Stay Home, Save Lives has been the message of the last few weeks. It’s appeared in various forms on billboards, in newspapers, on TV and across news sites. However, many of those mediums aren’t seen by the hardest to reach audiences, especially under lockdown. So the government also worked with a handful of games publishers to place such messaging alongside and within games.
That let us look at in-game advertising in a new light. Showing it could do a lot more than simply promote products, it could talk to hard-to-reach audiences about a myriad of socially responsible messaging.
Charlotte Cook, VP of gaming at Bidstack, the company responsible for some of the Stay Home advertising seen within games recently, tells us: “The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s recent partnership with game publishers, such as Codemasters, to spread the word about the Public Health England’s ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’ message within games is a great example of both gaming and advertising industries coming together to use their technologies for good.”
And she feels that this is a possible turning point for how the public sector views games and their communities. “The government’s actions could also be interpreted as the beginning of an attitude change in society towards gaming. Wider audiences are starting to understand the power and positive impact that gaming can have on society. Something which has been echoed by the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) support of the #PlayApartTogether campaign.”
Speed was obviously key in a situation such as this, so in-game campaigns must be able to react to a rapidly changing situation. And Cook tells us it’s no more complex than running any programmatic campaign.
“Bidstack’s technology stack has been specifically designed with ease of integration and activation in mind. Combined with the ability to serve programmatic campaigns in real-time, we can facilitate the path for both advertisers and publishers to react rapidly by making their inventory available on a global scale.
“Once integrated, the Bidstack team closely works with both the advertisers and publishers to line up the campaigns ready to be pushed live in-game. Our partners can then monitor the health of the campaign through our proprietary software AdConsole. In the case of the ‘Stay Home. Save Lives’ campaign featured in DiRT Rally 2.0, we were able to turn this around within hours.”
That opens up the question of whether this form of advertising could be used to react to other major world events, for example by encouraging people to register to vote, or to get health checks, targeting audiences that are increasingly tricky to reach.
“It is no surprise that tech savvy audiences, such as the gaming community, represent a high proportion of those using ad-blocking software,” notes Cook. “Across devices where traditionally digital display ads would be served this equates to 38 per cent on smartphones and 89 per cent on desktops or laptops. This presents a significant challenge to advertisers accessing these audiences via traditional digital routes, however in-game ads can help overcome this.
Cook says “approximately 37.3 million people in the UK are playing video games and 56 per cent are under the age of 35,” which means in-game advertising presents “an excellent channel to reach an ever increasing, diverse, and engaged community.”
And as with more traditional forms of advertising “it enables advertisers to tailor campaigns to drive even higher levels of engagement – based on factors such as age, gender, and location creatives can be adapted to specifically appeal to different audience groups.
“Through native in-game placements, charities and government bodies can reach audiences that are fully engaged and immersed into the environment in which they are playing. This drives high levels of awareness, and perhaps most importantly, doesn’t disrupt the experience for the user.”
That’s long been the concern of game developers of course, and such adverts do sit best in real-world environments where they look appropriate. But there are further considerations as well, as Cook points out.
“It is our first priority to be mindful of why gamers play – games provide enjoyment, entertainment and vital escapism into carefully crafted worlds,” she notes. “For many, gaming in this current climate provides an opportunity to escape from the constant stream of COVID-19 related news. This means that further messaging linked to the crisis in-game could be unwelcome. So we need to work on finding the right balance and ensure that in-game advertising is used in the right way.
“That said, the possibilities really are endless here. Now that we’re at a stage where native in-game advertising isn’t simply a hypothesis anymore and we have faster and more powerful technology to back it up, the turnaround times from concept to reality will drastically shorten.”
Online advertising generally has a clear call-to-action, usually the clickthrough to the site or product. Now that’s not always the singular aim, with brand-building still a key element of many campaigns, but can in-game ads provide such trackable responses?
“Theoretically there are multiple options when it comes to building in response capabilities to the creative, both within and outside of the games environment. However, this functionality is dependent on the advertiser’s objective for the campaign and whether it is the right fit for the audience. Once the objective is established, Bidstack can develop suitable options to achieve the desired result from the audience the advertiser is aiming to reach.”
It’s not a socially-positive example, for instance, but a campaign to up online sandwich sales does show that well-targeted, in-game adverts can get a direct response.
“We ran a campaign with Subway in Football Manager 2019. The aim was to increase brand awareness and online orders for delivery in the Turkish market. Through our technology we were able to specifically target players who lived within a certain radius of a Subway outlet, and serve only that audience with the creatives in a form sensitive to the game experience. The campaign achieved high levels of engagement; on average players had 40 seconds of exposure to the ad within a session compared to an average of one second in digital display campaigns.
Coming back to topical and socially-driven advertising, the potential could be huge. The right adverts would not only benefit developers financially, but also boost the perception of the form in the public sector as an ally in reaching specific audiences.
“Gaming has presented a perfect opportunity for gamers to practise physical distancing, while staying safely connected with their community through positive and entertaining experiences. The WHO has therefore publicly recognised gaming as being a vitally important channel in preventing the spread of the virus. With recognition from global bodies at this level, gaming cements its place as a channel where future important messages can be relayed with maximum impact.
“The WHO has therefore publicly recognised gaming as being a vitally important channel in preventing the spread of the virus.”
“As with all the campaigns we run and game environments we work with, it is of paramount importance to protect the gaming environment and enhance the game with real world messages. We welcome the opportunity for our technology to be used in this way and in doing so would continue our policy of working with both advertisers and game publishers to ensure any future topical or socially-driven ad campaigns would work for all involved – and crucially meet restriction guidelines.”
It all sounds very positive, but for this potential to become realised, developers will need to integrate such services into their titles, and there’s a few things to consider first.
“The main factors which we would ask developers to consider ahead of implementation is whether the game environment can be optimised seamlessly. In-game advertising thrives in environments which have banners, billboards, and other native opportunities that enable the ad to look authentic to its setting. This is why it works well for games such as DiRT Rally 2.0 and Football Manager. However, ads in games which exist in fantasy or historical universes might look out of place and would not be conducive to an enhanced experience for the brand or the player.”
Technically speaking the process is relatively straightforward, though, Cook explains.
“Bidstack has a deep understanding of the development cycle of video games and it was imperative for us not to become a hindrance to that. Which is why we have fine tuned the software development kit (SDK) to be lightweight and require a one-time integration.
“This can be done in titles which are already live or upcoming releases, supported across multiple platforms and game engines. Ultimately, we want to ensure game developers are able to do what they do best, make games and not use crucial development time hard coding ads into the game.”
It’s rare that advertising has something so positive to shout about, and admittedly, not every campaign is going to save lives. But the broader capabilities of in-game advertising and their potential for good shouldn’t be ignored by any developer making a title in which such campaigns could work.