A driven, busy 50-year-old executive turned me into a werewolf. A renowned product designer poked one of my friends. I lost a movie-trivia quiz to the former CEO of a global marketing holding company. Welcome to the business side of Facebookwhere a little play releases stress, where thought leaders plug into industry-wide forums, and where deepening client relationships and attracting talent happen as a byproduct of having fun.
Meanwhile, over on Second Life, leading consumer-focused and business-to-business companies are spending energy and money running virtual organizations. Their new existence is rooted in delight. Notice the verbs in the set up instructions: They create an avatar, explore, and have fun. Serious companies such as IBM, Bain, Coke, and hundreds of others are leading the charge into this digital playground.
Even the austere New Yorker invites readers to play with its venerated one-panel cartoon format by submitting their own punch lines through an online form. Down the street at the Niketown Lab, consumers can design their own shoes, even add their own signature to it. The online feature of this lab alone generates three million unique visitors per month.
When at Staples.com, I hit the Easy button. My daughter decides which brands can talk to her through Nordstrom's Fashion Feed. As buyers, we want the power to choose our options and gain a measure of control over the experience. Companies that figure out how to invite us to play invite us to make their offerings our own. When we buy, we tell a friend about it. Perhaps we even syndicate it on Digg or Del.icio.us. As we've known for years, peer recommendations drive the choices buyers make.
The once immutable laws of marketing have relaxed. The examples above, and thousands of others, signify that a command-center approach to marketing communications is outmoded. Building a brand with public relations and amassing expert credentials alone will not work. For example, as an avid reader and sometimes writer, I trust the consumer reviews on Amazon.com more than a handful of book-jacket blurbs. In fact, I have never read a bad book-jacket blurbbut online readers let me know when the latest "masterpiece" should be scrupulously avoided.
Today's consumers don't trust top-down messaging; they can see the seamsand the holestoo easily. In fact, the word "consumer" is itself outmoded and unrealistic in an interactive society. Instead, companies must reach out to potential participants and players.
Everywhere companies are encouraging us to become a part of their culture by inviting us to play, to participate, to opineto interact with their brand, their product, their community. Gone is the communication firewall set up by the legal and PR departments.
Everything has changed.
In this era of interaction, the ability to play with a brand, product, or service is a critical factor in winning new sales and retaining existing selling relationships. The above examples are not merely clever promotions. Like the universe, marketing always expands.
The marketing mixonce the four Ps of Product, Place, Price and Promotions, later upgraded to the five Ps with the addition of Positioningnow welcomes the sixth P, Play.
We expect the power to choose our options and to control the experience. We expect to try things out, to squeeze the Try Me button on a SpinBrush toothbrush before throwing it in the cart.
Marketing has merged with technology, making the user experience the standard against which success is judged. Market leaders understand that in a fragmented culture the best way to establish leadership is to provide a way for people to feel safe to explore, to playto try out everything from software to food to consulting methodologiesbefore buying.
Companies that invite us to play invite us to make their offerings our own, and then we buy and "tell a friend" about it. Perhaps we even syndicate it on Digg or back to Facebook. Inc reasingly, such endorsements drive the choices buyers make.
In the 1950s and 1960s, ads informed usas consumersabout the features and benefits of a particular product. Consumers were expected to listen in rapt attention. More recently, companies tried to entertain us as passive audiencesads told stories, evoked emotions, and created an aura around a product. But in reality, we were still expected to sit there, listening raptly.
Today's customers do not consume; they do not listen to a narrative someone else wrote for them. Instead, they engage with products. They participate. They write the story. They play.
To say the Internet made Play, the sixth P, possible is a bit like saying the internal combustion engine made it easier to get around: It's only half the story. The real fun begins when you find a straightaway and punch the gas to see what your cherry-red convertible can do. The first iteration of the Internet handled like a Model T, not a lot of fun but would get you from place to place. Now users are just starting to push the Internet to redline, to open it up to see what it can do, letting it roar and hum.
An entire generation of customers grew up relating to their world both in person and online. The first words they read may have been on a website. For these customers it's not enough to present material online. They need an invitation to participate in the experience. They need to laugh. They need to share it with their friends, whom they don't necessarily see every day or even every year (or ever).
They want to make the subservient chicken dance. Launched by the Barbarian Group, an interactive SWAT team called in by Burger King's advertising agency, the subservient chicken was an online smash, logging more than a billion hits. That's billion with a B. The premise was simplea guy dressed in a chicken suit, in a nondescript living room, responds to the commands you type in.
