In a crazy news cycle dominated by a Presidential election, Brexit and global terrorism, a mobile app game has managed to grab a ton of headlines. Pokémon Go. Maybe you’ve heard of it? For companies, though, Pokémon Go isn’t all fun and games.
Here’s a taste of the headlines about the iOS/Android game: “the next big marketing tool for retailers,” “a marketing platform for local businesses,” “a wild opportunity” for marketers, and a disruptor of “marketing as we know it.”
Can these headlines be even partially believed? Or is Pokémon Go destined to become another Foursquare or Google Glass? To spare you from having to read the gazillion Pokémon Go articles posted since the app’s recent debut, I’ll share some interesting points and add a few of my own.
Pokémon Go is an augmented reality app that uses a smartphone’s GPS, gyroscope and camera to gamify your environment. Players venture to real-world locations to find, train and fight the game’s virtual creatures, which appear in the app as if they were actually at those locations.
In the app’s map, players see PokéStops and Pokémon gyms, which, when visited, display Pokémon creatures, which can further the player’s progress in the game and offer rewards.
PokéStops and Pokémon gyms include monuments, statues, public art, buildings and other locations. Gyms, only available to players at level five, are where you join a team and go into battle. It’s complicated, but if you want to learn more, read Quartz’s “ultimate guide to Pokémon Go.”
Marketers play the game
After its release, Pokémon Go quickly topped app download charts in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand, where it was released July 6. One week later, Pokémon Go had become the “biggest ever (game) in the U.S.,” topped Twitter’s number of daily active users, and had people spending more time in the app than in Facebook, TechCrunch reports.
It’s difficult not to be impressed. Or to see the potential that Pokémon Go offers to marketers for grabbing this unexpected five second window.
Pokémon Go’s developer, Niantic, plans to offer “sponsored locations” (PokéStops and Pokémon gym locations that pay to participate) as an additional revenue stream, according to the Financial Times. (Niantic developed Pokémon Go in partnership with Nintendo; the free game offers in-app purchases.)
Paid advertising or other sponsorship arrangements could help encourage Pokémon Go players to visit a retail store, restaurant or other business. For example, it’s rumored that McDonald’s will announce a major sponsorship deal, whereby every one of the global fast-food chain’s locations in a particular Asian country will either be a PokéStop or Pokémon gym, according to Gizmodo. As of this writing, which Asian country wasn’t known, though “several compelling reasons point to Japan,” Gizmodo says.
[Update: McDonald’s announced it will make its restaurants key stops for people playing Pokémon Go in Japan.]
5 cool marketing initiatives
Aside from paid sponsorships, many businesses and organizations are scrambling to leverage Pokémon Go fever to attract new visitors. BBC reports that some U.K. churches have signed up to be PokéStops. The game is sending “swarms of players” to bookstores and libraries, Los Angeles Times says. Some libraries are Instagramming screenshots of Pokémon creatures among their stacks.
Meanwhile, some enterprising organizations are, at a minimum, getting their 15 seconds of fame, thanks to Pokémon Go:
1. Salt Lake City used-clothing store iconoCLAD posted a sign outside its doors encouraging players to “come get your PokéBalls and previously rocked threads!,” as reported by ClickZ. The store is a designated PokéStop, and its sign earned media attention on Forbes and Money.
2. A Muncie, Indiana animal shelter invited locals via social media to walk their rescue dogs while out playing Pokémon Go. Within the promotion’s first two days, more than 150 people walked dogs from the shelter, according to local newspaper The StarPress. The promotion also earned mentions in Time magazine, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post. And the Facebook post announcing the promotion has been shared at least 26,000 times and reached more than 1.5 million people.
3. Atlanta-based ad agency Huge has a public, in-house coffee shop that serves as its “living breathing laboratory” to test campaigns and creative ideas, notes CNBC. Because the café is located between two PokéStops, Huge placed “lures” around the stops. Lures are in-app modules that can be free but usually require a purchase. Lures last for 30 minutes and cause an influx of Pokémon creatures to spawn.
Huge’s goal: Use lures to literally lure customers into the café, where they are providing an additional 25 phone-charging stations, as frequent use of Pokémon Go can drain smartphone batteries. Huge also offers a free appetizer to patrons who can prove they caught a Pokémon in the café, hoping that these customers will then linger longer and order a full meal.
4. Speaking of food and Pokémon Go, L’inizio Pizza Bar in Queens, N.Y., says its business increased 75 percent in one weekend after it spent $10 on lure modules. As PC Magazine puts it, “buying lure Modules is about as effective and immediate a source of hyperlocal advertising as a business could possibly ask for.”
5. Yelp has added a button that lets you filter business search results by ‘PokéStop Nearby.’
Dark side of Pokémon Go
Inevitably, Pokémon Go mania will subside, just like every other craze. Plus, the game has already attracted controversy. Some PokéStops don’t want gamers playing at their site—most notably organizations like the Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery, where reverent reflection is more appropriate than chasing virtual creatures.
The game has also aroused safety concerns. Two men who were apparently playing Pokémon Go fell off a 90-foot ocean bluff in California and had to be rescued, according to Fox News. Some people have reported being robbed while playing the game. While hunting for the game’s virtual creatures, a guy in New Hampshire uncovered a dead body, while two guys heading to a Connecticut church to find Pokémon animals found instead a naked woman vandalizing the church’s prayer garden.
And the game has stirred privacy and security concerns, ignited by a researcher’s blog post accusing the game developers of “taking over (the blog’s) users’ Google accounts,” although Engadget and others later discredited the claim.
Ushering in augmented reality
Of all the Pokémon Go marketing examples I’ve learned of so far, I love what the Muncie Animal Shelter is doing. Their invitation to game players to walk their dogs while on the Pokémon prowl is genius. It gets people engaging with the shelter who might not have done so otherwise. Also, dogs benefit, creating enormous good will for the shelter.
Until now, augmented reality hasn’t really taken off for brands, and the Google Glass belly-flop certainly didn’t help. But Pokémon Go changes that. It’s giving untold numbers of consumers a reason to experience augmented reality. And once they’ve tasted it, many of them could want more.
I expect we’ll start to see more mobile experiments like the one described in an MIT Technology Review article published just before Pokémon Go’s release. The article describes how online furniture retailer Wayfair’s new augmented-reality app, WayfairView, lets users “place full-scale 3-D virtual models of Wayfair products in real settings,” helping users determine, for instance, if a lamp they’re considering buying is too big for a side table.
Augmented reality’s possibilities for brands are virtually endless. I’ll leave you with one last media quote to ponder, as it illustrates why marketers need to move quickly to respond to the technology’s unexpected twists, turns and opportunities:
“Many technology companies thought (augmented reality) might first take off through specialized business applications,” The New York Times wrote. “Instead, it took a game based on a beloved entertainment franchise from the mid-1990s in Japan to help the technology go mainstream.”
James A. Martin is an award-winning, San Francisco-based journalist. He started covering mobile technology sometime after the Apple Newton bellyflopped but before the PalmPilot went viral. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.