To help promote its new contactless payment card, Barclays plc produced a video game aimed at young consumers — the demographic the bank sees as most likely to use the card.

The player has 20 seconds to aid a swimmer through a maze of waterslide tubes. Rotating the squares, the user helps the swimmer navigate his way through the board. Once the puzzle is solved, the user is given options to learn more about the contactless card, which is used for micropayments of $10 or less.

The game went live at the beginning of February and was promoted on a "homepage takeover" ad on MSN UK for one day, says Hannah Deans, advertising and media manager at Barclaycard. This resulted in more than 100,000 people playing the game for an average time of just under one minute (indicating users played the game more than once, since the game only takes 20 seconds to play). Nearly 7,000 of those users clicked through to Barclaycard's homepage.

"The results show that a great proportion of these users engaged with the brand on a deeper level," wrote Deans in an email. "This also led to traffic to the Barclaycard site."

While yet to catch on in the United States, "advergaming" is emerging as a popular marketing tool among overseas banks. Though it's difficult to measure how many gamers turn into customers, advergaming can successfully raise brand awareness, especially if the game is entertaining, says Ron Shevlin, senior analyst at Boston-based research firm Aite Group. "The reason these games have the potential to build awareness is that if they do execute well on it then they have the opportunity to gain some kind of 'viralocity,'" Shevlin says. "If you like it, you pass it on."

Blockdot, a Dallas company that produces advergames, says that in a poll of 1,000 gamers, 83 percent of users had a more positive association with the company offering the free game and seven out of 10 would be more likely to buy a product from the company sponsoring the game. Furthermore, two-thirds said they would pass the game along.

Kiwibank in New Zealand found success with a clever game it created called "Stop the Aussie Invasion." Tapping into a nationalistic rivalry, users throw pavlova (a meringue dessert) at invading Australian bankers. It launched in early May of last year and by the end of the month it had received just about 6,000 unique hits, says Deborah Walker, digital strategist for the bank.

Of those hits, the split was basically even between those who found the game directly through Kiwibank's Web site and those who found the site because it was emailed to them or found it on a blog site. What this proves, she says, is that the game was very effective in spreading Kiwibank's name to people who were not actively looking for the bank online.

In the United States, only a handful of institutions have turned to advergaming. To help promote its cash rewards program to a younger audience, Zions Bank in Salt Lake City created a Web site in 2003 called CashBackBoulevard.com, where users hunted for shopping-list items in a virtual world. Users with high scores were eligible to win prizes ranging from $1,000 cash to gift cards to tickets to local events.

Rob Brough, Zions' executive vice president of marketing and communications, says that more than 9,000 people registered on the site (no longer tracked by the bank) for a total of 248,000 contest entries. The results were substantial: the bank received a 70 percent increase in Web site logins to the Zions Cash Rewards site; a 27 percent increase in new credit card accounts; and a 25 percent increase in card usage on existing accounts.

Producing and hosting games can cost more than $100,000, says Jeffry Pilcher, president of brand consultant ICONiQ and publisher of The Financial Brand. Due to market conditions and tightening budgets, Pilcher says that marketing teams will likely ask if they want something more than a viral effect to push their brands.

"If your interactive Flash-based game is a flop… I don't think there will be a negative reaction, but what you're doing is spending that money to achieve nothing," he says. "There are a lot of huge, pressing distractions right now; is [creating a video game] the best use of your money?"

But ING Direct is convinced advergaming is worth the cost. To build awareness of its home-lending program, the company created Move Out, Move Up. The site has three games, the best of which resembles a popular game played at bars called Photo Hunt. In addition to the games, the site provides an interactive tutorial on how aspiring homeowners can get started and plan ahead.

The site has brought in more than 100,000 unique users, which was ahead of expectations, says a company spokesperson.

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