social media how toSocial gaming is barely 3 years old, and already companies such as Zynga are reportedly earning $500,000.00 per day! And your brand can benefit from this hot market.

“OK, I’m impressed. Now what is social gaming exactly and where do I play?”

At first blush, social games aren’t too different from traditional online gaming. Both types focus on entertainment appealing to a wide audience, with simple mechanics and relatively short periods of play. Yet unlike traditional gaming, social games are distributed through social networks and existing relationships with other users through invite systems, news feed postings, user-to-user notifications or paid acquisition.

Social gaming allows games to create unique content and characters by tapping into a player’s existing social network. This social DNA has made games such as Crazy Planets, Mafia Wars, and Farmville incredibly successful.

Source: Info Solutions Group

According to the Inside Virtual Goods: The Future of Social Gaming 2010 Report, there are three core elements a game or service should have to be considered social:

  1. Social graph data is an aggregate profile of revealed preferences such as your friends, interests, demographics, and lifestyle information.
  2. Game play should be casual and designed for short duration, leveraging-high frequency and brief visits.
  3. Games are usually free to play with revenue generated through virtual goods.

Though there are numerous types of social games, the Inside Virtual Goods Report does a great job of chunking them into four basic buckets.

#1: Resource Management and Simulation

Players are responsible for managing resources to achieve a specific, somewhat predetermined goal. With finite resources, players are left to make key decisions.

An example is FarmVille where you grow delicious fruits and vegetables and raise adorable animals on your very own farm. Watblog reports that FarmVille has an astonishing 82.4 million active users and over 23.9 million Facebook application fans.

#2: Gambling

Social gambling mimics popular examples from real life, except games are played with digital dollars, rather than hard currency. Alternatively, you can accumulate points to win a prize. ESPN’s Streak For Cash boasts over 3 million players per day and is a seven-figure earner for the sports giant, according to John A. Walsh, executive vice president and executive editor of ESPN

Streak For Cash: A seven-figure earner for ESPN.

#3: Care-taking

These allow users to care for a pet or avatar, like in Nintendogs or Tamagotchi. This type of game serves a specific emotional need, and promotes healthy nurturing and social interaction.

#4: Casual or Arcade

Tetris, Scrabble, Super Stamp and Bejeweled Blitz are all excellent examples of popular arcade games now played on social networks.

Over 100 million users play Bejeweled Blitz daily.

Have fun collecting stamps by matching shapes in Super Stamp.

“Who Has Time for this Besides Kids?”

Social games are rapidly maturing and currently span numerous demographics. Teenagers to grandparents are enjoying games from Farmville to Mafia Wars, spending endless hours with fellow players and then posting their scores for the entire world to see.

According to the Social Game Summit in 2009, 50% of Facebook gamers are over 25 and women outnumber men, 56% to 44% respectively. At the time of the summit, there were 100 games with at least 100,000 players, 30 games with 1,000,000 and 3 games with 10,000,000+ users!

MSN Games reports 40% of their casual games customers are college graduates or higher, 25% are in a professional or managerial role at work and 55% have a household income of $50K or more.

Not just for kids anymore: the average U.S. gamer is 30 years old. Source: Industry Gamers

“How Do Social Media Games Get Monetized?”

Though some games still rely on traditional advertising models, an increasing number of game makers are trying new ways to monetize their efforts, and with success. It’s often a numbers game, with developers focusing on simple design supported with incentives through progress and rewards.

The end game, though, is always easy sharing.

To leverage word of mouth, developers must focus on creating dynamic game titles that incorporate the ability to build social capital for bragging rights; leader boards that aggregate statistics, achievements, user rankings; and access to tools that improve status. Facebook makes it easy to spread the word with features such as Facebook connect publish2stream, notifications and “liking” a page, as well as other sharing features.

However, popular doesn’t mean profits unless you have a longer-term monetization strategy in place.  CNET recently reported that gamers are actively making purchases to enhance their gaming experience, with free-to-play games paving the way for monetization.

