Nearly everything you read about gamification is marketing-focused. When the books on the topic feature titles like “Game-Based Marketing” (which I enjoyed, by the way) and panel discussions at conferences focus on the benefits of adding a game layer to marketing efforts, it’s no wonder people might think there’s no pure PR use for games.
The difference between marketing and more classic public relations is simple. Marketing is designed to promote and sell products or services. PR, on the other hand, is about building mutual understanding between an organization and its publics; it’s about helping the organization tell its stories.
That last phrase, “tell its stories,” can be problematic. To be sure, there is power in telling stories. An old Indian proverb says: “Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”
I love that proverb and I love stories. But when it’s a company—particularly one facing stiff resistance to his message—simply telling
may fall on deaf ears. Good communicators understand the difference between telling and showing
, because a demonstration will reach people at a deeper level and create greater understanding.
But gaming can create an even stronger connection. In two cases, companies are using games to establish that connection, in one case through a game show interface and in another through having the actual experience.
If you have to face the same challenge an organization does, or you can produce the same benefits, your eyes can be opened to something a company or industry has been trying to tell you for years. The game can create the “aha” moment that institutional advertising, press releases, and blog posts that both traditional and digital media failed to deliver.
Once you’ve slapped yourself on the forehead and proclaimed, “Now I get it,” you’ll be inclined to share your new insight with your communities. Your tweeps, Facebook friends, LinkedIn colleagues and other connections are far more likely to pay attention to you, since you’re not a paid representative of the company. Some may even want to play the game themselves (if you haven’t already invited them to join you in playing a social game). And that’s how opinions get changed.
NASA is an example of an organization with a public relations problem. That is, the agency has a problem that wouldn’t exist if public opinion were different. With the host of economic issues the United States is facing, not many people are high on the idea of funneling billions of dollars into space exploration (Newt Gingrich’s moon colonization proposal
notwithstanding). The common refrain is, “Why spend money on space when there is so much that needs fixing right here on earth?”
The research and development of space exploration, however, produces tangible benefits that translate into jobs and economic growth. Anyone who works at Tempur-Pedic, the company that manufactures and sells mattresses made of memory foam
, can thank NASA. Memory foam was developed in the mid-1960s at NASA’s Ames Research Center and released to the public in the early ‘80s. It’s just one example of products that came out of space research.
Still, with a public reeling from a stagnant economy, mortgage foreclosures and other harsh realities, convincing people that their tax dollars are well spent on missions to infinity and beyond is a hard sell.
So NASA unveiled Space Race Blastoff
on Facebook. According to David Weaver, NASA’s associate administrator for communications (quoted in a Register article
), “Space Race Blastoff opens NASA’s history and research to a wide new audience of people accustomed to using social media. Space experts and novices will learn new things about how exploration continues to impact our world.”
To play, you choose an avatar, and then answer 10 “crossfire” questions. A correct answer earns 100 points. The first player to answer correctly gets an additional 20 points.
If it’s hard to convince people that the government should be investing in reaching for the stars, it’s damn near impossible to get them to support pharmaceutical pricing, which has been so contentious an issue that it has grown into an activist cause.
Having worked in the pharmaceutical industry, I know first-hand how resistant people are to the notion that the price of one drug covers the R&D costs of the thousand or so that never made it to market, that drug companies must undertake development of promising medications knowing full well that most will fall out of the pipeline at one stage or another and only a few ever make it to market.
Boehringer Ingelheim hopes to make it easier by having gamers compete to develop lifesaving drugs and bring them to market via a social Facebook game called Syrum. The social Facebook game will have a soft launch in April.
According to Dominic Tyer, writing for the PMLive blog
, the pharma’s communications chief, John Pugh, said the goal is to “build a new communications channel and enter into a dialogue with stakeholders.”
Speaking at a social media conference in London last month, Pugh said: “In FarmVille you’re able to buy a tractor and send it to your friends. In Syrum you don’t have to pay anything, but if perhaps you watch a video for a minute around COPD or answer a quick questionnaire about atrial fibrillation, then you might get that free microprocessor or a little robot for your lab.”
The game, Pugh said, is “a real opportunity to raise disease awareness in a fun and engaging way.”
Other social Facebook games have already been applied to non-marketing challenges. Marriott, for example, released My Marriott Hotel
last June, as a means of recruiting new employees. The initial game release has gamers working in the kitchen. A link that reads “Do It For Real” takes gamers to the company’s recruiting site. The investment makes sense for a company growing in China and India with thousands of jobs to fill.
Not every PR message would be appropriate for a game solution. Developing and deploying these games is a costly proposition, so a solid ROI calculation is a requirement. But for big issues where public support can be a game changer (sorry), the investment could have a significant payoff.
Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog a shel of my former self.