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Why do people buy virtual goods? February 8, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, virtual goods.
10 comments

I have an opinion piece in the WSJ.com on why people buy virtual goods today.

What could Facebook do to increase its digital goods revenue – increase Motive. 3/3 February 5, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, facebook, gifts, virtual goods.
9 comments

I’ve been posting on what Facebook could do to increase its sales of digital gifts, breaking down tactics into three categories, Means, Motives and Opportunity. We’ve covered Means and Opportunity, and today we’ll address Motive.

Motive

Let us start by understanding the motives of gift givers. Gifting serves the same purposes on Facebook as it does in the real world. Firstly, it serves to strengthen social ties. Secondly, it serves to draw the receivers attention to the gift giver. Facebook can increase motivation for gift giving by playing into these two familiar behaviors, looking to the real world for conventions that can easily be borrowed.

Strengthening Social Ties

One of the strongest conventions of gift giving is reciprocity. It is awkward to receive a holiday card from someone that you did not send a card to. So too with virtual gifts. But right now it is difficult to know who has given you a Facebook gift. Since virtual gifts are given with the context of the wall, the wall is the best place to highlight gift giving. If each time I visited a friends wall I could prominently see what gifts that friend had given me, that would increase the pressure for me to buy a virtual gift for my friend to accompany my wall posting, especially so if it was a gift giving occassion (such as a birthday, holiday etc). Of course the opposite is also true – if a friend had not given me any virtual gifts you would not want to highlight that at the point at which I was considering whether to give a gift myself.

Gift giving is strongly influenced by immediate social norms. If I were to show up a dinner party empty handed when all the other guest had brought a bottle of wine, I would also feel awkward. People look to the behavior of others to see what is appropriate for their own behavior. Once again, the wall is the right place to highlight this. Right now the wall displays all postings in reverse chronological order. Since a new wall posting appears on the top of the wall, you will only see the most recent postings on your friends wall, many of which may not have digital gifts attached. What if the top postings on the wall were those with virtual gifts attached, and then reverse chronological order after that? (Perhaps with some time limitation, so that top posts would be virtual gifts received say in the last week). This would create a sense of social pressure to a visitor to the wall who would see virtual gift giving as a social norm. This will be especially effective around traditional gifting occasions as before. By highlighting desired behavior, you can influence social norms in the direction that you want.

Drawing Attention to the Gift Giver.

Facebook can be a noisy environment. On your birthday you can receive 10s and even 100s of birthday well wishes. That is a lot of messages to sort through, and often these wishes are not responded to individually due to the volume. How can I make my well wishes stand out from the rest? How can I show how good a friend I am or how much I care? One way is to attach a virtual gift. Because the gift is not free, the very act of attaching a gift serves to differentiate my message from the rest. This is visible not just to the recipient, but also to all other visitors to the profile. Facebook could makes product changes to make this differentiation more prominent. One way would be to “pin” gifts to the top of the wall for some period, as noted in the preceding paragraph. Another would be to similarly “pin” gifts received to the top of the News Feed page for some period, ensuring that the gift is noticed and emphasized to the recipient. Finally, having a small profile picture accompany the gift, instead of just the name of the giver on the News Feed would serve to further draw attention to the gift giver.

Building from this approach, gift giving draws attention but it currently cannot draw gradations of attention. The absence or presence of a gift is the only distinction because all gifts currently cost the same (with the exception of free sponsored gifts). If Facebook were to provide gifts of different prices and levels, this would enable a gift giver to express their interest in a more nuanced way. One problem with implementing this approach on Facebook is the sheer volume of available gifts. There are over 300 Facebook gifts available today. It will be hard, if not impossible, for a gift recipient to tell what is a more valuable gift versus a less valuable gift just by looking at the gift. HotOrNot’s Meet Me solved this problem by starting with a small range of gifts with value tied to a conventional scale; flowers, ranging from the least valuable daisies to the most valuable red roses. Given the profusion of gifts available on Facebook today, Facebook would need to find some other way of demonstrating value to a recipient than relying on the image itself. Perhaps it could show the point value of each gift when the gift displays. But that is a bit crass – it is like leaving the price tag on a gift.  It may need more creativity to make this obvious. Facebook could change the background color of the gifts according to a scale of value that is well enough understood: perhaps white – bronze – silver – gold? This would allow for the current large range of gifts but make it easy to tell at a glance the gradations of value.