According to Inside Virtual Goods, monetization strategies are usually one of the following:

Virtual Goods

A rising trend with promised growth. Virtual goods are the new Holy Grail for game designers, allowing developers to monetize products that don’t technically exist. Virtual goods include in-game items like power-ups, avatar accessories, or decorative items users purchase within the game itself.

Virtual goods account for over 90% of all revenue generated by the world’s top social game developers. Designers optimize user experience through additional gameplay, missions, and quests, without having to worry about overhead or unused stock. It’s no wonder they are so popular.

Video game market research from VGMarket sponsored by PlaySpan


In-game advertising is gaining slow but steady traction in the world of virtual fun, with sponsorship from premium brands also growing at a modest but steady pace. So far, social game developers have been far more focused on building small, scalable virtual goods-based models than building games tailored to pitch to brands.

Source: Microsoft Advertising

White Label Games

White label games are built once, then individualized and licensed again and again. A developer can create a quality app focused on fun while leaving the edges of the game open for branding. This allows developers to market their game to companies that can find new and interesting ways to bond with, expand, or sell to their audience.

Why Should Brands Start Jumping Into the Social Gaming Space?

The name of the game is more eyeballs and longer brand engagement. And companies such as Arkadium are planting their flag in this trend. As stated on their site, “Arkadium creates innovative game solutions for consumer brands, ad agencies, online gamers, and any company looking to expand their presence. Our games reach millions of people across all demographics through the most popular online destinations.”

Their client roster is impressive, with some detailed testimonials from clients such as AARP that said, “After the launch, traffic shot up to an average of 4.5 million page views, an increase of 294 percent.”

AARP-branded games: Mah Jongg Dimensions (6).

What’s the Future of Social Gaming?

It’s clear—games are becoming the community and community becoming the game. Foursquare is a perfect example, with social capital badges given out or unlocked based on offline behaviors. Foursquare has exploded to 1.8 million users, and with a rumored cash infusion coming its way, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Gaming in China is bigger than ads or search, which might explain Google’s reported $100-$200 million investment in Zynga, a top social gaming company. Even a listing by of the top five games paints an astonishing picture of growth in social gaming.

Just look at 2009 and the first half of this year and it’s easy to see where we’re headed.

Social Game Users in 2009

  • Texas HoldEm Poker:   7,324,970
  • Hug Me:   5,455,522
  • Pet Society:  4,965,532
  • WHTBB :   3,703,659
  • Birthday Cards:   3,582,843
Social Game Users in 2010

  • Farmville:  73,852,787
  • Birthday Cards:  32,330,476
  • Café World:   31,129,783
  • Happy Aquarium:   27,506,324
  • Fishville:   24,957,268

Social media is a game-changer. It’s impacting who plays, along with when and where they do it. Because of the viral aspect, social media even affects how games are developed and their shelf life.

According to Zynga, a company’s success revolves around three factors:

  1. Ability to drive new users
  2. Ability to create an engagement loop
  3. Access to an open communication channel

Gaming success is dependent on platforms such as Facebook for continued benevolence to their developers.

Are You a Social Gamer?

If you’ve ever counted followers, retweets, comments or even sent a good-karma chain letter, then you, my friend, are probably “guilty.”

If you Twitter, link, Stumble or Digg, share, measure, collect bookmarks… If you have created an avatar, asked for notification of messages, events, comments, etc… by definition, you’re a social gamer.

Do you play social games? Have you considered creating a game for your business? Please leave a comment in the box below.

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  • Humans have always loved quick and tangible rewards for an easy task. The psychology of why things like FarmVille are so popular is very cool. I’m an admitted addict of tracking stats and enjoying those small wins, and it would be to any business’ advantage to at least consider how these things might be able to enhance their marketing efforts. Great article!

  • Roberto Valle

    Great post!!! Social gaming is the future. Check this TED conference about gaming:

  • A lesson I learned from Alex Trebek by way of A.J.Jacobs who interviewed him a few years back for Esquire was this…

    The key to being “smart” is to be interested and actively seek out opportunities to learn about things that you dont care about. How right is Trebek?

