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Increasingly, auto marketers are turning to online games to raise brand awareness

Design tips
Not all advergames are equal. Chris Heldman, national sales director for the Mplayer Entertainment Network, offers these pointers for a successful advergame.
  • Add a sweepstakes element to provide an incentive for return visits
  • Include a component to encourage players to e-mail the game to friends
  • Form a partnership with a company that can market the game to the chosen audience
  • Make the game part of a larger media buy
  • Take measures to reach target audience members during their leisure time

  • It's no secret that banner ads are not particularly effective, and automotive advertisers have been seeking a technique that will generate a better response.

    In the last few years, gaming - including cars and trucks racing around the moon and oval tracks - has taken the Internet by storm, growing more rapidly than any other form of entertainment, according to Jupiter Media Metrix in New York. Jupiter estimates that online games drew 35.1 million people in 2000 and projects 104.9 million online gamers by 2005.

    This concept of branding interactive games with advertising messages seemed a natural progression to get beyond the banner, and several companies, including Toyota and Ford, have began experimenting with online games as a way to get their brand message across.

    In March, kpe in New York City, a leading digital partner to media and entertainment companies, christened this new type of gaming "advergaming," in which "the advertising message is central to game play," said Jane Chen, director of strategy at kpe.

    Makers catch on

    Broadcast and spot TV garner more ad dollars from automotive marketers than any other media. But topping the list of concerns for automotive media buyers are personal video recorders, such as TiVo and Replay, that allow viewers to record programs and fast forward through commercials much quicker than with a VCR. Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., estimates that 21 million households will be able to have such interactivity with TV by next year, and that by 2003, total TV revenue from all advertisers will peak at $65 billion as the result of consumers skipping by commercials.

    That possibility, plus the failure to achieve success from banner ads, has advertisers looking for alternative ways to get their product messages in front of consumers. And online games are the hot new ticket.

    "I wanted to have an online component (for the Escape promotion), but I wasn't happy with the response rates I'd seen on the banner ads," said Torrey Galida, vice president of marketing at Ford of Canada. The Escape game was a test, Galida said, but added "I plan to use (another) online game in the future."

    Within the automotive industry, one of the first in 1999 The Tundra Madness game allowed players to choose the color of their truck and race against competitors on a virtual track using the arrow keys on a computer keyboard. Four finalists from the online game were transported in June 1999 to the Indiana factory where the Tundra is built to compete live for the grand prize: a loaded Tundra full-sized truck.

    In addition to Toyota and Ford, Dodge and AutoTrader.com, an auto classified site, have online advergames. A General Motors advergame featuring Chevy products and its eMotion powertrain system is within days of being unveiled, and American Honda is slated to launch an advergame in late September showcasing several vehicles.

    Results thrill advertisers

    Costs of advergaming can range from the about $50,000 that AutoTrader.com is spending on its advergame to several million dollars for other customized games. Toyota spent $1 million on its Tundra game, Steve Sturm, vice president of marketing, told Automotive News Marketer in an earlier interview. And the company is happy with the results.

    Scott Grant, national advertising manager at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., said the game raised brand awareness by 28 percent and players' intent to purchase expanded by 5 percent. The experiment was so successful, in fact, that a new version (with a gnome theme to coordinate with the Tundra ad campaign) as well as a game with the Toyota Tacoma are still among the 10 games most frequently played by MSN Gaming Zone's 22.3 million members.

    "We initially did it as an r&d exercise, seeing a direct link between the demographics of gamers and Tundra truck buyers," Grant said.

    Toyota isn't the only pleased customer.

    Dodge Speedway, which also appears on the MSN Gaming Zone, was developed to increase awareness of Dodge's entry into NASCAR racing, says Bo Puffer, marketing specialist for Dodge Motorsports. He says the game was No. 1 on the MSN Gaming Zone at its launch in February. It was played by 284,000 unique visitors in its first week and served to increase traffic to the Dodge Garage Web site by 477 percent.

    In Canada, Ford's Galida was pleased with the 30,000 site visitors and 3,400 registered contest entrants who played Escape to the Moon, a virtual race with Escape sport-utes on the moon, over a 10-week period this year. Galida says the game was extremely cost effective and that he would definitely consider a game centered around Ford's No Boundaries campaign.

    "The biggest lesson we learned is that we need a lot of e-mail addresses to get more players," said Galida, who indicated that next time he would aim for an e-mail campaign of 25,000 to 30,000 addresses instead of the 12,500 used in the earlier promotion.

    And AutoTrader.com is thrilled with its online sweepstakes promotion, Slide into your Ride, which targets 18- to 24-year-olds who are first-time car shoppers or will be soon. That game pits people's skills at arranging like vehicles in a parking lot.

    The contest offers more than $100,000 in prizes, such as JBL car stereo speakers, and a grand prize of $25,000 toward the purchase of a car found on the AutoTrader.com site. Just 15 days into the 60-day promotion, which began Aug. 6, AutoTrader.com was 60 percent of the way to meeting its internal objectives for the promotion, logging 643,000 game plays.

    "We need to teach (18- to 24-year-olds) about the AutoTrader brand so when they are ready to shop, they think of us," said Clark Wood, vice president of marketing at AutoTrader.com.

    GM takes a turn

    While many of the auto games focus on the thrill of driving, the upcoming GM eMotion Challenge serves to raise awareness of GM's branding of its powertrain system. Bill Lussier, brand manager for eMotion at GM Powertrain, explained the game: "The player calibrates various features - such as rpm limits, fuel systems and traction control - to meet a variety of driving situations."

    Once the options are selected, players watch their cars race the course and see how they perform based on their selections. The GM eMotion Challenge is branded heavily with Chevy vehicles as well as billboards and other advertising that promotes a variety of GM brands.

    "This (eMotion Challenge) is a brand awareness initiative for us and really a test case," Lussier said. "I have no expectation of how long it will last or if we'll continue it." He added the game would be online for at least six months.

    Girls play too

    Today's online games do not appeal only to young men, as was the trend when Toyota launched Tundra Madness.

    "The mix now is nearly 50-50, and the average age of gamers is 30," said Chris Heldman, national sales director for Mplayer Entertainment Network, the marketing arm of online game developer GameSpy Industries in Irvine, Calif.

    What's more, gamers tend to return repeatedly to their favorite games, further ingraining the games' brand messages. Heldman reports that on Mplayer's network of sites, which reaches about 14 million unique users monthly, the average player visits six times a month and spends 84 minutes playing games each time they visit.

    And while game developers aim to make the advergames they create like television commercials that the viewer can interact with, advergames are still a long way from replacing the TV commercial. But the technology is moving rapidly.

    Ford's Escape to the Moon game is two-dimensional and somewhat awkward to use, yet the three-dimensional graphics that will be unveiled in the GM and Honda games will allow higher level interaction, such as seeing a ghost image of a friend's earlier race to allow virtual head-to-head competition. Still, auto marketers view the games as an additional advertising venue vs. a replacement to print or broadcast advertising.

    Said Toyota's Grant: "This is a new and emerging category. Where it's going to go, nobody knows."

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