The Marketing Paradoxes of Pokemon GO

Instead of just reposting the Ad Age article that I ran this week at the outset of the Pokemon Go craze, I’m sharing a substantially different version below. After several rounds of edits, my Ad Age piece, “A Marketer’s Guide to Pokemon Go,” is about 50% shorter. That probably makes it a better read, so I recommend you read it there, and share it there, and comment there about how it’s one of the 50 best marketing-themed stories about Pokemon Go that you’ve read today.

The column below is much more personal. Those asides and anecdotes weren’t quite as essential for the final piece, but since you’re here, you get the director’s cut. This also includes five key observations, rather than the four in the Ad Age post. And this is under a new title for good measure – especially as Timo from Instagram was kindly tweeting about how he thought the headline was clickbait for an article that headed down a different path. The fault of the Ad Age headline is really mine too. I started banging it out and didn’t quite know where it would go, so I left the working title. As has happened before, I’ll spend quite awhile editing the articles and totally neglect to revisit the headline, which sometimes is completely irrelevant by the end of it.

Anyway, that’s the long-form story behind a longer-form story. So (sorry), here you GO.

The Marketing Paradoxes of Pokemon GO

Feeling Krabby? Have another Meowth to feed? At the very least, you know not to say “bless you” when you hear someone say “Pikachu,” right? This lingo is vital for any marketer trying to keep up with the latest global mobile obsession, Pokémon GO.

This game is the latest incarnation of the 1990s entertainment craze that included Game Boy games, trading cards, manga, and cartoons. GO was just released this month for Android and iOS, much to the delight of 20-somethings who were in elementary school at the peak of Pokémon popularity in the late 1990s. It even offers some nostalgia cachet to elderly Gen X’ers like myself, as I was the one counselor in my camp who memorized the names of all of the original 151 collectible characters. And yes, we should all feel old knowing that there are adults who get nostalgic for the late 1990s.

As GO debuted at the top of app download rankings, it faced its share of snafus, largely as a victim of its own success. Its servers were constantly down. When accessing the game, it took forever to load. It constantly asked users to keep logging in again. It wouldn’t remember preferences in users’ settings. I tried turning the music and sound off, only to discover (more than once in the first 24 hours of using it) that it would start blaring its theme song when I tried discreetly playing it while on some conference calls. Its battery usage is horrendous; in a 24-hour period the weekend after GO launched, it consumed 71% of my battery – even as I tried to use it in the so-called battery saver mode.

GO’s users tend to be going crazy over it though. There’s a reason why the screen users see as the app loads advises them to “stay aware of their surroundings” lest a giant sea dragon eats them. A bigger risk is oncoming traffic, as my Millennial nephew discovered repeatedly. For this demographic that uses “adult” as a verb to describe how they try to act like grown-ups once they have already reached adulthood, playing Pokémon GO may be the first non-ironic activity they’ve done in years.

For marketers, the rekindled craze may be easy to ignore or dismiss. Many people who have been “adulting” for too long will be baffled by the game mechanics, which involve physically walking around to collect virtual goods, train virtual monsters, and battle others. Yet with GO lifting Nintendo’s stock price 9% the day it debuted, its game mechanics are going to have an outsize influence on mobile experiences. Here are some of the more striking attributes of the game and why they will be a source of inspiration:

1) Great ideas are often ahead of their time. Niantic, a startup created within Google in 2010, developed GO with Nintendo and The Pokémon Company. Both of the latter two companies invested in Niantic along with Google once Google spun out Niantic in 2015. Niantic’s initial games, Field Trip and Ingress, were well reviewed but hardly caught on outside of early technology adopters. GO builds upon the earlier games, so this is more of an extension than reinvention. This kind of resurgence is all too common. SmarterChild was a popular chat bot on AOL Instant Messenger, and Keebler launched its RecipieBuddie in 2002, but for about 10 years, bot development lay dormant until Facebook, Slack, Kik, and others reignited interest and delivered scalable value. Virtual reality had an even longer hibernation. A Google Trends search for the term “podcast” shows a steady decline starting in 2006 and then a 2015 resurgence that remains healthy. Snapchat’s filters and Snapchat’s geofilters and Snapcodes helped revive augmented reality and QR codes, respectively.

Granted, bad ideas are ahead of their time too; Donald Trump mused about running for president in 1988 and then campaigned for a few months during the 2000 election season.

2) People only complain if they don’t like you. It’s strange to hear how people turn negatives into positives. As frustrating as the server outages are, people brag about how much progress they are making despite being unable to log in much of the time. Some shared screen shots of the battery drain. It’s reminiscent of the early days of Twitter when the Fail Whale became part of the service’s charm and a sign of its popularity. Snapchat’s user experience, which remains a constant source of frustration for Gen X’ers and Boomers, only served to make its younger users prouder of how intuitive it was for them.

3) Not all features need to be available everywhere. In Pokemon GO, when exploring the map, if you try to interact with most of the visible locations, a message pops up saying that the spot is too far away. Even in densely populated Manhattan, most residents or commuters will have to walk a few blocks to access a “gym” where the virtual monsters battle for supremacy. On one hand, this sounds ludicrous, as it restricts the app’s functionality. On the other hand, this makes users put in more effort. Most religions, cults, and gangs realize that more restrictions foster more devotion. For any mobile experience that you develop, imagine if some features only worked at specific locations, or during certain times of day, or during variable situations such as if it’s raining or a local sports team is winning. Those can all be triggers that make people remember the brand more during certain places, times, or situations.

4) Think of “Social” and not “social.” The lowercase “s” signifies the tactical elements of social media that are usually top of mind. Pokemon GO’s initial version fails at such functionality. You can’t see which of your friends are playing, share screen shots to social networks, or trade virtual monsters with others. While a lot of these features may well appear over time, right now what’s more important is the capital “S.” This kind of “Social” refers to how the app has become a conversation piece. Message boards and private groups are springing up. People are sharing screen shots and fan art. Those kinds of conversations are far more important for a brand to understand than how many people are using the hashtag it plugs at the end of a TV spot.

5) Mobile is the glue between online and offline. Pardon the banality. Yet GO takes this to a new extreme. Somehow, Pokemon became one of the best exercise apps ever. Parents of 20-somethings keep mentioning that their kids are going for walks just to hatch virtual eggs and catch more critters. Some of those virtual eggs require walking 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to find out what’s inside, and players are going through that trouble. I experienced this as well. After walking home two miles from Central Park wheeling my toddler napping in her stroller, I continued walking until she woke up so I could hatch eggs and find one of the game’s gyms. As a result, my Pokémon have spent more time at the gym in the past week than I have the past few years. All the while, detours like mine are going to reroute people to various local businesses, so any store owners should see if they have prime virtual real estate, as Jason Evangelho notes in Forbes. In the unlikely event that this app’s popularity endures for years, it could drive up property values in cities where Millennials want to live inside virtual gym zones.

This all sounds like a typical Marc Andreessen tweet where he exposes contradictions. “’Mobile games are anti-social!’ ‘Mobile games are the new water cooler!’” “’Mobile apps make us lazier!’ ‘Mobile apps make us healthier!’” “’Location-based games and augmented reality are dead!’ ‘Location-based games and AR are back!’” Meanwhile, the country with the highest concentration of senior citizens continues influencing global youth culture.

GO is one of those apps that one must experience to fully appreciate. Before you do, buy an extra battery pack for your phone. Soon, you’ll be spending so much effort running out to the virtual gym that you can cancel your membership to the real one.