Obviously, allowing gifts to have a range of prices will increase the average sales price of gifts, hence increasing revenue from digital gifts sales.

Motivation for Gift Receivers

Looking at gift givers motivations is only half the story. The other half of the story is the gift recipient. What are their motivations?

One simple dynamic to increase gift recipients’ motivation to receive gifts is to make gift getting competitive. Keep track of how many gifts have been received and display this prominently. This could be done on the profile page; in the same way that number of friends is tracked and thumbnails of friends shown, number of gifts receieved and thumbnails of gifts received could also be shown. Or it could be made even more explicit with leaderboards for the people who have received the most gifts. The power of displaying metrics to drive behavior is well documented by game designers. (If you haven’t read Amy Jo Kim’s work on game design for social environments, you should). Once people want to receive more gifts, they will start acting in ways that encourage gift giving, whatever that might be.

Game design provides a second possible mechanic to induce gift recipients to want more gifts; collecting. Gifts are all treated the same right now. If Facebook were to offer awards and achievements for getting “sets” of gifts, you would most likely see some users work very hard to collect gifts to complete those sets. PackRat has shown just how powerful and addictive collecting behavior can be on Facebook. Facebook could for example offer a free [birthday cupcake] to give to someone else if you were given five [birthday cupcakes], or put a custom Christmas skin on your wall if you received 10 Christmas themed gifts.

I believe that through increasing the motivations of gift givers and gift receivers, Facebook could see a more than doubling of their virtual gifts revenue.

What do readers think?

What could Facebook do to increase its digital goods revenue – increase Means. 2/3 February 4, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, facebook, gifts, virtual goods.
11 comments

We are looking at how Facebook could increase its digital goods revenue by improving the Means, Motive and Opportunity for users to buy digital gifts. Yesterday we looked at Opportunity. Today we’ll look at Means.

Means

Last year Facebook switched from denominating gifts in dollars to gift credits. This was a good first step as users tend to be more willing to spend virtual currencies than real money, even when they are readily interchangeable.

Currently there is only one way to buy Facebook gift credits, and that is via a credit card. But a lot of Facebook users don’t have or don’t use credit cards. They may want to be able to buy and give gifts, but they can’t do so. This is a common problem for a lot of game developers, including many game developers on Facebook. The techniques that worked for them can work for Facebook too.

As a start, Facebook could enable additional payment mechanisms, including Paypal, cell phone billing (including premium SMS) and direct debit from checking accounts. With such an international audience, additional payments mechanisms would allow many of Facebook’s international users to more easily buy gift credits.

Some Facebook users, especially those younger than 18, may not have access to any payment mechanisms other than cash. Accepting cash in envelopes for Facebook points would not scale very well. However, many game companies have been successful in getting their branded prepaid cards distributed at retail. This is one way of turning user’s cash into a payment mechanism that can be used online. Facebook has the brand awareness to do the same thing by striking deals directly with the two biggest distributors of prepaid cards, Incomm and Blackhawk. Alternatively, if they did not want to deal with retailers directly, a company like GMG Entertainment could handle it for them.

However, some users don’t have any money at all to spend on gift credits. $uperRewards and MyOfferPal have found one way to reach this market, through incentive offers. These companies allow users to trade their attention (through filling out market research surveys, applying for credit cards, getting a free trial of a service, signing up for email newsletters or other activities) for virtual currency. They take the bounty paid by the company acquiring the user, and use some of that to buy the user their virtual currency. Facebook could enable users to buy gift credits with incentive offers.

The combination of these tactics to increase Means to buy digital goods could provide an additional lift of 50-100% in digital gifts revenue.

What other ideas do readers have
?

Tomorrow we’ll discuss the last, and arguably most important factor, Motive.

What could Facebook do to increase its digital goods revenue – increase Opportunity. 1/3 February 3, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, facebook, gifts, virtual goods.
8 comments

Last September I estimated that Facebook is doing around $35m in digital goods sales. In November anonymous insiders suggested that it was closer to $50-60m in digital goods sales. That’s a healthy run rate, but I think Facebook could make a few product changes to do even better.

