Zynga, the fast-growing maker of Facebook games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, has been called by the New York Times “the hottest start-up to emerge from Silicon Valley since Twitter and, before that, Facebook.” This week, its CEO, Mark Pincus, is profiled in the story, the second in two weeks, highlighting the company’s recent success (though not without its fair share of controversy).  Among other things, the article profiles Pincus as a fearless entrepreneur and visionary aiming to build an online entertainment empire as important to the internet “as Google is to search.”

While Zynga will cite profits and player numbers as success criteria, it is another recent trend Zynga is pioneering that has caught my attention; advertising through social gaming. Zynga came under fire recently for allowing advertisements into its games. Some ads, for example, signed up players for subscriptions to costly text-messaging services. This caused a PR headache for the company with TechCrunch, the technology blog, calling the practice “ScamVille,” after some users filed a class-action lawsuit.

But with 211 million players every month, according to AppData.com, Zynga is perhaps well on its way to making social gaming as important to the internet as anything else thanks to a new partnership with an American food manufacturer, (also covered in the New York Times recently).  Cascadian Farm, an organic farm in the U.S. and subsidiary of General Mills, is using one of Zynga’s more popular games, Farmville, to reach a growing customer segment through advertising. Instead of your bog standard click-through ads a la GoogleAd Words however, the Cascadian Farms content will be integrated into the gaming experience.  

In Farmville, you participate, create, build and manage your own farm. You gain experience points by visiting your friends’ farms and lending a virtual hand. From next week, players in the U.S. will be able to purchase (using farm bucks) and plant, an organic blueberry crop from Cascadian Farm.  In doing so, FarmVille users will learn about organic farming and green living through standard game play, and at the same time, earn additional points to grow fruits and vegetables or raise animals on their virtual farms. Cascadian Farm executives said in a New York Times article that they hope that the company can expand its food niche and make itself better known by increasing awareness among FarmVille’s audience – that’s 221 million players a month. Users will also be able to access a $1 off coupon.

It will be curious to see just how successful Cascadian Farm is on Farmville. Will the strategy work to attract and educate potential customers through participation and content or will it back fire just like the imbedded ads? While integration in game play gives the user unique exposure to content in an experiential manner, will users see through the stunt and reject it as advertising or is this campaign just clever enough to work?   
 

@jacqui_cooper

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