    SMExaminer will publish articles every so often that are completely outside the realm of my interest (a report on how WWE uses social media comes to mind…amazing article) and this article is another such example.

    The last game I played was pong 🙂 no…Im joking…actually the last game I played was Mortal Combat back in 1998 with a friend in a town near Stockholm, Sweden. We played for 3 days straight barely stopping for pee breaks. Methamphetamines may have been involved lol

    In any case…I refuse to play another game ever since then…I guess I overdosed on gaming and quit cold turkey.

    So occasional forays into the gaming world for the purpose of knowing how these virtual worlds can be explored is awesome. It really drives the point of scarcity vs abundance home for me.

    Very cool article Lori…thnx 🙂

  • Social gaming deserves respect as it is often the catalyst or birthplace of technology that transforms the way we live, work and play. The revenue potential is one thing, but, for me, it is the ability to get people rapidly accustomed to new types of technology, the increased pace of adoption and the almost organic growth of new business models and life changing uses.
    The changing financial landscape does not seem to threaten the social gaming arena either. As resources get tighter, the focus shifts from “build and find business model later” to a more consider, objective and business model approach from the outset. Good news for gamers, good news for investors and good news for technology development.

  • Michelle

    I’m not much if a gamer or at least I thought I wasn’t. Then I read the end. Guilty! I love being retreated followed and liked! I’m a closet gamer I guess. Lol. But there are some great points and I can see the possibilities for a much higher engagement vehicle on creating simple game. Thanks!

  • Sean Platt

    There’s no doubt that social gaming is a big part of the online future, but I’ve never seen the topic so well laid out or thoroughly explored. The growth in between 2009 and 2010 is staggering. It will be amazing to watch what happens in between now and this time next year.

  • Jenni

    It’s not a question of *why* social media gaming is big business (unless you’ve taken a time machine to 2008), but *how* individuals and companies (particularly small and medium companies) can utilise it in terms of knowing what to ask for, what skills are needed, how to minimise cost and how it can sit with their brand – which would have been a more useful article altogether.

    Also not sure about #3 – ‘communicating’ with virtual dogs and pixel animals isn’t really social :S

    Nice overview though.

  • I didn’t realize social gaming was so big, specifically for the older generation. Anything that gets this big so fast, is a little scary. There are obviously opportunities to benefit financially from social gaming, up and down the supply chain. Thank you for the insight, Lori!

  • Gareth

    Nice article Lori! Wow. This is huge opportunity for brands. Keep em coming.

  • David Wright

    Great, thorough article that explains something a lot of us have only casually given thought to. I know when Google recently had the playable version of Pac Man on their home page, people went nuts playing it. I was surprised, as the game has been around forever on a zillion different platforms – yet on the PC, in a quickly playable format, people were all over it like kids on a plate of brownies. My wife, who doesn’t like games, probably played it for a few hours!

    So, it should be little surprise that Google has reportedly invested more than $100 million in Zynga in attempts to take on Facebook.

  • Mschwartz

    Interesting article.

    I have always enjoyed games, monopoly, chess, checkers, backgammon, boardgames, wargames, roleplaying games, computer games (ones that use problem solving or planning rather than quick wrists and fingers). I stumbled into social gaming as discussed here with Farmville (NPR made a joke about it, so I opened it to see what they were talking about) and Mafia Wars (I had several friends on facebook who played, and I wanted something with a more exciting storyline than Farmville).

    I see where they are monetized (both games allow you to buy extra resources for cash), but I do not consider either game worth spending money, although I can see where someone might. The cost of an in-game purchase at any given point is small – $15 or less – so I can see where someone with more disposable income might be tempted. And I can see where the game tries to get you to tempt your friends into the game by constantly offering to send game-items to all of your friends on the social network.

    Given more than 73,000,000 players, they only need a small fraction to have spare funds to put into the game to become profitable.

    I would have been interested to hear about the financial relationship between Zynga and Facebook – what does Facebook get for allowing Zynga to access a user’s set of friends?

