Virtual currency is prevalent in gaming, where users can deploy credits to continue using favorite social games or to buy virtual goods and powerups. But that's likely just the start. According to several market reports, virtual commerce is a $2.2 billion industry that's projected to grow to a whopping $6 billion in fewer than five years.
It is the basis for business models such as Zynga, and it is a key catalyst in Facebook's impending IPO. The social network's decision in 2007 to open up its platform to third parties has resulted in the explosion of a large virtual currency and payment ecosystem.
Loyalty-based programs from incentive companies, can now offer virtual currency micro-incentives that are inexpensive to distribute and, importantly, of perceived higher value to users than their actual cost. It costs nothing, say, to drop credits (worth about 50 cents each) into a Facebook account. In reality, users will typically opt for 50 free credits over five dollars off a purchase, thereby demonstrating the irrational preference for virtual currency.
One such incentive company is Plink, which has just launched a Facebook credits-based loyalty program that rewards Facebook members for making purchases at restaurants and offline retailers. You can register your credit card, and when you make purchases at partnering stores such as Taco Bell and Dunkin Donuts, you get Facebook virtual credits automatically deposited to your account.
These types of deals will lead to Facebook becoming a de facto bank, and they can be incorporated into just about any scenario. The demands for Facebook credits are becoming sky high, so companies like Plink are expected to ride the wave for some time to come.
The battlefield is sufficiently attractive that the big boys of finance are lining up to get involved. For example, Visa has recently led a $40 million investment round in TrialPay, one of about 30 virtual currency platforms around. Since 2006, TrialPay has supported more than 150 million online shoppers and 10,000 sites and now drives hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue globally for merchants in business segments including social games, software, mobile apps, retail and online services. TrialPay saw a seven times increase in transaction volume in 2011 and a four times increase in traffic compared to a year earlier. Now the transactional ad platform reaches more than 70 million monthly active users.
Similarly, American Express has taken a step to better position itself in the online gaming industry with the acquisition of Sometrics in a deal valued at $30 million. Amex has recently partnered with Foursquare, Facebook and Zynga to help seize the fast-growing social media market.
Having established the viability and popularity of virtual currencies, and with the major financial players now involved, the next evolutionary step is the race for successful and future-proof monetization. In crude terms, the basic question to address is: How do we cash in? What are the hallmarks of the billing and compensation platform required to turn the new breed (of Zynga cows and other ether-based livestock) into cash?
For a start, those involved, like Visa and Amex, should be aware of the need to take a fleet approach to their pricing and charging systems. They should have all their products and customer care solutions carefully coordinated, but without sacrificing the ultimate flexibility to change course quickly.
This is a market still very much in an early stage. Essential to a successful strategy are likely to be the following:
- A view of the customer will let providers see all products and charges for a single customer.
- Pricing and fee management systems with the ability to quickly integrate both existing and new product types on the fly.
- A consistent implementation method and strategy for relationship pricing across, and in spite of, the different virtual currencies involved.
- A method of operationalizing a customer’s account driven by their diverse behavioral preferences with the back office fee system.
Scott Swartz is founder and chief executive officer of MetraTech Corp., which provides a monetization platform.