Let me begin with a warning. There are few other ways to instantly destroy your credibility than partnering with the wrong companies or in the wrong way.
Be careful how you approach this field of business. It’s very easy to get carried away with the enthusiasm for a partnership that seems on the surface to offer potentially huge rewards and an expansion of your own reach. You must always drill the details down to one single question “Cui bono” To whose benefit? And the right answers is not “yours” but “your players”.
Let’s explore a scenario: Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net want to talk to your 1 million players. They think that your users are their ideal demographic, in that the majority of them have heads.
The offer is either:
- $1M in return for access to your users, through email or perhaps via placed ads etc.
- Reciprocal access for you to 2 million Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net users.
Both of these may seem innocuous enough on the surface but here is the reality of what you are saying by accepting either offer.
- For $1M I am willing to sell out my users.
- 2 million strangers of dubious demographic quality are worth more to me than the 1 million dedicated fans I already have.
Still sound like a good idea?
Never accept a partnership that will damage your users or their perception of your company. Your players are the ones that built your company and if you treat them like a saleable asset you are sending out a clear message, that you do not care about them.
However, partnerships can bring huge rewards for you and your players if done correctly.
Sponsorship can be a good example of this. Again we are not talking about a cold exchange of access for cash but a deal that benefits your players.
Let’s imagine you want to host an event for your players to meet up. Events are hideously expensive with lots of hidden fees for stands, staff, flyers, catering, external internet access etc. Getting an outside sponsor is a way to alleviate these costs and pay for the event you want to provide to your players. People are very comfortable with sponsorship these days, but as with anything it must be in the right context and done in a way that is respectful of what the original aim was. I would take this further however and say that the sponsors need to directly benefit your users. In the case of our event that could be a goody bag for everyone who arrives filled with free, relevant and desirable items. This works for everyone. You get sponsorship, the sponsor shows that they not only care about your business but also your users and the players get real benefit rather than enforced advertising.
Now advertising is not as black and white as the examples I mentions above so you may worry about marketing to your users but again if driven from the “player benefit” mindset there is no reason to simply discount it. You can be as strict as you want with how 3rd parties are able to interact with your players, sure you may not have advertisers lining up but in the long run you remain genuine.
However advertising is part of life and people are used to seeing it. So long as it remains relevant and non-intrusive it can be a part of what you do. No one stopped using Google because they have adverts in the searches or stopped playing angry birds because of a banner advert in the top corner. This works because it keeps Google and Angry birds free, it benefits the user.
Product placement is another huge area that can provide revenue or benefit though it is not without its dangers. Again it has to be done within context and sympathetically to the game or environment. Never create content that serves no purpose other than to advertise a product; it immediately cheapens what you are trying to do.
That said we all live in a world where brands are everywhere, so unless your game is set in a fantasy realm why wouldn’t your character drink a certain brand of cola or eat a pizza from a chain? So long as them eating or drinking was part of the original script surely it makes no difference what is on the can or box. Just be aware that other brands will not care about your artistic and moral standpoint. They want a clear on screen brand image, be sure ahead of time that it’s clear what you are and are not willing to do.
One other way to allow advertising and benefit users is to provide something to your users for free or at a discount. It should always be relevant though. A gamer might interact and even like to get information offering them exclusive offers on gaming mice but push them life insurance and whatever relationship you had with them previously is now forever damaged.
All of the above works in reverse as well. You can get your game into many other environments and brands to increase awareness. There are plenty of graphics cards being sold that are packaged with free steam codes for games etc. In Russia antivirus company Kaspersky gives away Gold for World of Tanks with its products.
Now its up to the other party to see the benefit in what you are offering. Many companies will see partnering with a games company as a way to increase their connection with the key 16-35 (or younger) demographic and as long as this does not impact your player base and potentially brings you more users then it may still be a good partnership.
One thing you may be tempted to do is partner with another games company, especially if you are a start-up. This could be very quick way to end a respectful business or knowledge sharing relationship you have with that company. At the end of the day you are both competing for the same thing, a gamer’s time. So whilst external non-gaming 3rd parties may have a very different agenda, tactics and marketing viewpoint, they are rarely going to see you as a competitor.
Partnerships are not easy, many larger companies hire specialist or agencies to promote this kind of activity. That said if you have few contacts or attend any events don’t be afraid to drop possibilities into conversation. From a budget perspective a partnership is a much lower risk option to running traditional advertising.
Once you do have a partnership in place, especially if it is not only strong but player centric make sure you do back it up with PR and marketing. A benefit is no good if no one knows about it.
In closing just remember that whatever partnership deal you strike it needs to follow the simple “who benefits” rule. If the partnership truly benefits users and your company then its a partnership worth pursuing.
UPDATE: On my web travels I found this deck that covers a pretty extensive A-Z of branded in game items. It’s quite useful to see the vast range of possibilities that can be utilized for partnering with 3rd parties and brands. A word of warning though, many examples are from Second Life which a number of non gaming companies got burned on expecting it to be the next big thing and drive huge brand exposure and revenue. As such many invested heavily never to see a return. Brands are now much more savvy when it comes to promotion in games and in these more economically stringent times will be looking for guaranteed returns, if not financially then with reach backed up from hard data.
Branded Virtual Goods Q3 2012 – By KZero Worldwide