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IPG Media Lab

The State of In-Game Advertising

As seen at the inaugural IAB PlayFront conference

Credit: @IAB on Twitter

“Why now?”

This was the question the IAB posited at the top of its inaugural PlayFront in New York on Tuesday.

If you were to query the attendees, which was mostly comprised of agency folks, brand marketers, and partners ranging from publishers to platforms, each group would likely reply with a different insight into consumers’ shifting attention to the gaming space, including key stats like:

  • 46% of Females Consider Themselves Gamers
  • 80% of Gen Z Consider Gaming to Be Their Primary Hobby
  • 72% of 35 to 54 Year-Olds Engage With Gaming Daily

While these stats serve to demonstrate the massive growth of the category, the IAB’s VP of Experience Center, and Master of Ceremonies on the day, Zoe Soon ultimately responded more succinctly, “it’s time.”

The esports and gaming audience was already enormous prior to the pandemic (2.5B in 2019), but as many of the presenters on the day alluded to, COVID-19 proved an accelerator for the industry. Today, there are just over three billion gamers globally, but where did this influx of players come from during the pandemic period? Evidence presented throughout the PlayFront event points towards a greater number of female and older gamers than ever before. Suddenly, the composition of the gamer demographic was no longer constricted to the cliché “mom’s basement” players. With this increased diversity naturally came brands with appetite for audiences of all segments and sizes.

For brands yet to develop their gaming playbook, it may be difficult to discern how to best dip the proverbial toe with the multitude of opportunities that exist in this space, but to echo the sentiment of many of the brand champions that took the PlayFront stage, understanding your audience is not only the first step, but also the most important.

Know Your Audience

“Being into video games” alone is no longer a significant behavioral insight to guide your audience segmentations and marketing strategy across gaming and esports. There is a tremendous amount of nuance in the types of players that exist across these environments. The octogenarian grandmother playing Candy Crush over her morning coffee is radically different than the teenage warrior of the wee hours crushing Call of Duty.

Willem Dinger, Unilever’s Global Director of Sponsorships, spoke about the importance of defining the role your brand is going to play in the ecosystem. With the conglomerate boasting a broad array of brands in its portfolio, it would certainly not be strategically sound to employ the same tactics for each. A League of Legends partnership made almost too much sense for a brand targeting teen and young men, such as Axe, but appealing to that same esport aficionado segment would not effectively boost the profile of Hellman’s Mayonnaise. Instead, showing up in a more casual, lifestyle-oriented game, such as Animal Crossing, would be a better fit.

Nakesha Holly from Verizon’s Media Strategy and Activation team spoke to their company’s success in evolving their Twitch strategy beyond just media. Holly iterated the importance of designing experiences with specific consumer subsets and how that might alter an approach to an avid or novice gamer.

IGN also lent credence to this hypothesis of not all gamers are created equal, providing further dimension on their social, entertainment and purchase habits with insights from their 2021 Audience Segmentation Study done in conjunction with Nielsen. The report assessed behaviors across six unique audiences ranging from “Lifelong Gamers” to “Incidental Gamers.” And while the point of appropriate titles and platforms for different audiences is a rather belabored one by now, understanding their “offline” activity is equally important to understand how to best re-engage along the consumer journey.

The Frontline of Metaverse Developments

Perhaps the best example of a branded activation in gaming on the afternoon was from current PR darling American Eagle and its Members Always experience built inside of the Livetopia game on Roblox. Visitors can enjoy a pool and tennis court, as well as don shoppable pieces from the brand’s Spring 2022 collection. Ashley Schapiro, VP of Marketing, Media, Performance & Engagement at American Eagle, spoke about how the brand’s first-party audience data consistently pointed towards gaming — specifically digital social environments like Roblox — as the place where their core consumer was spending their most time. Armed with that information, American Eagle tapped Livetopia and fellow PlayFront presenter Anzu — an in-game advertising company — to build a virtual club that is not only reflective of the brand’s ethos, but also inclusive of elements that the community would value and subsequently drive conversations.

