By Nick Travis, partner at Smith & Williamson
This article was originally published in Smith & Williamson's Enterprise magazine, a thought leadership publication for entrepreneurs and growth companies.
The gaming industry is vast: bigger than the music and film industries combined, more popular than Instagram and Twitter. Yet the sector’s lingering reputation as a home for the politically and socially disengaged means that few brands and charities have sought to tap into this potentially influential group.There is some compelling evidence that the sector’s reputation is misplaced. All sorts of people are gamers and they can be galvanised into swift and meaningful action. This was seen as early as 2010 when Zynga ran a campaign to raise funds for the Haiti earthquake victims, raising over $1 million in just five days.
Jude Ower was watching and saw the power of the gaming community to bring about change. She had spent a decade in the gaming sector, building games for education and training. She had already seen how games could have another purpose. This was the birth of Playmob, her ‘gaming for good’ company.
“I was also interested in Jane McGonigal’s theory, quoted in her book Reality is Broken, that if we could get to 21 billion hours of game play, we could start to solve some of the world’s major issues – climate change, obesity, poverty. We are at 16 billion today, so we are close to the tipping point.”
Jude had already run her own business but saw a real untapped opportunity. She started Playmob by running in-game fundraisers, which raised millions of dollars for global causes. This had an advantage in that they were going to where people were already playing; the problem was that only around 2% of people pay for items in a game.
In 2016, she shifted the business model, moving towards an ethical media platform. This meant working with the world’s biggest brands to build playable ads and then distributing them through advertising slots in mobile games. The aim is to teach players about global issues and encourage them to take action through ‘‘small but mighty” mini-games.
Jude says: “In 2016/17, we started the Oceans campaign. These were playable adverts that helped people learn how to take action. We had a really high engagement rate – up to 50% played for longer than 30 seconds. Playmob works with big brands such as Unilever and Pepsi, educating players on what the brand is trying to do.”
This has involved work on specific issues, like self- esteem. Playmob has also worked with the UN on a climate change initiative. Jude says:
“We don’t say this is what we think but it is all about the change the company is trying to bring about.”
The UN initiative was designed to educate people about its sustainable development goals, which go across oceans, plastics, climate change to areas such as education.
There have been challenges along the way. Getting people to understand the concept hasn’t always been easy: “It was easier when we could talk to a brand directly. They can make the decision. It was tougher when we were dealing with agencies, which may have different key performance indicators.”
They have had champions. They had an early meeting with the global head of communications and sustainability at one of the big brands who “fell in love” with what they were doing.
When she left the company, she started working with Playmob more closely, helping them understand how to penetrate these large organisations.
In the meantime, the games continue to develop. In addition to games designers, the group has data scientists and behavioural psychologists to help increase the power and impact of their messages. One of Jude’s next ambitions is to improve their time to market. At the moment, it is around 12 weeks end-to-end but the group is building a suite of templates to make it even faster.
Jude believes they have built a powerful platform.
“We have data on what people care about – not just what they buy, but about their values. We can start to understand what people are about – is it climate change? Or plastic pollution? That builds an emotional connection, which in turn can help build a long-term relationship with a brand.”
The group is also planning to move to a subscription model, whereby brands pay a monthly fee in exchange for a number of services.
What are her highs and lows?
“They seem to get more extreme but I’ve learnt how to handle them. When I see these games having a positive impact, it helps me to keep going.”
The results have been impressive. They have mobilised gamers to do almost 70 beach clean- ups through Pokemon Go, taught them to get help for cyberbullying, even raising money for a helpline.
“You need good advisers, people you can moan people you can moan to. I’ve never thought ‘I want to give up’. The key for me has been to step back and think how far we’ve come in ten years. This is the company we would have dreamt of having this time last year. Even if things aren’t going our way, we’ve made great progress.”