Gamesville.com turns fun and games into a serious marketing strategy.
The New York Times and Media Metrix have labeled it one of the “stickiest” sites on the Web (with sticky defined as the “average viewer minutes spent on a site in a month”) – even though it cheekily claims to do nothing more than "waste people's time." Known as Gamesville.com, it’s a recreational site that boasts an average 4.1 hours of use per visitor per month -- twice that of runner-up eBay, the much-ballyhooed online auction house.
“That really validates what we’re doing here,” says Mark Herrman, director of sales and marketing for Gamesville.com, Inc., a multi-player, online game show that offers amusements like Bingo, trivia and card games, where winners walk away with cash and various prizes. Founded in 1995, Boston's Gamesville.com claims to be the “premier provider of entertainment-based Web marketing.”
“People like to play the games, and our tagline is ‘Wasting people’s time since 1996,’ which is a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that we are not about curing cancer or finding world peace, but we’re about providing an environment where it is fun and easy for visitors to get a chance at winning a prize and being a part of the community,” Herrman reveals.
However, all is not fun and games in Gamesville. Behind the bells and whistles and promises of cash and prizes, you find a serious strategic marketing plan that does much more than just show viewers a good time.
According to Hermann, Gamesville.com's founders -- Steven Kane, Stuart Roseman and John Furse -- joined the online playground based on a single, shared vision: to specialize in one-to-one, permission-based online marketing. “They saw the Web emerging as this incredibly new and viable medium, and they wanted to use a ‘database marketing concept on steroids,’” Herrman explains. “It involves actually targeting advertising messages to individual people as opposed to the direct-mail world, where companies send a mail piece to a household, and not to an individual.”
With that vision in mind, Herrman says the key to success revolved around building an extensive database full of deep, granular profiles of millions of people -- all with those peoples’ permission. And the way the founders decided to accomplish that goal was to supply a site based on festivities and entertainment, with prize loot being the players' rewards for divulging their personal data.
“The whole idea came down to developing online 'game shows,'” he says. “Meaning that you have environments with literally thousands of people competing in real time for a cash or merchandise prize of some sort. In that setting, the incentive for people to reveal something about themselves is very high. Put simply, if they don’t tell us who they are and where they live, then we can’t send their winnings to them.”
To capture the valuable information about its visitors, Gamesville.com uses a detailed registration form that must be completed prior to play. It includes the basics: name, address, e-mail and phone number -- information which Herrman says is used to fulfill the prizes. "We also ask marital status, age, education level, etc.,” he says, adding that while users are not required to fill in all fields, about 97 percent of users do so anyway.
Currently, Gamesville.com has 1.3 million registered users, with 2,500 new eager players signing up every day -- most of which are between the ages of 18 and 49. The audience, which ranges from students to housewives, competes by answering trivia questions or playing card games in hopes of cashing in on the winnings. To date, the company claims to have distributed payouts of $350,000 in cash and $150,000 in prizes, which vary from month to month. For example, the company just hosted a "March Mania Bracket Game" for NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament, with the grand prize being a big-screen Toshiba television. In addition, the winner of Gamesville.com’s "Oscars Prediction Game," won "A Year of Entertainment" package, which included a big-screen TV, a VCR, 52 movies, 52 bags of candy, 52 bags of microwave popcorn and a microwave oven.
To keep players up-to-date on the site and lure them back for the latest amusements, the company publishes Gamesville Times, a bi-monthly e-newsletter with a circulation of 700,000 players.
This unique entertainment/marketing strategy is paying off in spades for Gamesville, where members play an average of 3 million games each month. Currently, more than 115 big-name advertisers have staked promotional space on the site, with a roster that includes AT&T, Hotmail, Netscape, Sprint, Amazon.com, InfoSeek, Newbury Comics, TCI, BellSouth, Intel, Polygram and U.S. Lottery.
To its advertisers, Gamesville.com offers state-of-the art, database-driven online-marketing solutions via its entertainment and proprietary game and database technologies. According to Kane, the company's mission is to provide its partners with maximum marketing and advertising value while offering its users optimum fun. “We accomplish this by delivering massively multi-player, Internet game shows in which players register comprehensive demographic, psychographic and geographic profiles in order play,” he explains, adding that the company's Web site currently showcases the enormously popular The Bingo Zone, Picturama, AceyDeucey and Crystal Ball game shows.
To lure advertisers, Gamesville.com features two types of advertising products: display advertising and e-mercials. In addition, the site also features “game board branding,” where advertisers can sponsor the games themselves. “We’ve had Rolling Stone sponsor pictures on the celebrity trivia game because it was a good affinity for them, since the magazine is essentially about rock-n-roll music and stars,” says Herrman.
Gamesville.com’s e-mercials are full-screen, one-to-one targeted pieces of creative inserted between the games. “Since our games borrow a lot from television to begin with, our site is based on what we call ‘interstitial programming,’ which is a fancy word for television broadcasting,” Herrman explains. “For instance, if you like ER, and you watch it Thursday nights at 10 on NBC, when you turn to that channel, you know that you are going to see eight minutes of the show followed by two minutes of commercial breaks, followed by eight minutes of programming, followed by another commercial break, and so on. Our site is no different. All of the games are designed to last eight minutes -- maximum. When players get to our site at the top of the hour, all of the game shows commence at eight minutes past the hour, and then we have two minutes of commercial breaks, and the games resume at 10 past the hour. So you have a two-minute break in there when there is nothing going on at the site except full-screen advertising.”