American Eagle’s activation in the “metaverse” was far from the only mention of the industry’s buzzword de jour. Niantic, widely known for being the creator of Pokémon Go, approached the conversation with a realistic goal — inspiring people to explore the world together. Rather than drive users to a specific destination on platforms like Minecraft or Decentraland, it aspires to creating and facilitating shared experiences in the physical world that users can access through their phone? 8th Wall’s acquisition supercharged the company’s Web AR capabilities, making these kinds of experiences accessible with nothing more than just your browser.

Besides, Niantic also showed off exciting advancements in semantic segmentation and meshing, which should fuse our digital and physical spaces more organically. While the company showed off many excellent brand integrations from the likes of Starbucks and Baskin Robbins inside of their flagship title Pokémon Go, the example that truly piqued our interest was the mini-game it created in collaboration with the PGA. The on-the-green virtual golfing experience allowed each user to interact with the same AR field via their personal mobile devices — a great way for engaging aspiring young golfers and bringing the metaverse conversation into the offline world via AR-enabled experiences.

Epic-owned SuperAwesome Gaming brought us examples from the Fortnite universe at this PlayFront event, showcasing some of the custom creative-mode stages the unit has built for brands like O2and Verizon. SuperAwesome Gaming’s Managing Director Nick Walters elaborated on the company’s expertise beyond what’s possible in Fortnite today.

Outside Fortnite, SuperAwesome Gaming also worked on activations in other gaming environments. To promote the release of its upcoming film Spirit Untamed, Dreamworks tapped SuperAwesome Gaming to build an innovative studio integration in an established Roblox game. “87% of 6 to 16 year-olds said they do things like explore, hang out and chat, create stuff, watch others play, and make videos of themselves playing in Roblox,” said Walters, painting the picture of the perfect environment for a kid-centric film to reach its typically ad-averse audience. The campaign ultimately hit full canter, driving millions of visits and hundreds of thousands Spirt Untamed horses rendered in game.

What distinguishes the examples cited above from some of the more turnkey opportunities available in the metaverse is the level of interactivity afforded to the consumer. Not only is the player being exposed to a marketing message in an immersive environment, they are actively engaging with the brand as well, be it through wearing their digital assets, playing customized mini games, or exploring a bespoke space.

That’s not to say that there should not be some caution in evaluating whether an opportunity in the metaverse is right for your brand. Wise men say, only fools rush in, and brands overextending themselves to claim white space might just leave a stain on that unblemished record. Unless you’re committed to the operational rigor associated with server maintenance and community management, perhaps it’s best to consider standard advertising formats across gaming media before dipping the toe in the tepid waters of the metaverse.

Next-Level In-Game Advertising

One of the most prominently featured technologies at the PlayFront was dynamic in-game advertising, allowing brands to show up on billboards — and every other kind of surface imaginable — inside of the gaming environments. During its infancy, in-game advertising was largely limited to mobile titles, but more premium inventory has opened across PC and console games. Bidstack showcased its ability to take standard-sized IAB units purchased programmatically and manipulate those assets to fit within the different contextual environments like the sides of motorsport vehicles and emblazoned across the chest of characters.

In-game advertising company Frameplay shone a spotlight on its measurement capabilities as opposed to the robust nature of its inventory across a plethora of digital realms. Frameplay debuted a first-to-market attention metric called Intrinsic Time-in-View (ITV), which measures the length of time an ad impression is viewable during game play. Viewability requirements are assessed through a complex pixel-level analysis that takes into consideration a variety factors that affect the ad’s share of screen, including ad size, skew, obstruction, and so on.

Looking ahead, with more brands set to enter the metaverse, this technology provides a beacon amidst the potential “measurement blackout” issue that the IAB highlighted at the top of the show. Emcee Soon declared that, “attention will be to engagement what viewability is to impressions,” and measurement solutions like these will go a long way in assuaging the concerns of wary brand marketers.

All in all, the IAB PlayFront was a return to in-person events for many attendees, but as evangelized by many of the day’s presenters, the focus has shifted squarely to the conversations taking place in the digital realm. Action has yet to catch up with ambition for many brands interested in esports and gaming, but investment dollars are shifting quickly to reflect consumer attention. So to answer the initial question of “why now?” once more I will borrow an insight shared by one of the PlayFront’s presenters, “gaming is at the center of culture, community and commerce.”

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