Funny? Yes. Profitable? Absolutely. The subservient-chicken interactive campaign succeeded where it matters mostdriving sales of chicken at Burger King. But there are other intangible benefits, as it is rooted in the brand promise, "Have it your way." Long the second fiddle to McDonalds' world domination, Burger King now has the cachet of a younger, hipper brand. Let the five-year-olds have their Happy Meals. Burger King has its arm around the shoulder of the American dude, inviting him to Simpsonize himself.
But it goes beyond a few clever Web games. To build enduring brand loyalty, companies have to do more than provide their customers with some playful widgets. Companies must get their customers to play with each other, creating a brand tribe of shared experiences, and move it offline and out into the real world.
Videogames are all about play, obviously, but we haven't typically thought of them as a shared interactive experience. They're solitarya couple of guys locked in their dorm room playing Doom and failing freshman econ together. Nintendo's Wii is transforming this geeky subculture into a place for all by fusing both online and offline interactions.
From the first screen, the Wii encourages you to create a "Mii" that looks surprisingly, almost unnervingly like you. You can collaborate with other Wii users through the system's free software downloads and participate in weekly themed Mii pageants. As you dig deeper into the Wii sports game that comes with most consoles, the Wii keeps track of your bowling scores, tennis skill level, and even time spent playing. It actually speaks back to you, sending you emails from characters in the games and inviting you to connect your Wii with your friends' through its built-in Wi-Fi.
The Wii's friendly, interactive approach has birthed a unique user experience in the real life, in-person "Wii party," what one blogger calls "Tupperware parties for dudes." Did Nintendo start this phenomenon for promotion? Begun by users and then latched onto by savvy Nintendo marketers? Hard to say. But the success of Wii parties as a grassroots, bottom-up marketing tool is undeniable. Evite.com even has a section of specially designed Wii-party invitations. After trying out the system with their friends, players become customers who become brand champions.
A new genre of gaming, alternate-reality games, or ARGs, have attracted millions of players around the globe who work collectively to solve puzzles, find clues, and answer riddles. ARGs have been used to promote movies such as "Cloverfield" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" or a Nine Inch Nails' release, but ARGs don't promote products overtly. Key to the experience is the denial from the top that the games even exist, all the while immersing players in a brand experience that spills out from their computer and into real life.
The 2001 ARG tied to the Steven Spielberg movie "Artificial Intelligence: AI" was one of the first to inspire users to collaborate in online groups. Indeed, the games are far too complex to be solved alone, writes Jane McGonigal, an ARG designer and a Ph.D. scholar of play.
In the AI game, known as The Beast, "players were also charged with cracking complicated and time-consuming puzzles that variously required programming, translating and hacking skills, obscure knowledge of literature, history and the arts, and brute computing force," McGonigal writes. ARG players create their own tribes around the game, and by extension, the products the game explores.
Recently, my partner and I met with an intriguing young company. Though the principals were in their 20s, they had just secured their second round of funding, had achieved a respectable level of sales, and were growing according to plana success story in the making.
In terms of the product strategy, marketing, and business model, they hired only the foremost experts in their field to mentor them. Down to the pixel, their website had every usable feature, gave them credibility by quoting third-party "expert" endorsements, and featured all the other best practices that have been proven to work.
They forgot one key ingredient: Their brand platform was devoid of engagement, lacking a level of play that resonates with their ethos.
Companies that invite us to play invite us to make their offerings our own, and then we buy and "tell a friend" about it. Perhaps we even syndicate it on Digg or back to Facebook. Increasingly, such endorsements drive the choices buyers make.
When you let your audience play with your brand, they become part of it. They volunteer for your army. They recommend your product or service. Play is now an imperative for companies wanting to lead. The interactive marketers at my firm are working to help those twentysomething entrepreneurs and other, older clients discover their own inner sense of play and how it relates to them, their brand, and their customers.
Since we could first interact with the world as babes, we've known how to play to learn and develop. Grownups need to rediscover that sense and know that it's okayno, necessaryto play in business, if the business wants to keep learning and developing. For a company to become an icon, and thus reach its market potential, our global culture demands playfulness.
I just compared movie tastes on Facebook with a senior vice president from a major lending institution, a former client. Another frienda venture capitalistturned me into a vampire, then sent me a private post. He is ready to play, and that could mean serious business.
Michael Graber is the managing director of the Southern Growth Studio, a brand-marketing and product-innovation firm. He has worked with Fortune 500 companies and startups in various roles: information architecture, brand strategist, and innovation director. At the Studio, Graber leads clients through innovation implementations and brand transformations, and validates product concepts from both user-experience and business-model perspectives.
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