Although the gaming audience is a lot more diverse than many marketers give it credit for, games are still extremely popular with young people, particularly young men.
Which is why advertisers looking to reach this often-elusive demo are turning to in-game ads.
Video games are a valuable connection to these audiences at a time when they’re highly engaged.
Independent record label EMPIRE is well aware of the crossover appeal between video games and certain subgenres of music, including rap, said Peter Kadin, SVP of marketing at EMPIRE.
So the label recently partnered with in-game ad platform Anzu to promote Babyface Ray’s new album, “FACE,” among young male rap fans in targeted geographic locations.
The symbiotic relationship between rap and video games goes back to the 1990s.
Motown Software’s 1995 release, Rap Jam: Volume One, an NBA Jam-style basketball game in which gamers could play as real-world rap legends, such as LL Cool J and Queen Latifah, is recognized as one of the earliest crossover events between the rap and gaming worlds.
And the relationship between rap and video games is still going strong.
In 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Travis Scott hosted a widely praised virtual concert inside the video game Fortnite.
And onetime hitmaker Soulja Boy has remained relevant thanks to his ill-fated attempts to launch his own video game console.
Now you can add Babyface Ray, a mainstay of the Midwest rap scene and a rising star on the national stage, to the list of rap’s video game pioneers.
Earlier this year, EMPIRE experimented with in-game advertising as part of a larger national multimedia campaign to raise Babyface Ray’s national profile and drive listening intent for his new album among key audiences.
In the Game (literally)
Anzu placed static display ads promoting Ray’s album in a mix of PC and mobile games, including “Axis Football,” “Slapshot: Rebound,” “Ultimate Car Driving Simulator,” Ubisoft’s “Trackmania” and “Left to Survive.”
These titles (a cocktail of sports and driving games with a third-person zombie shooter tossed in) were specifically chosen by EMPIRE for their appeal to mainly male gamers in the 18 to 24 age range, Kadin said.
EMPIRE also targeted gamers in specific geographic locations across the Midwest with a large concentration of Babyface Ray’s fans, including Cleveland, Chicago, Buffalo, Columbus and the rapper’s hometown, Detroit.
“We have various sources of data from streaming and social media platforms to pull where Babyface Ray’s audience is,” Kadin said, “so we were able to utilize that to determine which cities to go after.”
The ad placements themselves were native to each game environment so as not to disturb the playing experience.
The driving games, for example, included billboard-style placements along the side of the road. In the sports games, the ads mimicked a live sports environment, with ads appearing on screens located around the virtual arena. And in the zombie shooter, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic cityscape, the ads appeared in places that would make sense for a city setting, like bus stops.
State of play
The in-game ads promoting Ray’s album drove nearly four times as much attention as the benchmark for display ads with a viewability score of 93% on PC and 94% on mobile, according to Lumen Research, Anzu’s third-party measurement partner.
But the campaign also generated organic chatter on social media, which was a pleasant surprise, said Kadin, who noted that EMPIRE’s native advertising strategy usually includes paying social media accounts and meme networks on Instagram and TikTok to create content using music from their artists.
Kadin himself came across posts about the campaign on the r/HipHopHeads Subreddit and on the @rap Instagram page.
“Fans who see an advertisement in a game that is popular between them and their friend group … it goes much farther than an average click,” Kadin said. “That type of engagement is really special.”
Although this was EMPIRE’s first flirtation with in-game advertising, video games have played a role in its previous marketing efforts. For example, EMPIRE is sometimes able to place songs from its artist roster into game soundtracks. And the label has attempted to have its artists engage with the gaming community by playing certain games themselves, Kadin said.
However, opportunities to get a song into a game’s soundtrack are rare, and efforts to integrate artists into existing gaming communities can sometimes feel contrived.
“The gaming community sees through any kind of fake, forced engagement,” Kadin said. “The in-game advertising solution is a great way to have the artists be a part of the experience without having them come off corny or forced into it by their record label.”
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint the specific impact that in-game ads had on Babyface Ray’s album release, since it was just one part of a multipronged marketing effort that also included a social media campaign, music video releases and an artist press tour, the label considers it a successful experiment.
EMPIRE plans to continue using Anzu’s ad network for future campaigns and is also considering expanding its in-game ad efforts to other partners, Kadin said.