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    Brands ramp up gaming marketing but still lag consumers

    NEW YORK — There was a common thread running through the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) inaugural PlayFronts on Tuesday, the first media upfront event dedicated to gaming: What took so long?

    Across a day of panel discussions and presentations at a venue in midtown Manhattan, speakers emphasized the reach and diversity of gaming audiences while noting that many brands have been sluggish to follow these leads, even as they carp about the difficulty of engaging today’s consumers. The PlayFronts arrived as a confluence of factors have pushed gaming further into the mainstream, with shifting habits during the pandemic, budding aspirations for the metaverse and the looming death of cookies driving renewed interest. Now, marketers face a key test on whether they can ingratiate themselves with a community that’s accustomed to not dealing with a heavy advertising presence but appears increasingly crucial to unlocking future growth.

    “I see gaming as still being a blind spot within media plans,” Francesco Petruzzelli, managing director and co-founder of in-game advertising firm Bidstack, said during a talk about the metaverse. “The inventory’s there. There’s enough games to sustain us all. It’s important that the brand money comes.”

    Some estimates suggest the gaming industry today generates more revenue than music, movies and television combined. Recent deal-making is indicative of how valuable the industry has become. Microsoft earlier this year bought Activision Blizzard — a presenter at the PlayFronts — for nearly $70 billion, making for one of the priciest media acquisitions in history.

    Yet, gaming accounts for less than 6% of total digital ad spending in the U.S., according to figures shared by the IAB. Part of the reason the segment’s level of activity is comparatively low stems from enduring stereotypes, executives said. CMOs in non-endemic categories still perceive the hobby as the exclusive domain of slovenly young men, even as nearly half of gamers in the U.S. are now women (and despite the fact that young men are an appealing target demographic). Another substantial problem for brands is that the advertising infrastructure simply isn’t there beyond the hypercasual mobile gaming category, though speakers promised progress is coming on this front.

    “We’d be remiss not to acknowledge that we as an industry have not done a great job of defining clear and consistent ad models in gaming,” Zoe Soon, vice president of the experience center at the IAB, said when introducing the show. “Because of this, we’ve taught game publishers and consumers to be ad-resistant, with the exception of free-to-play games, and we’ve hampered our ability to grow programmatically.

    “Just as mobile was initially slow to monetize until advertisers could no longer ignore the shift of consumer time and attention … so too, will advertisers eventually unlock the power of gaming as a marketing channel,” she added.

    Driving commerce

    One bridge for marketers new to the world of gaming is commerce capabilities. Leading titles like Fortnite have popularized the idea of microtransactions, where users are willing to pay for in-game goodies even if the service is otherwise free to play.

    For packaged goods marketers that have had to invest more heavily in online sales channels during the pandemic, gaming could be fertile ground to experiment further.

    “We see gaming as the center of community, culture and commerce,” Willem Dinger, global director of sponsorships at Unilever, said during a discussion with Meta.

    “People are spending a lot of money on digital assets, digital avatars,” Dinger added. “If we can connect some of that spend to really help drive our e-commerce … that’s also a massive business opportunity.”

    Unilever operates a UPLAY gaming unit that’s been more active since the outset of the COVID-19 crisis, which spurred more people to pick up a controller or tune into esports streams. During the League of Legends SuperLiga tournament last year, the CPG giant’s Magnum ice cream brand developed a Twitch integration in Spain that allowed viewers to quickly order a pint from delivery partner Glovo.

    “For different brands, there will be different KPIs set, but we really use it to drive brand impacts,” Dinger said. “The best thing about gaming is that it’s a hard-to-reach audience, so we need to be showing up in the right way.”

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