I’ll split my suggestions into three categories: Means, Motive and Opportunity.

Opportunity.

Facebook has made some smart changes to its digital goods/gifts product recently, highlighting upcoming friends birthdays on the home page, prompting gifts on birthdays and allowing users to buy birthday gifts in advance. As birthday gifting is the most common usecase for Facebook digital goods, these are changes that increase a users opportunity to buy virtual goods.

Facebook could increase gifting opportunities by prompting gift giving on other calendar events as well. Some are natural gift giving holidays, such as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Valentines day etc. It already provides a selection of holiday specific gifts for each of these occasions. Facebook could generalize the “birthday” section on the homepage into a “calendar” and note upcoming events that are gift worthy, and perhaps even suggest recipients. For example, if you are “in a relationship” with someone on Facebook, then they would be a natural person to prompt for a Valentines day gift.

Chinese New Year themed Facebook gifts

Chinese New Year themed Facebook gifts

Facebook could also prompt gift giving on certain notifications in the feed that might be “gift worthy”. Especially notable are changes in relationship status (e.g. moving from “in a relationship” to “married” or to “single” for example), but others might include changing address (housewarming gift?), changing educational or job status (graduation gift, or new job gift etc).

Finally, Facebook could prompt for gifting more generally through more, and more direct, calls to action. “Give a gift” is the fourth option for writing on someones wall, and moving it to first would likely increase gifting immediately. So would prompting for gift giving (not just comments) on Status Updates on a profile and in the news feed. Simply putting a link to “gifts” as the default first application in the application box in the right rail would help.

I suspect that increasing opportunity could increase gift giving by 50-100%.

What other ideas do readers have?

Tomorrow, we’ll cover means.

Why do people buy virtual goods? January 13, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, game design, game mechanics, virtual goods, virtual worlds.
13 comments

I recently read a paper by Vili Lehdonvirta about what drives the purchase of virtual goods. I’ve suggested three use cases for virtual goods before:

1. Attention in a noisy environment (usually digital gifts)
2. Self Expression
3. Increased Functionality

and later proposed a fourth use case, convenience.

Vili proposes a different taxonomy:

Purely “utilitarian” or use-value0based attributes can be divided into two categories: performance (simple numerical advantage) and functionality (new abilities and options). Virtual goods also have attributes capable of generating emotional or hedonic responses, particularly their visual appearance and sound, but also any background fiction or narrative associateion with them. Hedonic attributes are difficult to distinguish emperically from the conceptually different social attributes, which refer to attributes that make virtual items suitable for creating and communicating social distinctions and bonds. Such attributes are provenance, customisability, cultural references and the “branding” of an item with a known commercial brand. Rarity is perhaps the most socially oriented attribute of virtual goods, because its value is strongly associated with its ability to distinguish a (small) group of owner from non-owners

In the paper he gives examples of each of his classes of virtual goods. He also summarizes some previous research on digital goods. In particular, he notes advice from Oh and Ryu to game designers based on research on Kart Rider and Special Force:

- Balance between items that can be purchased with real money and items that must be earned through gameplay, and build synergies between the two categories
– Allow players to keep “ornamental” items permanently, but make “functional” items consumable
– In the case of items that ive the player a performance advantage, do not disclose the exact numbers;provide approximate descriptive texts instead
– Introduce items linked to specific events and communities (e.g. Christmas decorations and guild emblems).

It’s useful to read the whole paper (around 15 pages)

Facebook’s digital goods revenue $50-60m sources say November 12, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, facebook, gifts, virtual goods.
12 comments

In September, I estimated that Facebook’s digital goods sales were on a $35m revenue run rate. Silicon Alley Insider quotes an anonymous insider to say:

Facebook’s revenue this year will be about $265 million, the source says, which is less than the $300 million expected. The source estimates that this is composed of about $180 million of ad revenue, $50-$60 million of virtual gifts, and some smaller revenue items.

I was in the ballpark!

IMVU founder’s framework for digital goods: three key questions October 20, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, game design, game mechanics, games, games 2.0, mmorpg, virtual goods, virtual worlds.
2 comments

Eric Reis, one of the co-founders of IMVU, posted last week on the three key decisions you have to make when thinking about virtual goods business models:

UGC or First Party content?

