4As Decisions 2022: Dispelling Myths and Revealing Truths About Gaming for Brands

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At the recent 4As Decisions 2022 conference a panel of senior marketing executives set out to "myth bust" the stereotypes and false impressions that many marketers have around advertising within videogames. The topics ranged from the under-appreciation of gaming as an ad vehicle, how to kickstart brands new to the space and how to engage gaming communities to brand safety and overall metrics.

Sarah Stringer, Executive Vice President, Head of U.S. Media Partnerships at dentsu and founding team member of Dentsu Gaming, introduced and moderated the session by directly addressing the elephant in the room. "Gaming is increasingly a really exciting subject matter for the media community but has been one that has been a bit intimidating for a number of brands to get into," she said.

Kevin Joyce, Executive Vice President, Global Media at Liquid+Arcade, an agency whose client list is primarily videogame publishers, sees the preconceptions and hesitancy based on the perception that gaming is niche, as games have not been as freely accessible as television or video programming. Additionally, the unique language of gaming with its acronyms and gamer-speak can be intimidating.

Jamin Warren, CEO of Twofivesix and former Wall Street Journal journalist, admitted that part of the issue stems, in his opinion, from large media companies that have a great influence on what is considered "culture" not taking gaming as seriously as they do other forms of entertainment. He gives credit to The Washington Post for starting a gaming section. (Editor's note: It's notable that the gaming section is a subsection of Technology and not Entertainment.)

Adam Harris is the Global Head of the Twitch Brand Partnership Studio. Dispelling the belief that gamers are teen boys, Harris pointed to the research that says "79% of people above the age 13 in the U.S. game. In terms of Twitch, which was founded on gaming, we're predominantly 70% 16-34." Additionally, according to Harris, Twitch's female audience has grown 22% in the past year. He also pointed out that if you look at the industry's revenue of $180B in 2021, that is also an indicator of a much broader audience than teenage boys. "Teenage boys don't have that level of purchasing power," he said, noting that the brands with which Twitch has worked in the past year -- including Charmin, Porsche, Burberry and Magnum Ice Cream -- are examples of companies that "are not brands which you'd associate with strictly teenage boy audiences."

Will Thompson works for Giant Spoon, which counts HP's gaming computer Omen as one of its clients, explained that you have to look at the entire gaming ecosystem, including social. "Gaming is not a monolithic space" he said. "Much like the music industry, there are infinite genres, and you need to understand each individual game, the audience and their behaviors." This echoed the advice given by Activision-Blizzard CMO Fernando Machado's keynote the previous day.

Thompson laid out a list of strategies that brands can take to be associated with gaming. "You can create content around the game, integrate with it, or you can sponsor streamers on Twitch or do integrations on Twitch that can reach a certain audience around a certain game," he asserted.

Stringer pointed out that mobile gaming gets overlooked, especially given its share of gaming time, but also said she recognized that some of the ad experience can feel spammy, so it's important to work with the experts at your agency to determine which properties provide more premium experiences that will enhance and not detract from your brand.

Harris recommended that brands go with a "crawl, walk, run" strategy. "Start small with whatever your values align with," he advised. "Start with streamer activation. Build up your confidence and experience within the space." He suggested that brands ask themselves, "If you [the brand] were a gamer, what games would you identify with? Are you a multi-player brand? Do you want to embrace everyone or go very specific?"

In terms of streamer activation, Harris sees streamers as unique and better positioned to be a truly authentic and motivated pitch entity for brands. "It's an amazing thing that we have a place where people can make a living playing video games," he said. "Brands are a critical part of that to support them to make that living. These creators have built up huge communities which means that brands need to make sure their values are aligned with those of the community and the creators. Secondly, a brand needs to provide value, a reason for them to be in that gaming space." With the insight that some creators can live stream for up to seven hours at a time and recognizing there are opportunities when those streamers take a bio-break, Twitch created a highly competitive mini-game, sponsored by Charmin for the community to do while their preferred streamer was taking that break. This gave high engagement to the brand and value to the community and it kept the community engaged with the streamer so they wouldn't lose audience.

Rounding out the panel the way she started it, Stringer tackled the issue of brand safety concerns in games and its related ecosystems. Warren of TwoFixSix strongly encouraged brands to fully vet content creators. In terms of videogame violence, he appeared to minimize concerns. "I do believe that the concerns around videogame violence are mostly generational in the same way that jazz during the Twenties was denigrated," he said. "You know, the concerns of hot jazz or rock and roll. I think videogames have been in the same place, but most of those concerns are overblown and just a function of a generational shift of how we think about gaming and culture."

Joyce recommended scenario planning as a good approach for assessing brand safety risk. "What happens if somebody says this or does this?" he asked. "Are we pulling out immediately or say something? There's going to be a vocal part of the audience that will react to how you react. You just have to be aware of it."

Between the two gaming panels at 4As Decision 2022, there were consistent themes of audience and values alignment, a two-way value exchange in addition to authenticity and metrics leaning towards engagement and social sentiment over pure reach and scale. What is clear from both panels is that brands are opening to gaming as a medium more than ever as audiences dramatically grow. As opposed to other media types where ad inventory is contracting and being viewed with ever-increasing skepticism, gaming is growing, global, multi-layered and, at least currently, is being viewed by players with a level of authenticity that seems to have escaped other channels.

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