Here are excerpts from their conversation (the interview has been edited and condensed for clarity):
Ad Age Studio 30: What is the current state of the gaming industry and why is it such a rich channel for advertisers—particularly those looking to connect with customers in a social environment?
Stringfield: Throughout the pandemic, interest in gaming was heightened. During the lockdown, people were looking for a way to connect without being in person, and that has always been one of gaming’s superpowers. Even people who had not been interested in gaming or hadn’t gamed in a long time came back to it, and have continued playing even as we’ve emerged from depths of the pandemic.
It is also worth noting that speculative interest in the metaverse is drawing attention to many of the same issues that marketers need to understand about gaming: from understanding it at a base level to learning how consumers are oriented around the channel. This includes things like social behaviors, how they look for connectivity and what values they’re looking to fulfill. This is the perfect opportunity for brands to catch up and start to understand a medium like gaming the same way that we understand social, film or television.
How do audiences interact with gaming, especially as it relates to other media channels such as linear TV and streaming?
For the most part, the people who spend the greatest amount of time gaming are those who have grown up doing so. The history of gaming goes back 40 or 50 years, so that’s not just Gen Z or Gen Alpha. That’s millennials. That’s Gen X. Many who have ostensibly grown up with gaming and are now 40 years old. They’ve got a bad knee. They’ve got a mortgage. They’ve got all these things that make them an attractive audience for brands. For individuals who are in that prime household shopping demo, over 72% of them are gaming on a weekly basis—and that figure gets to near ubiquity, the younger the players are.
It has become in vogue to say that everyone’s a gamer, and we are getting to the point where that’s more or less true. When we talk about gaming, it is important to recognize that, yes, it’s a medium that has become popular. But I also tend to level-set with folks. Understanding gaming as a channel and those who game as a consumer audience requires a fundamental reorganization of how we have a relationship with a medium. By that I mean, if you look at trends of how media is consumed, particularly for younger versus older cohorts, the whole concept of prime time is going away. We can talk about the fall of linear television and all that, but realistically younger generations—Gen Z and even millennials—are consuming media throughout the day. So, the concept of prime time effectively has less relevance each day.
Gaming has also adjusted to this fundamental change in consumer behavior, whether you look at mobile phones, portable devices, cloud technologies, things like quick-save technologies on consoles—anything that allows people to dip in and out throughout the day. We, like any other media provider, want to make sure that we understand how people want to consume that media and make sure that it’s as convenient as possible so that they can continue to consume it on their terms. If you look in particular at how younger generations are consuming media like short-form video, they are doing so at about equal levels of gaming and about equal parts throughout the day, because we allow them to come into these experiences in a similar manner.
You’ve recently released some research on how gaming drives social connection, what were some of the biggest takeaways?
To state the obvious, gaming has always been a social activity. What is particularly interesting and meaningful for marketers is that when we look at the mediums through which consumers like to connect with friends and family, what we found is that among those who play games—and this isn’t just people on PCs or consoles, it includes mobile phones, so that’s a very large population—gaming was one of the top ways that they sought to connect with friends and family. Only things like calls and text were higher. To be clear: Gaming was more important to them for connecting with friends and family than things like social media – a fundamental shift in behavior.
It’s also important to recognize that socialization and gaming has grown more prevalent due to internet connectivity. But even for games that are inherently solo endeavors, there’s a lot of folks that still play “couch co-op”—sitting next to your friend or significant other—but communities form around these games. For example, Candy Crush is an experience that you play on your own, but there are actual communities that exist—thousands of people within them that are all talking about the game and socializing around game strategies. Whether or not it’s a multiplayer experience, or there’s even the capability to play directly in the game environment with someone else, it’s almost always social. We focused here because as we noted, marketers trying to orient themselves around gaming might not be as familiar with this sector, but they probably are with things like social. What that means is that a lot of the lessons that we think about in social in terms of halo effects and connectivity, applies to gaming. Gaming isn’t necessarily social media, but is a very social medium.
There are some misconceptions about who brands can reach in gaming. What has Activision Blizzard uncovered about gamer profiles?