First Party – more control, but higher costs and harder to anticipate what users will want

UGC – Massive breadth of content, but have to put systems in place to deal with adult content and copyrighted content

Subscription or a la Carte payments?

Subscriptions – Greater game balance between rich and less rich players, lower fraud rates

A La Carte – Easier to monetize players without credit cards (e.g. teens)

Merchandising or Gameplay?

Gameplay – Virtual goods are functional, part of the core game mechanics, and confer benefit in the game. Demand is driven by game mechanics alone, and requires a delicate balance to ensure that players with money do not always beat players with time, skill and passion.

Merchandising – Virtual goods are not just functional, but also associated with self expression or attention in a noisy environment (see my previous post on the three use cases for virtual goods). This creates potential for greater demand for virtual goods, but requires the creation of a marketing and merchandising capability in the company.

Reis believes this framework can be used to describe any virtual goods business:

You can use these three questions to analyze existing businesses. For example, IMVU is a user-generated, a la carte, merchandising product. Habbo is first-party, a la carte, merchandising. Mob Wars is first-party, a la carte, gameplay. WoW is first-party, subscription, gameplay.

Read the whole thing.

WSJ says experimental ad budgets are getting cut October 15, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in advertising, virtual goods.
6 comments

Last week I posted on which online media companies will survive the ad recession and noted that experimental budgets are the first to get cut. Today’s WSJ finds evidence that this is already happening:

In recent years, marketers have set aside a portion of their ad budgets to experiment with digital technologies such as Web video, mobile phones, gaming and virtual worlds. But with broader economic turmoil reaching Madison Avenue, these “experimental” budgets are among the first to hit the cutting-room floor.

Chrysler LLC has already slashed its experimental ad buys. With each ad dollar facing additional scrutiny, especially in the hard-hit auto industry, these ad buys will now make up about 5% of the auto maker’s marketing budget, down from as much as 10% in previous years, says Deborah Meyer, Chrysler’s chief marketing officer.

In good times, the maker of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands tapped technologies like gaming and mobile to build awareness of its vehicles. “We won’t experiment in a lot of things that are fun to have. All of our dollars have to go to hitting in-market shoppers with the appropriate media,” Ms. Meyer says.

Areas like mobile, virtual worlds and widgets are expected to be hit particularly hard, as it remains unclear what kind of impact ads in these media have. These campaigns often reach a small number of people, and standard measurement systems have yet to be developed. “When we get into the need to drive results, you can’t spend money on the experiments and hope to keep your job and get your sales goals,” says Peter Kim, senior partner at Dachis, which advises marketers such as Philips Electronics NV’s Philips Healthcare and Johnson & Johnson on marketing strategies.

If you’re trying to sell advertising that isn’t standardized, you should read the whole article.

As an aside, the article suggest that in game advertising and virtual world advertising will be affected as a subset of this trend, making virtual goods even more central as the business model for games and virtual worlds:

Ad executives say creating an entirely new form of advertising to put in untested places like virtual worlds — or three-dimensional online computer games — may not be worth the effort in tough advertising times. “Virtual worlds are probably one of the things that haven’t been proven effective just yet. I can’t see us selling virtual worlds to anybody right now,” says Lars Bastholm, an executive creative director at independent digital marketing shop AKQA.

Which companies might prosper in an ad recession? October 13, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in advertising, Ecommerce, freemium, gaming, Lead gen, recession, subscription, virtual goods.
15 comments

I have previously posted on which online media companies will survive the ad recession. Clearly, all online media companies will feel the advertising recession, but some companies will hold up better than others.

But some companies might do more than survive – they might prosper. Companies that buy advertising (rather than selling it) will find that they can now buy advertising more cheaply than previously.

Ecommerce companies, subscription businesses, lead gen businesses and online game companies are all buyers of online advertising. In the last advertising slowdown, companies like Expedia, Zappos, Quin Street, Lending Tree, Lower My Bills, Netflix, Classmates.com and Ancestry.com were all able to grow to over $100M in revenue by taking advantage of cheap media.

