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Publishers' new playground: social, mobile gaming

13 Dec 2012

More publishers are finding innovative ways to repurpose content to tap into the growing popularity of mobile and social gaming.

According to research from eMarketer, mobile users are the fastest-growing gaming segment in the U.S., increasing from 102 million this year to 141 million in 2014. Social gaming continues to grow as well, though at a slower pace; eMarketer says social gamers in the U.S. will increase by 10 per cent this year, compared with 27 per cent and 31 per cent growth in 2010 and 2011, respectively. "Growth in 2013 and 2014 will continue on a slow but steady climb, as social gaming inches towards maturity," eMarketer said.

Maturing markets may seem more palatable for risk-averse publishers, so the time may be right to explore a gaming strategy, which can range from creating standalone games to adding game-like functionality to apps and websites. Need inspiration? At the recent MPA Digital: Technology conference in New York, two publishers chronicled their gaming initiatives - one (National Geographic Kids) in the mobile arena, the other (Self) in the social space.

Mobile gaming: iPad is a ‘game-changer' for National Geographic Kids

The success of the iPad has played right into the hands - somewhat literally - of the young audience that National Geographic for Kids caters to. Its website is already chock-full of interactive activities, with a full section devoted to games.

"Our mission is to make it fun for kids to get excited about their world," said Michelle Sullivan, VP of digital for National Geographic Kids Publishing and Media. "The iPad was a game-changer for us."

NG Kids' first foray into the tablet space - a digital edition of the magazine enhanced with video, audio and some simple games - was successful on iTunes. But then the publisher brought in a group of kids for usability testing. They were not impressed.

"Their first comment was, ‘It's not as fun as Angry Birds,'" Sullivan said. The young test subjects quickly became frustrated having to swipe through the entire magazine.

"Kids have different expectations with digital magazines than adults do," Sullivan explained. "We realised we had to make immediate changes to improve the overall user experience."

Designers replaced the traditional cover lines, which served as entry points to different features, with a single word that young gamers would recognise quickly: Start. They also ditched the TOC in favour of a game-like Menu with clickable icons.

National Geographic also released a separate app, Weird But True, which builds on the magazine's popular trivia section with a collection of facts enhanced with audio and other interactive elements.

There's more in the works. Sullivan's digital team, working with National Geographic's apps and gaming teams, is re-imagining the magazine experience for kids. A new app, due by year's end, will offer a completely fresh approach to creating a unique iPad experience, instead of trying to retrofit the existing magazine, Sullivan said.

"While we love the extension of the magazine, we realise there's a broader opportunity to go out with a subscription offering that's a better experience for kids," Sullivan said. For the new app, Sullivan said to expect lots of short-form video and gaming elements that take full advantage of the iPad's functionality.

Social gaming: Self turns live events into a virtual world

Laura McEwen, VP and publisher of Self magazine, joked that creating a social game is a life-altering experience. The question Self - or any other publisher, for that matter - had to answer was whether a game was relevant for its audience. "As a magazine brand, you have to evaluate whether you have permission to play in the game space," she said.

Self invested in a year's worth of subscriber and market research to answer the question. "We found that 80 per cent of our readers were on social sites," said McEwen. "Many check in on Facebook two or three times a day to connect and socialize with friends." Self also found that as many as 65 per cent of its readers said they played games on social networks.

That was enough to convince McEwen and her team to move forward. The result was Workout in the Park, a virtual version of a live event that Self has hosted in a variety of cities for two decades.

"This was an annual event, attended by women who were very social, came year after year with their friends, and formed communities," McEwen said. Self "re-skinned" the concept for the virtual world with a Facebook game that lets users create an avatar, purchase workout equipment and play games. The more activities they perform, the more "fit" their avatar becomes.

Self hired one person with a gaming background and recruited a half-dozen other existing staff to work on the project. "You have to have people with adaptive brains who can learn," McEwen said. You also need external expertise to navigate the complex world of social gaming. Self's partners included SMERC (design), Live Gamer (social commerce and advertising) and Kontagent (analytics).

Early returns are positive: Close to 200,000 players in the first two months, according to McEwen.

Self is monetising the game through brand integration (i.e., product placement), selling virtual credits to users, and is also including the game in more integrated packages across its print and web properties. "It's provided a real halo effect across the magazine brand," said McEwen.

Self has set up its gaming efforts as a separate P&L. "We have expectations of creating a standalone business," McEwen said. "We want to make this run as a profit centre in the shortest possible time."

Lead or get out of the way

Be warned: If you don't get into gaming, you're leaving the door open for others to enter - possibly leveraging your own content in their gaming apps. A startup called Dygest has launched a polling app called Scoople that bills itself as a "social network around news." Nieman Journalism Lab's Adrienne LaFrance described Scoople as "a polling company that acts like a media aggregator but operates as a game." The company's strategy centers on consumer data, LaFrance explained:

Like other social networks, Scoople sees potential value in the information that people share about themselves. Instead of paying money to participate, players dole out opinions and demographic data that can then be mined. ... Down the road, the idea is to charge third parties for access to that data.

IDG's Bob Carrigan has talked about the "curse" of the media business: that publishers are too often willing to concede valuable segments of their markets to startups. Gaming is emerging as one of those key segments. If you think your content can't be refashioned into a social or mobile game, maybe it's time to think again.

Source: emediavitals

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