    (And yes, I know, the user is asked if he or she wants to grant the game access. I’m more interested in financial ties than placing blame for privacy violations).

  • I’ve been doing my best not to get sucked into the social gaming, but now you’re making it a business tool! I’m going to have to play some and research to see if there are any opportunities for my small business clients. Does anyone have some strategy ideas for how small businesses can leverage social gaming? Thanks for the article.

  • Great post Lori!

    I’m glad to see you mentioning the potential of in game advertising. As the popularity and “viewership” of these games continues to grow, I see in game ads as a massive opportunity for smart marketers to capitalize on.


  • It’s amazing how advanced social gaming is for the tween and under set. Not a day goes by that my kids don’t ask to log on to play some game associated with a tv show, toys, brand such as McDonalds or a cereal company.
    As a parent I’m a bit annoyed but as somebody with a toe in the marketing world I’m fascinated. I can definitely related to the “collecting” aspect. Remember those old green stamps our moms and grandmas used to collect and carefully paste into books? I think that the appeal wasn’t just in getting free merchandise but also the pleasure that came from watching the stamps accumulate. Technology is constantly finding new ways to please these deep seated urges!

  • Laura

    Great read! I knew gaming was big but had no idea it was this big. So glad to see you are utilizing your passion for social media and sharing it with the world.

  • Patrice B

    Lori — this article is indicative of your work with clients… staying on top of the latest trends and leveraging the best ways to become even more profitable… thanks for the insights on what’s hot — GAMING — after all, it is the fastest growing division of the video gaming industry.

  • Thank you for this amazing insight! I always wondered who was behind all of the games on social media and why I can’t stop playing! Now I know i’m just a sucker! JK
    This is an amazing article and thank you for cluing some of us in! 🙂

  • I love the comment you made regarding the “psychology” of Farmville. Basically, the popularity of these resource focused games really drives engagement. The key for success for a brand is to understand how to create an experience that would focus on gold stars and bragging rights, which seems to be a driving force behind the explosion. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • Jane is a genius. That was a great video and another really good presentation from her is at

    You should check it out!

  • I can relate. My husband loves to lock himself in downstairs and play Halo online for hours to unwind. World of Warcraft stole 2 years of my brother’s life. I think it comes down to balance? Something like that.

    Gaming, like social media, has semantic challenges as it is used as a catch phrase for everything. But the bottom line is simple. If you understand your audience and can find ways to keep their attention through branded games, you have the ability to increase brand awareness and hopefully build affinity, respectively.

    A quick case in point. When the economy started to crash, Campbell’s soup projected an increase in sales, because traditionally, families would eat at home more and go for less expensive items for meal planning. However, this did not happen this time.

    The soup category did see an increase in sales. However, Campbell did not grab the share of the dollars as anticipated. Why? Because at the in-store point of purchase, the private labels with better pricing won.

    My opinion was that by using only traditional methods of advertising at the time, it was more difficult to reach their target consumer and keep their attention long enough to build the affinity and awareness that would give them the added value to support price points.

    And while most moms make the purchase decisions in the store, their children are their key influencers. If you can’t get to the kids, they won’t flock to you. (Check out the cereal aisle, you’ll see what I mean–lol)

    Using brand sponsored games is a great way to get top of mind brand placement at a young age, which is the holy grail for any CPG.

    Take a look at Charmin’s “enjoy the go” program Or their sit or squat app at Gotta love seeing a conservative brand who has been a client for years “going for it” (pun intended)!

  • Yes–gaming is not new. Neither is social gaming–take bridge, uker, poker, etc. What is new is to be able to do this online with both 1rst degree friends and even random people you may never meet. Most people have their own definition of a “game” and with that a positive or negative connotation. But the true definition of a “game” as taken from wikipedia

    “A game is a structured activity, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool. Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more concerned with the expression of ideas. However, the distinction is not clear-cut, and many games are also considered to be work (such as professional players of spectator sports/games) or art (such as jigsaw puzzles or games involving an artistic layout such as Mahjong solitaire, or some video games).[citation needed]

    Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction. Games generally involve mental or physical stimulation, and often both. Many games help develop practical skills, serve as a form of exercise, or otherwise perform an educational, simulational, or psychological role. According to Chris Crawford, the requirement for player interaction puts activities such as jigsaw puzzles and solitaire “games” into the category of puzzles rather than games.”

