Originally published in MediaPost
If, decades from now, I lie on my deathbed having flashbacks of some of the more humiliating moments of my life, then last week's encounter at a 7-Eleven will be one of them. It was at such an establishment on East 23rd Street in Manhattan where a young, amiable staff member saw me working the Slurpee machine and asked, "Do you need help with that?"
The fact was, I did. I didn't know how to get the Coke Slurpee to come out, nor did I know how to order an Oscar Mayer hot dog. I was juggling a handful of store-brand products as well, while surreptitiously reaching for my iPhone to document it all (see photos and screenshots on Flickr).
You might ask why I was playing the part of a convenience store anthropologist. No, I wasn't trying to be the Jane Goodall of the Slurpee kingdom. Instead, I was there, still in my sport jacket following an Internet Week event, to arm my mafia. This mafia consists of nearly 300 friends and virtual associates in Mafia Wars, one of three of Zynga's social games (along with FarmVille and YoVille) participating in a cross-promotional deal with 7-Eleven.
Through this program, 7-Eleven shoppers will find specially marked goods with codes printed on the package. During my visit, a Slurpee, Big Gulp, hot dog, brownie, and various varieties of chips all qualified. The codes can be entered on the co-branded site BuyEarnPlay.com to earn virtual rewards within the game. Participating this way then unlocks new challenges within the games. I was able to complete the Mafia Wars Corner Store Collection, where I performed tasks to earn virtual goods like a lighter and cup of coffee that I ultimately traded in for a special gun. It's hard to write this with a straight face, because either you play this game and must think I'm taking the fun out of it, or you don't play and must wonder why this would be considered fun at all.
Zynga and 7-Eleven managed to create a special kind of experience that bridged online and offline worlds. The experience, if carried through to completion, can take two paths. Zynga gamers will find 7-Eleven branding in the game that leads to instructions on what to do at the store; following a store visit, the gameplay is then enhanced by entering a code from a purchased good. Alternatively, 7-Eleven visitors will find products with codes that lead them online to try Zynga for the first time or power up their existing accounts.
Who gets the better end of the deal? Zynga reports that 240 million users play Zynga games daily, while 6 million people stop by a U.S. 7-Eleven store each day. Zynga's customers may not pay as much every day, but the margins are higher on virtual guns than on real hot dogs.
This kind of online and offline partnership that has the potential to bolster two very different businesses will likely become more common. It makes sense from the consumer's perspective. I'm a Mafia Wars player whether or not I'm playing the game at that moment, and 7-Eleven regulars will identify themselves as such even if they're not physically in the store.
There's one element missing: mobile. Zynga will soon start rolling out mobile versions of its games, and when it does, this kind of promotion could be more seamless by scanning product barcodes or customized QR codes. Other rewards could be unlocked with geolocation, allowing players to earn certain virtual goods by logging into Zynga games while at or near a 7-Eleven.
In the meantime, it's a good excuse for Zynga's gamers to pop into a 7-Eleven. With my goal of buying one of every Zynga-branded product I could find, I expected to later expense the trip. Then I discovered that an overflowing bag containing about a week's worth of calories for an average adult could be acquired for all of $11. That price was an even better deal considering the store's stellar customer service.
Beyond the meal, I gained a virtual gun to better protect my mafia. Real goods earned me virtual goods, and perhaps if this works, the cycle will continue where amassing more virtual goods will allow me to redeem them for real goods. If the experience is seamless enough, in time I may even be able to find my way around a 7-Eleven without any assistance at all.