent event series from Azerion demonstrates the opportunity for experiential gaming activations, with the pan-European digital entertainment and media platform hosting a roadshow series across Madrid in the offices of leading international advertising agencies to exhibit the opportunity of in-gaming advertising through in-person engagements.

The roadshow hosted in partnership with media giant GroupM saw the participation of over 400 employees, with each agency competing in a virtual racing competition for the fastest lap. The events provided each participant a unique, engaging experience whilst effectively demonstrating Azerion’s high-quality product offerings in real-time directly to key decision-makers. The format proved a cost-effective approach to positioning Azerion as a leading gaming partner.

Reflecting on the success of the event, Julio Irisarri, Head of Marketing at Azerion Spain, added, “This activation has served us to make a real demonstration of how brands look in in-game formats. Thanks to the event, we are now sure that when they think of gaming platforms, they will remember Azerion among the six most important agencies in our market because they know what we offer”.

Ensuring Brand Safety

The format of in-game advertising continues to evolve, and the shift in how the channel is perceived is reflected by industry bodies such as the IAB working to establish new measurement standards. Working in collaboration with the Media Rating Council (MRC) and industry working groups, the guidelines (which were first released in June 2022) have helped to instil confidence in brands wishing to explore the format. 

Additional certifications granted to in-game advertising platforms and vendors can also provide further assurance to brands by providing independent assurance around the quality of measures in place to ensure brand safety, maintain full compliance with data and privacy regulations and prevent any risk of ad fraud.

Initiatives such as the IAB Gold Standard aim to protect brands by certifying digital media vendors that demonstrate a commitment to upholding industry best practices and utilising measures that protect the integrity of digital advertising as a whole. These assessments operate annually, providing ongoing reassurance for brands and establishing a sustainable future for innovative advertising formats.

Closing Thoughts

In-game advertising provides a unique opportunity for innovative brands to directly engage with targeted audiences. Designed and implemented effectively, the format has demonstrated significant value, establishing long-term awareness and favourability amongst a rapidly growing and truly diverse global player base.

With industry measures being implemented to ensure brand safety, brands should feel confident exploring and utilising in-game advertising, either as a standalone execution or as part of a wider media mix to deliver branded messages to a highly engaged audience. 

By drawing on the guidance outlined, brands can deliver highly visible yet non-intrusive messaging that complements the gameplay experience, providing continued value to gaming audiences, publishers and brands.