The new normal and the power of programmatic in gaming

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

MiQ's Freddie Turner, Director of Strategy UK and Ivor McLaren, Senior Solutions Engineer, explore the new-found ways that marketers can use programmatic advertising in gaming and make the most of recent console and title releases.

Using MiQ data, they profile the modern gamer and show how reaching them could be a valuable new option for advertisers.


As we look ahead to 2021, one of the key industry questions is: can we get back to business as usual? The answer is yes and no.

That might sound a touch non-committal, but hear us out. Although the industry has been through a lot this year - ad spend instability, new privacy regulations and more - many aspects of routine have changed for good; namely, within the gaming space. The pandemic saw a huge spike for this sector, but consumer behaviour will continue to adapt - for marketers, the trick is to be ready for the new normal.

The old normal and the new normal

When we were plunged into lockdown, consumer behaviour instantly changed. MiQ's research showed sudden and significant increases in consumption of learning content (40% of respondents have added one new skill to their repertoire over lockdown), growth in online gaming (up 37% on mobile and 63% on console) and younger audiences switching on to news content in droves (18-34s up 40%).

Even after the mid-lockdown peak, many of these spikes returned to higher ‘normal’ levels, with interest in e-learning spiking by +80% during lockdown, and continuing to be up 20% compared to pre-lockdown. Additionally, news consumption, which spiked for 18-34 year olds during lockdown by 25%, eased after restrictions did but were still up 17% compared to pre-lockdown. 

As the UK saw different restriction rules imposed and lifted, it was inevitable that fatigue would set in; Zoom fatigue, homemade sourdough bread fatigue and even Netflix fatigue. In their Q3 results, Netflix actually fell short on their predicted subscriber growth, demonstrating the fact that consumer behaviour is beginning to resemble that of pre-lockdown, and possibly there is such a thing as too much television. The old normal is kicking in again. 

Yet gaming is still going strong. As government restrictions have eased, console based gaming is still up +80% compared to the pre-lockdown averages – only 20% down from peak consumption during the height of lockdown. Purchasing intent across the Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo Switch all saw massive spikes during the initial lockdown, leading to a 5x increase in the purchase intent for gaming consoles in the UK compared to the beginning of the year. Furthermore, now that an increased number of households have consoles, gaming will continue to be bolstered by these new gamers. 

With increased activity in playing and watching games online, the opportunity to plan and buy ad campaigns on gaming consoles has been up 73% since the UK went into lockdown in March, while the opportunity on gaming domains on both web and in-app domains is up 37%. This surge in gaming interest is a huge opportunity for marketers to reach hard to reach consumers in environments they are comfortable in, using these popular platforms to get their message out with new channels, granular targeting and engaging creative. 

Recent activity in the gaming sector, such as the launch of the Playstation 5 - which is rumoured to have beaten the sales record of 250,000 units in 48 hours established by the PS4 in 2013 [Source: VideoGamesChronicle] - has driven renewed interest and activity. Additionally, the launch of the next generation of consoles has coincided with the upcoming festive season, giving gaming a boost into 2021. 


Inevitably, fatigue set in; Zoom fatigue, homemade sourdough bread fatigue and even Netflix fatigue.

Who's playing?

Gaming has always been the underdog media channel, and perhaps the main reason is because the audience is often misunderstood and disregarded. However, gaming is no longer a niche pastime. In fact, 86% of people aged 16 to 69 in the UK have played computer or mobile games in the last year. On top of that, 50% of players who play regularly are women. Nowadays, there is no such thing as a ‘typical gamer’. 

In order to demonstrate the range of consumers now found within the gaming space, we tapped into our advanced insights and data science capabilities for a better understanding of this diverse group of gamers. We found different personas, ranging from 'Ex-gamer Enthusiasts' - young adult men, highly educated, affluent and with a wide range of pop culture and material interests - to 'Doting Parents' - older parents across a wide socio-economic spread, with high buying power. 

