Like pet rocks, Garbage Pail Kids cards, and Tickle-Me Elmo, Pokémon Go feels destined to become a hallmark inextricably linked with its age, but it also has the distinct feel of a milestone in the Space Invaders mold—something we might look back on and think, “And that’s when it all began.”
Mobile games tailored for iOS and Android have enjoyed widespread success before – think of Candy Crush Saga or Angry Birds. But Pokémon Go is one of the first-ever mainstream applications of augmented reality (AR) –“augmented” meaning that it enhances aspects of the real world as opposed to replacing them. Players walk around their physical environments and see their own movements enacted by an on-screen protagonist, or “trainer.” Because of the immersive storytelling experience the game provides, gamers – a stereotypically couch-locked bunch –are venturing out of their living rooms and into the streets.
With Pokémon Go Niantic Labs, a gaming company spun-off from Google last year, has proved that killer AR apps don’t necessarily have to come with clunky, expensive headgear. Disruption, in this case, has a very familiar look, making it easier for the masses to adopt. Where the masses go, marketers are sure to follow. So, who will make money from Pokémon Go. And how will they do it?
For marketers, driving foot traffic has always been a game of pointing consumers in the right direction, and Pokémon Go explicitly guides users to a specific location. The architecture of the game blurs the line between the real world and the digital one, with players interacting with physical spaces based on prompts from their smartphones, stopping at “Pokéstops” and “gyms” where they can collect and train their Pokémon to progress further in the game. It seems natural, then, that the hunt for Pokémon could soon bridge the gap between consumers seeing a product advertised on a digital billboard and actually going to a physical store to purchase it.
According to the New York Times, Niantic Labs is gearing up to announce a sponsored locations capability that would allow local businesses, fast-food franchises, and coffee shops to pay to become a stop. Just as companies buy ads on Facebook, brands will soon be able to sponsor Pokéstops, branded characters, and merchandise that players can buy to progress faster in the game.
Brands like McDonald’s are already lining up to take advantage of the new opportunity, while mobile carrier T-Mobile has indirectly linked itself to the game by launching a campaign that rewards users with free unlimited data for Pokémon Go-related excursions. Anecdotal stories about bars and coffee shops leveraging the opportunity to boost sales and raise brand awareness also abound.
L’inizio’s Pizza Bar in Queens, New York, is one such small business. As a recent Bloomberg case study detailed, food and drink sales one recent weekend spiked 30 percent, thanks to Pokémon Go. Part of this was luck—the game’s mapping algorithm assigned the restaurant as a ‘stop’— but part of it was also the small investment made by the pizzeria’s manager Sean Benedetti, who purchased one of the game’s in-app “lures,” for $10, attracting a greater concentration of Pokémon to the restaurant. Soon enough, players came flocking as well. As demand increases, this in-app pricing system is only going to get increasingly sophisticated – and potentially more expensive because of the value it bring in driving foot traffic.
As Niantic Labs continues to update and alter the game – reducing glitches and introducing custom in-app monetization opportunities – brands will soon have the opportunity to act as architects of an entirely new digital marketing space. Just as no one anticipated the phenomenon that Pokémon Go has become, surely there will be clever marketing plays that leverage the game’s technology and surprise us all. Augmented reality marketing may have just hit its tipping point.