‘In-game’ ads let marketers connect with millions of Xbox players worldwide

The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs are cutting the ice on the opening night of hockey season – it’s early in the game when the referee blows the whistle and calls for a face off.

The camera view switches to show the referee head-on as he makes the call, and the golden arches are seen splashed across a red advertisement place on the board behind him.

It’s a pretty typical sight to behold in today’s corporate-driven NHL. But this scene isn’t so typical – because it’s not a real game but one being played on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 gaming console. These ads aren’t being featured in the Air Canada Centre, but rather in EA Sports NHL 2010 videogame.

The ad got there thanks to the Massive Videogame Network, a division of Microsoft that allows advertisers to place in-game ad placements and get exposure on Xbox Live, where various types of multimedia content are delivered to almost 11 million gamers around the world.

“We aggregate video game content and allow marketers to talk to our target audience – 13 to 34-year-olds – in really different and unique ways,” says Adam Shinehoft, regional sales manager for Massive, part of Microsoft Advertising.

Shinehoft holds a controller and plays along (as the Leafs) while he points out the ads placed by his network on this particular game. Familiar brands – McDonald’s, Upper Deck, Cooper – can be seen along the boards.

Massive isn’t limited to just hockey either, he’s quick to point out. In fact, the network has access to more than 100 Xbox titles. Ads can be placed in basketball, football, and golf games. Or in a first person shooter, or skateboard simulation, and the latest version of Guitar Hero for a change of pace.

“It just depends on what the marketer is looking to do,” Shinehoft says. “If you don’t want violence, we don’t force violence on you. If you’re an entertainment client that has a new movie coming out and you want a shoot ‘em up style, we have a ton of that.”

Massive was formed in 2005 and delivered its first ad in February, 2006. Later that year, Microsoft bought out the company and has never looked back. It sells ads placements on its Xbox titles and menus through MSN Canada and has worked with large organizations – including the federal government and the Ontario government.

Communications companies Telus Corp. and Rogers are also clients, Shinehoft says. The self-proclaimed video game aficionado helped launch the network in Canada.

“We’ll work with different levels of budgets,” he says. Clients have started campaigns for as little as $50,000 and some have six-digit campaigns booked.

The concept of having an advertisement placed in a videogame might carry an initial wow-factor. But the meticulous marketer’s mind soon steers towards more quantitative matters – such as ad impressions, target market demographics, and overall bang for the buck.

Massive does its part with market research to back up its worth, and a metrics system to report on how gamers are viewing your ad and interacting with it.

By tracking ad performance, the impressions that marketers purchase at a cost-per-thousand are guaranteed.

A monthly report displays to clients what they purchased against what’s been delivered and what’s expected to be delivered soon, Shinehoft says. Winning over the gamer audience is all about balance.

“This is a smart audience, these guys and girls know their stuff – they are tech savvy and consumer educated,” he says. “It’s very important to balance the right type of creative with the right type of game content.”

The Xbox Live Spotlight channel also allows advertisers to measure how gamers are interacting with their channels. For example, Telus currently has a BlackBerry promotion that features six videos. Each video could be tracked for the number of times it is viewed, and whether the visit leads to a click-through to the Telus Web site.

As Shinehoft explains the ad network, he shoots the puck from the top of the blue circle and into the top corner of the net. A goal.

As the shot cuts away to the players celebrating, an Upper Deck logo is clearly seen on the boards behind the net.

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