    So if a brand can come up with a goal and challenge with the right interaction that builds engagement they can really have a viral home run hit–for pennies compared to some media buys they do now that we do our best to ignore as consumers.

    Thanks for the insightful comment.

  • Foursquare is a perfect example of a game going on right now. If I had told McDonalds 5 years ago that not only would people tell the world what they purchased but that other people would care enough to comment about or rate–they would have thought I was nuts.

    And this is just the beginning. Having consumers play games to win points (think airlines) to redeem coupons for purchases is just a very easy thing to test for a low price point with companies like Arkadium or even Wild Fire.

  • Thank you Sean. The numbers are astonishing, and games are not just for kids anymore…yet I’m not sure they were ever just for kids. Or perhaps the real illusion is that we are “grown ups”? LOL.

  • I appreciate your candor and agree that this was just an overview to the space. As you can see not everyone knows a much about gaming as you or I do. So it’s nice to start with the basics and then build from there. Obviously, understanding the lay of the land allows a brand to outline the path to “take the hill”.

    The company I referenced in the article, Arkadium, does a great job of working with brand to create the strategy and choose the appropriate game for your brand. But for any brand, large or small to have the illusion they can go out and create a game from scratch, with no skill set in the area would be a poor use of resources as you suggest.

    The best approach is to start with what you are trying to achieve. Then as you suggested, a company must understand the skills necessary to do it and preferably find a company with experience to be able to create a road map. Personally, I believe in testing everything. So starting with basic applications or using existing platforms is usually the best place to start.

    As for #3 which references games such as nintendogs, I agree playing in solitude with no other players would be considered just a causal game. However if you go to you will see that users can share their experience with others via the diaries, forum, etc. It is the community being built around the games with leaderboards, diaries, etc that takes it to a “social” game.

    I think you bring up some very important points that no company can not just say “hey that’s cool, let’s do it”. Like any other strategy, understanding how to create an effective social game requires detailed assessment of needs and planning.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  • The massive shifts taking place in the communications space with smart phones is really opening the flood gates. In January 2010 Apple reported that there had been 3 BILLION downloads Unbelievable!

  • Google has yet to nail social networking and I think their efforts are better spent on companies like Zynga. Google is the gate keeper to the ads online and many companies are starting to play with ads on games to see what happens. And while the focus is on sites like Facebook as an obvious platform, the mobile space is also a huge playground of opportunity.

    However, this is a VERY difficult space to jump into. For every iphone, android, or blackberry there are hundreds of other phones being used, each with different screen size and their own functionality. So it becomes very difficult to track and measure the ROI because you must have specific ads for specific devices as just one example. And the disconnect between carriers is red tape you could choke on for years.

    So it’s baby steps for everyone, but there are definitely ways to grab some easy to reach low hanging fruit.

  • You won the prize for my favorite question! Facebook has about 150 million reasons to like Zynga–LOL. Check out Suresh Balaraman who is a an analyst at NextUp Research to understand what I mean (hint–who do you think spends the most on facebook ads?)…

    “Here’s his view on the recent partnership between Facebook and Zynga and who’s got the leverage. And why the two Marks – Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Pincus need each other, with one needing the other a little more at this point…” read more at

    Love to hear what you think–it’s a real eye-opener for sure. Thanks for a great comment!

  • I think starting with fun promotions at wildfire is a great way to start Technically not a “game” but more of a promotion–but if you start there it is a inexpensive way to feel out what works for your clients.

    First if their are prizes involved you must consult with an attorney. You must! And Facebook has strict guidelines as well if you are doing it on your own. (check out my post at

    So a game based on prizes will be most successful for a brand. Giving away an ipad as a prize for playing a game sounds cool, right?

