Social gaming exploded last year. More consumers are now playing these sorts of games online, and brands (ranging from SMEs and local businesses to blue-chips and multinationals) are beginning to invest in this space.

The sector is now worth close to £1bn, and is expected to show further growth in 2011.

This post, which coincides with the launch of our Social Gaming Smart Pack, contains a brief overview of social gaming, why it’s important, and how it can be used for marketing.  

Social games are web-based games that can be played with other people and include interactive elements or content that can be shared online. The last two years in particular have represented a sea change for the online gaming industry, partly down to the integration of gaming with social networks, as well as the growing popularity of downloadable apps on mobile phones and smart phones.

So what’s changed? Well, social networks have provided games with a layer of social “plumbing” – gaming has been transformed from a lonely, individually-played activity, to a universal social experience that can be shared with family and friends.

The competitive element associated with sharing achievements publicly has also been a key driver: the fact that everyone in your social network can see your score is powerful, as it has a real-life impact.

This sea change means that as marketers we also need to forget the traditional stereotype of the pallid, geeky, online gamer playing by himself on his computer in his bedroom. Social networks have allowed gaming to come to the mainstream, and research by Econsultancy indicates that it’s casual gamers who are typical consumers of social gaming content. Social media has also introduced non-gamers into the space.

Consumer research undertaken by Econsultancy and Toluna shows that men and women are almost equally likely to play social games; some 20% of females are social gamers compared to 18% of males. Social games are also played by people of all ages, although there is a slight bias towards younger demographics, as the chart below indicates.

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Tapping into passion points is key to introducing non-gamers into the space, but the popularity of some games may be more surprising than others.

Sports games are an obvious choice for games developers, but fewer industry commentators could have predicted farming games to be as popular as they have been. But it’s important to remember we’re not in FarmVille anymore.

As the infographic (“The State of Social Gaming”) below indicates, the market was worth $835m in 2010, according to Justin Smith of Inside Network.

Although Zynga dominates the gaming space (generating $200m in revenue in 2009), the market is flooded with a wide range of gaming developers and many popular game titles. Asia is a key market to watch as there are a number of Chinese, Japanese and Korean players that are showing strong growth potential.

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In 2010, we also witnessed the explosion of popular mobile apps and games, and I couldn’t talk about gaming without mentioning the awesomely addictive Angry Birds.

Strictly speaking, Angry Birds may not adhere to the definition of what encompasses a social game (you play it alone), but there are signs that Apple is looking to join the party. The launch of Apple Games Center last year meant that players can now share scores of individually played games with family and friends, as well as the wider gaming community.

So there’s no denying that social games are big. And, they’re here to stay. But what does this mean for marketing?

As with any emerging channel, it can be difficult to justify investment. partly due to the lack of case studies and best practice examples. However many companies are already investing in the channel.

These include household names such as Volvo, Disney, McDonald’s and 7-Eleven. In terms of hard, tangible metrics, social gaming has shown to be highly profitable, thanks to the substantial revenues reaped from the sales of virtual goods and currency. Beyond sales, social gaming enables brands to interact in communities that are guaranteed to have a high level of engagement. A number of monetisation options are available to brands, including:

  • Branded content
  • Virtual goods
  • In-game advertising
  • Display advertising
  • Lead generation offers

In 2011, we will see the continuation of these trends, and further growth in the industry. Social games are becoming more sophisticated, and so will continue to gain popularity with consumers. The newest games will create unique social experiences by tapping into users’ real-world interests and hobbies. Games developers will also be increasingly partnering with relevant brands.

For example, in 2010, Playfish and EA Sports partnered with FIFA to create football game, FIFA Superstars. More recently, the developer also launched the American football game, Madden NFL Superstars on Facebook. It’s an exciting space even in its relative infancy, and there’s plenty more innovation to look forward to in 2011.

There’s more information about the latest industry trends in our Social Gaming Smart Pack.

Image credit: Jinx Squared on Flickr