According to Kane, Gamesville.com’s president, in every medium, both online and off, “stickiness” is the number-one issue that companies are concerned with. “They want to know if people are changing the channel, reading the whole magazine, and so on,” he says. “It’s a measure of people's affinity or loyalty, and we always kick butt on that measurement. We’ve been able to sustain that, despite all of the incredible stuff that’s happening on the Web.”
In addition to Kane, Gamesville.com’s management team includes co-founders Stuart Roseman, executive vice president, and John Furse, vice president of operations. Kane oversees all sales, marketing, product development and strategy activities at Gamesville.com; Roseman is responsible for engineering, production and research; and Furse handles internal operations, including finance, inside sales and product management.
Among the scads of online firms that are notoriously reliant on venture capital and investors to fund their rapid growth – all while experiencing heavy losses – Gamesville.com stands out as one of the few Internet firms that is both self-funded and profitable. First-year operations for the privately held company ran “slightly in the red” as the site was developed and the kinks were worked out, but the following two years of operations were moneymakers. “We’ve been profitable since 1997, and we experienced 100 percent revenue growth from 1997 to 1998,” says Kane, who projected another 350 percent growth in 1999.
Adding to the site’s success in keeping its bottom line in the black is that fact that all games are automated systems that basically run themselves. Prize fulfillment works in a similar fashion. According to Herrman, Gamesville.com employs a "very talented engineering staff that spends a lot of time automating mundane tasks that a person would normally have to do by hand." Instead, these tasks are completed dynamically and automatically by computers, keeping both overhead and salaries in check (although the company does employ a staff of 16).
Herrman explains that all information for winners from a particular week is sent to a check-printing system that "spews out all of the prize checks," which then get dropped into a machine that automatically folds and seals them, "and out the door they go."
"This process would normally take someone to stuff checks and lick envelopes, but our system doesn’t require that extra work," he explains. "As a result, we can process 3-4,000 checks per week in a short amount of time."
When Gamesville.com came out to play four years ago, the Internet was just a speck on the business world horizon. With a pioneering vision, Gamesville.com’s co-founders used what they refer to as “guerrilla marketing” tactics to get their nascent firm off the ground. At the time, Herrman says, the Internet consisted of very large, proprietary online systems like America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe, and fledgling online communities like Time Warner's Pathfinder. Herrman says Gamesville leveraged the message boards on such services to promote itself.
“We had a teaser campaign that started two months before the site launched, which boasted that the world’s largest online bingo game was coming, and it was free to play, and it would pay out real cash prizes. We kept posting that on the Internet and in usegroups, then when we launched in early April, there was already a built-in audience. People were waiting at the door, so to speak, and there were a couple of hundred people in our very first game.”
Herrman says the almost-instant success was perpetuated by Gamesville.com’s promise to fulfill prizes very quickly. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we could actually get prize checks into someone’s hand in a very short time, and we set a policy stating that checks would be mailed out within five business days of someone winning the prize,” he recounts. “When we started, we were offering the game three times an hour, 24 hours a day, so a fair number of prize checks were going out the door.”
From there, Herrman says interest in the site really took off, as users realized they could win cash on the Web and get a check in the mail less than a week later. And the checks were special, too. Colorful and fun, the checks were designed to look like collector’s items because Kane and his team wanted people to show them to their co-workers and friends and say, “You won’t believe what I got from this Web site. I won something, and they sent me a check. This is the most amazing thing going.”
Before long, Gamesville’s e-commerce business model became a news story itself, thanks to its habit of doling out $15,000 a month in prizes in the hopes of recouping it through advertisements. “That’s how it became the success that it was,” Herrman states. “Yahoo! picked up on it and named it 'Site of the Week.' And we had people that were really involved in the site and would play every day, so we started a newsletter [Gamesville Times] that instructed them to nominate us for 'Cool Site of the Day' at different sites. We began winning all these awards, and it really built on itself.”
Like many other marketing or media companies, Kane says “cutting through the clutter” remains Gamesville.com’s ongoing challenge. With only so many hours in the day -- and despite radical improvements in technology -- people still need to work, eat and sleep, leaving a limited amount of hours for leisure or entertainment. “Our primary challenge lies in continually creating value for the consumer so they’ll stay engaged, remember us, and come back,” he says. “Everyone is fighting so hard for their attention.”
Currently, Kane says his company’s future plans include a continued diversification of the attractions available on the Gamesville.com site. “We see ourselves evolving to be the premiere leisure and entertainment destination,” he says. “We compare our product to the concept of interactive television, which helps us cut through the clutter, thanks to the fact that the activity itself is a unique form of entertainment. As long as we can stay at the front of that, we’ll be able to continue this unbelievable growth.”
Founders: Steven Kane, Stuart Roseman and John Furse
Industry: Online entertainment/database marketing
Revenues: Undisclosed (but profitable since 1997)
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