    But if you are a health insurance company, wouldn’t it be much more relevant to give away a year of health insurance?

    Or if you are a tax preparation company–get your taxes done for life?

    By using Wildfire or Involver is an awesome starting point with limited risk of resources.

  • I agree Eric. And think about this…if you are a social media “guru” or an internet marketing “genius” there are probably a couple of a couple THOUSAND companies out there who would love help getting their apps download. I know a few people who are marching down the path to take their direct response skills and get rev share from companies per install. And guess what? These companies will pay for that. Thanks for stopping by!

  • The only thing I hate more than the McDonald’s happy meal scam is the games with the crane to pick up any toy you can! Right??? But we keep going back for more. If you can’t beat em, join em. And yes, most of us like collecting things for a rainy day or a prize–we just like “stuff”. And winning!

  • Betty Hakes

    Love this overview of social gaming. The possibilities for companies to market their products and services through social gaming are endless. How would you go about determining where a company should start? For example, if I were marketing a meal plan system, what type of gaming platform would you suggest to start with? Would you consider social gaming to promote B2B services?

  • Thanks Lori, great suggestions.

  • Bjorn Nilsen

    One item I dont recall seeing in Lori’s article is how 3rd party businesses are jumping. For example, 7-11 has a tie into Farmville. Stop in a 7-11 store, buy specific articles, register the article’s code on a 7-11 website, collect enough credits for codes entered, and get a special 7-11 only farm animal for your farm in Farmville.

    As a confessed Farmville addict, I keep an eye out for 7-11 stores in the area and what products will net me the special item that captures my fancy – its a hot day today, so another 7-11 Slushie may be in the works. Hmm, quench thirst, cool down, and get points for that cool cow? Seems like a winner! (for the gamer, 7-11, and Zenga!)

  • Bjorn Nilsen

    @Lori —

    OK, I admit it….in the evenings, on Facebook, I am a Farmville addict!!!

    I host a group that is primarily social in scope here on LI and we play a lot of games within the group (reversing sentences, word finds, lyric links, and others we have made up). The result? A closer network of people who are really getting to know each other.

    As for my Farmville addiction, the social aspect of the game has also led to getting to “know” people better and keeps me in contact with friends both old and new. People within these games work together (Co-op Farming, for example), share successes and prizes, trade gifts, “lend a hand in a barn-rasing” — with this sort of interaction going on, its hard NOT to get closer to people, share with them, and become a part of their lives. Currently, my wife and I linked to people all around the world as a result of these games and are having a great time in the process!!! If there is a way to integrate it into your business you will have dialed into something special and potentially very rewarding!

    “I recently learned something quite interesting about video games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The air force believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.”
    ~ Ronald Reagan

    P.S. Lori — Great article, by the way!!!

  • Bjorn Nilsen


    There are a few social games out there that center on food themes and the like….seems like a place to start for ideas. You may consider something similar to the 7-11 marketing idea that I mentioned in a response above:

    “For example, 7-11 has a tie into Farmville. Stop in a 7-11 store, buy specific articles, register the article’s code on a 7-11 website, collect enough credits for codes entered, and get a special 7-11 only farm animal for your farm in Farmville.”

    This is obviously a marketing and advertising stream, but one that could be a good one especially if there is a way to get your product highlighted in the game as a “special edition” item. Check out a few of the games and see for yourself how a bit of open-minded creativity could result in new markets and customers you might never have reached through other conventional means.

  • muchuanlin

    There are a few social games out there that center on food themes and the like….seems like a place to start for ideas. You may consider something similar to the 7-11 marketing idea that I mentioned in a response above:<brNeodymium Magnets

  • chris

    Lori – Thanks for the read. Are you aware of any social “games” that are actually built for businesses – not just for in game advertising or in game interaction with customers, but for businesses to actually get work done? If someone were to develop an addictive, entertaining “game” that was productive, I think that would be a home run. Any insight?


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  • Huge audience, which includes a wide range of demographics, particularly women, is highly engaged and motivated to interact with brands, particularly those that reward them with virtual currency or progress their social game status.

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