Nickelodeon, the popular kids cable network, wanted to draw more attention to the launch of its "Jimmy Neutron" series last year. So during the summer it partnered with Quaker Oats, among others, to create the "Jimmy Neutron Gotta Blast" online racing game.
To play, kids needed a code from inside a cereal box to access Nick's Web site and build their own rocket. To sweeten the offer, Nick promised that some of the rockets would be chosen at random to race on-air.
Kids called it fun. In marketing, it's called an advergame, the marriage of advertising to computer games. In Nickelodeon's summer-long promotion, more than a half-million people played its game, and the series launch was the highest-rated in the network's history. That's not a bad payoff for a modest investment.
Advergames can reinforce a brand image, build a database of information about its users, directly target the market they want to hit -- all very inexpensively when compared to what it costs to advertise in other media. That's one of the reasons they've taken off since being introduced in the late 1990s.
In creating advergames, marketers have jumped on a hot consumer trend: electronic gaming. Last year revenue from the electronic gaming industry ($10.3 billion, according to the NPD Group) was bigger than movie ticket revenue ($9.37 billion, reports Exhibitor Relations).
Forrester Research, which studies the use of new technologies, projects that advergaming alone will be a billion-dollar-a-year industry by 2005.
"Marketers want to go where the audience is playing," said Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of Ya-Ya Media, an advergame producer.
Everyone is a target for advergames. The fastest-growing segment of the market is women ages 35 to 49 playing at work, according to media strategist Matthew Ringel, who with colleague Jane Chen coined the term "advergame" a couple of years ago. Chrysler and Jeep have designed games for the women's market. And that is one of the selling points of advergames -- they can be sharply tailored to the audience the advertiser wants to reach.
"There's a lot of experimention going on right now," said Forrester Research principal analyst Charlene Li. "Television commercials are a much more emotional kind of marketing, but people skip the commercials with their TiVo, they walk out of the room and miss the 30 seconds, there are so many channels. It's very hard to penetrate.
"With games, they are absolutely absorbed in the games. With research, you can find out the type of people who are playing, and they're paying attention. There is very little evidence that people playing games are multitasking. And that's what marketers are interested in -- capturing their attention."
Gaming is so big that it is now being tracked by at least two competing companies -- Nielsen/NetRatings and Comscore Media Metrix.