We have a long-standing joke that almost any time there’s been a conversation around gaming audiences, particularly with marketers, it involves this concept of “young men in the basement.” I think marketers have calcified around that idea that this is the domain of a very specific group of people. But when we talk about the gaming audience, we’re also talking about people who have mobile phones with games on them. In terms of demographics, gamers are prevalent across all age groups. When you consider everyone who has a gaming app on their phone as part of the gaming population, it starts to make more sense in terms of how diversified that audience is and therefore very likely that you’ll find your consumer. It’s just a matter of finding the right experiences to reach them.
Moreover, both internally and in discussions with marketers, we are trying to step away from the concept of “gamer.” When we did typologies of the gaming community, we found that for those who play games, less than half of them actually consider themselves gamers, as realistically, when people think of the classic gamer—kids in the basement and whatnot—it’s a very small part of the population. It’s about 10% to 20%. We want to be mindful about how we’re talking about people who just enjoy gaming.
What are the opportunities for brands in gaming and how should they think about trying to reach these audiences in a gaming environment?
There are marketing opportunities in, adjacent and, ancillary to the game. What that means is, you can put marketing experiences in the game environment itself, but not all games are going to be right for that. Adjacent includes things like game streaming or esports, not necessarily within the game environment, not necessarily gaming per se, but people are socializing around watching other people play. And then there’s a third step including things such as outside communities and fandom. These consumers are connecting both within the game and around the gaming experience. There are multiple different points of ingress and what makes sense for the brand is where they want to fit and what type of consumer they’re trying to reach.
More tactically, there are turnkey opportunities as simple as running video ads. In a game like Candy Crush, that seems pretty basic, but it’s important to reconcile that, one, it is easy to do because you can use a lot of your pre-existing assets, but then above and beyond that, you can start to learn a lot about how consumers are oriented around that media. When you are playing a game either on a console, PC or a mobile device, the whole concept of “second screen” doesn’t happen. When you’re playing a game, you’re locked in. So that’s meaningful in terms of how we present the ads to players, how they are tuned into it and how their memory retention is related to it. How are they paying attention? These are all positives, but you want to make sure that your message is very tuned into an audience who is locked in. From there, whether you’re talking about broader IP sponsorship, corporate alliances, or esports/streaming, all of these are going to be a little bit different, but all with that same kernel of understanding how folks are oriented toward this media. And the main question for marketers to ask is, what value are they trying to get out of it? Because people come to gaming to solve for some fairly basic needs in terms of wanting to be entertained or wanting to connect socially.
How does Activision Blizzard measure the impact of activations in-game?
If we are talking about vanity metrics, we are not doing our job. Fundamentally in the same way that you would expect ROI-based measurement, we offer those same types of services. We understand that people are again just starting to orient themselves toward the ecosystem more generally, and the burden is on us to demonstrate that you’re going to get positive ROI out of it. The good news is that from what I’ve seen through doing many studies, it does tend to be very effective for brands based upon the fact that people are really engaged.
We don’t want people to enter into this ecosystem because it’s kind of buzzy and you’re kind of going in with a test budget. We fundamentally believe that gaming should be a concrete part of your marketing plan moving forward. Whether you are interested in the metaverse or virtual worlds more generally, we want to make sure that we are measuring the things that are meaningful for brands, and building that level of trust with our customers is to deliver top-tier results.
Any predictions for 2023?
There’s going to be an increased bleed between various sectors of entertainment. Even if you are not particularly interested in gaming per se, one way or another you are probably going to come across gaming IP: for example, “The Last of Us” series on HBO Max and the Super Mario Bros. movie. What we’re finding is that you see some of the streaming entities starting to enter gaming. Netflix has made a lot of headlines where they’re buying out studios, but Hollywood is also borrowing a lot of IP from gaming and keeping true to the storytelling within particular games. I think those are going to be two of the exemplar projects. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to come across the gaming ecosystem. It’s just a matter of do you want to engage with it directly or through some of these indirect paths, such as streaming or the movies?