Although united by their interest in gaming, these personas are very different and cannot be targeted using a one-size fits all approach. Custom analysis can help marketers understand how gaming audiences interact with their site, what their purchasing behaviours are and which products they are most interested in.

Through this, marketers are able to build predictive targeting segments to reach them more effectively across gaming content and beyond. By using data to understand how gamers consume digital media and their online and in-app gaming interests, you can build better audiences and targeting strategies powered by programmatic advertising. 

Programmatic in gaming: Don’t miss out

It's thanks to these data sets and behavioural trends that our understanding of today's gamers is far from the cliché of the past. Gamers can be all ages, all genders and from any background. Gamers are also much more mobile than in the past and much more connected. Mobile gaming allows gamers to be on the move and therefore reachable at any time and at any place!

Now is the time to reach these hard-to-find audiences with efficiency, and powerful results. 

The power of in-game advertising, where ads are served inside the virtual world of the game, is unparalleled. The virtual billboards, bus stations and shops that populate the game world are available to display real advertising to an engaged audience. It is out of home advertising, but in-game.

The adverts look exactly like how they would in the real world, like a banner around a football pitch, and is directly in front of the player’s eyes. The nature of gaming allows for a greater impact for ads because as they blend into the scenery, and become part of the digital world, they're impossible to ignore - and you can be certain that a gamer is definitely in the zone whilst playing.

There's also the added benefit that games featuring ads may be streamed or uploaded to game video channels, unlocking additional reach at no extra cost. Popular gaming channels such as Funhaus or Achievement Hunter have 1.65 million and 1.62 million subscribers respectively, and they upload a wide variety of videos featuring various video games, which can sometimes get millions of views!

Nowadays, with various different ad formats, most marketers are desperately trying to find ways that will deter an audience from ignoring, muting or skipping their ads. In-game advertising eliminates these possible problems because they're seamlessly integrated into the game in a way that is impossible to ignore, mute or skip.

The advertising game

As we move towards a cookieless world, the industry is becoming increasingly more privacy-focused. Marketers need to rely on macro datasets and contextual analysis more than ever to glean insight, analyse and target the right audiences.

Although the gaming industry is a fickle one where trends fade as quickly as they come - who can forget how 'Among Us' eclipsed 'Fall Guys' so quickly? - and new creators are always on the rise, there is a lot of information to gather around the context of an audience’s favourite game. 


Gaming could be one of the major players in the next generation of direct marketing. 

Nintendo’s 'Animal Crossing: New Horizons' was one of the biggest games of 2020. From our profile of the game's audience, we can see that a lot of these gamers are new, and playing for the first time, so go online for guides, walkthroughs and cheat codes. They're more interested in lifestyle-related content than pure gaming content, and since the audience is also made up of older users as well, they could be older siblings or parents, and are responsible for household shopping and taking care of the children. 

This type of contextual analysis works to build a robust view of potential audiences for better targeting and optimisation. Gaming represents a massive opportunity to not only find a diverse group of people, but also to tap into an engaged audience that are more likely to interact with advertising if they are effectively targeted to them - in-game or not.

Added to this, most games require players to create a profile, which allows developers to collect valuable first-party data. Marketers can now consider gaming titles alongside publisher sites - now ads can be served programmatically and in real-time. This is demonstrative of the fact that we'll begin to see an increase in brand activations within games - sponsored rewards or code redemptions. It’s possible gaming could be one of the major players in the next generation of direct marketing. 

If marketers want to fully invest themselves into the landscape of 2021, gaming should be considered a mainstream channel that can reach a widespread audience - far beyond the out-of-date gamer stereotype.

Far from being the next big thing, gaming is the big thing right now. This is the start of a new chapter of game-related advertising, and as more high quality inventory becomes available programmatically, with all the targeting capabilities that it offers, in-game advertising is ready to power up. If you haven’t looked at gaming already, now is the time to start. 

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