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?   



Who knew the future of the farming industry existed online?

Love it or hate it, when you log on to Facebook you probably can’t help but notice that some of your ‘friends’ are keen for you to build a farm with them or herd some cattle. But rather than this being a semi-idyllic request to escape the rat race and do something outdoorsy, it is of course part of the latest breed of online games – Farmville. Dismissed by many as an annoyance on an increasingly cluttered social networking site, it cannot go unnoticed that this has now become a pretty big deal in terms of highlighting the serious business of casual gaming.

It soon becomes evident quite how big a deal this really is when you take a look at the statistics: 118m installs, 75m monthly players and 27m daily players (Farmville, 2009). Farmville was created by Zynga, a company created less than three years ago but which is now the number one gaming company on the web. The company has a catalogue of games with an average of 65 million people a day playing one of their games – when you consider that this is more than the population of France, the true scale of the business opportunity becomes apparent, even more so when you consider the amount of money people are spending on such games. In the UK last year there were more than 13 million ‘casual gamers’ with 2.4 million of these going on to spend money on these games, equating to £280m or £117 per person.

With this level of interest, the market has quite rightly been heralded as an area of growth, capitalizing on the fact that most people now want to include some level of socialization into everything they do online. The fact that users can share, recommend, help and compete with their friends when playing is perhaps what has led to the impressive levels of interest. It also heralds a new attitude to gaming – the peak time of use for Farmville is between 8am and 9am, highlighting how users are dipping in and out of gaming, perhaps much like checking their emails in the morning. So with huge demand and money to be made, where is casual gaming set to go?

The founders of Flickr are due to launch ‘Glitch’, a 2D platform game which they hope will take online gaming to the masses, although that is perhaps what Farmville has already done. Similarly, EA recently bought Playfish in attempt to catch up on the casual gaming market – a move which has been a success for them but one which shows how smaller developers can be on an equal playing field with the big boys, something which is less easy in the rest of the gaming world. In terms of building on current successes, Zynga has suggested that the next wave of growth will be centered around personalization of content, a common answer to most question in the digital space but one which makes perfect sense. With over 5 million members in the anti-Farmville Facebook group, there is clearly space to improve in terms of avoiding being seen as spam. Personalizing the content is something which will help sustain interest and increase loyalty which in turn should see the money being spent continue to rise. This is already being done by Zynga to some extent in terms of advertising, but the interesting space to watch will be to see how this transfers to the actual content. Watch this space.