Will history repeat itself in this recession? It is hard to know. Certainly lower CPMs can lead to lower customer acquisition costs if all else is equal. But the difference between this recession and the last one is consumer confidence, which is markedly lower today than in the 2000-2003 time period. As a result, there may simply be less buyers out there to acquire. Compete recently noted the marked drop in “in market auto buyers” over the last two years for example – down 37%:

Certainly, consumers are deferring “considered purchases” including homes, cars and other big ticket items. Etailers selling “necessities” that cannot be deferred, such as diapers or business cards, will do fine. The question is what will happen to the demand for small ticket consumer discretionary spending. Starbucks might be considered a proxy for this sort of spending. Unfortunately, the news for Starbucks isn’t good. Notes Seeking Alpha:

There was a time when getting a coffee at Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) – whether a basic “tall bold” or a souped-up venti concoction – was considered a relatively cheap treat, though those of us with a daily Starbucks habit might think otherwise.

However, a report from RBC Capital Markets analyst Larry Miller indicates that even that daily cup of store-bought java is one of the victims of the credit crunch. Mr. Miller lowered his 2009 earnings estimates – to $0.90 from $0.95, and said:

[The move] reflects our proprietary survey work, which suggests Starbucks sales continue to weaken as consumers are changing their habits and brewing more coffee at home.

This does not bode well for small ticket discretionary spending.

One potential brightspot may be gaming. The games industry has historically been considered counter cyclical. The argument has been that for $50s you can buy a game that will give you 50-100 hours of enjoyment, versus $10 for a 2 hour movie or $5 for a magazine that you’ll finish in an hour. Free to play games make this argument even more compelling. Free to play games may be able to take advantage of cheaper customer acquisition costs in an advertising recession.

For other forms of discretionary small ticket spending, the jury may still be out.

How to take money from children (for your online game or virtual world) September 29, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in games, games 2.0, gaming, mmorpg, payments, prepaid cards, virtual goods, virtual worlds.
4 comments

Virtual Worlds News noted last week that:

PayByCash announced … that over 50% of its US transactions were coming from its Ultimate Game Card, a prepaid card that supports over 150 virtual worlds and games, like Club Penguin, Nexon America, and IMVU. Previously U.S. consumers favored PayByCash’s direct debit options…

I’d guess one explanation for the transition, and one to watch, is that adults are more likely to set up debit options… Kids and teens, who seem to be driving much of the consumer-oriented virtual worlds growth, simply pick up cards at retail.

It is an important statistic as it really underscores the importance of prepaid cards as a payment mechanism for free to play games. Min Kim of Nexon noted in his presentation at Austin GDC this year that:

“Retailers are taking notice of card sales, and support will grow. Retailers love the regular customer, and coming back for cards is a given. Once you’ve purchased one card, statistics say you’ll probably buy another.”

Target has certainly taken notice, with 26 gamecards available for sale now, including Nexon, Neopets, Gaia, Habbo, Acclaim, gPotato, Stardoll, Zwinky, Big Fish, 3 Rings (Puzzle Pirates) and Wild Tangent. A wider selection is available in their physical stores.

I’ve spoken to several free to play publishers with prepaid cards at retail and they have seen this payment mechanism come to represent from 20-50+% of their virtual goods revenue, which is consistent with the percentage that PayByCash has seen. As Virtual Worlds News speculated, it is the games and virtual worlds that skew towards kids and teens that have the greatest proportion of revenue coming from prepaid cards.

However, publishers tell me that their sales from their own-branded prepaid cards are many multiples of their sales from PayByCash. A Game X player is simply far more likely to buy a Game X card than to buy PayByCash’s Ultimate Game Card. In fact, many publishers tell me that even though they already took the Ultimate Game Card as a payment mechanism, when they launched their own-branded card into retail, they saw a sizeable, immediate, incremental jump in ARPU. Their existing players, who had previously wanted to be able to pay them but didn’t know how, now were able to do so.

Nabeel Hyatt, CEO of Conduit Labs, has previous noted that this could create more of a problem than an opportunity:

In all, there are now over 25 digital content cards being sold at retail. I’ve been tracking this and that’s over double what it was six months ago. That means that at least a dozen online communities, and probably a dozen more in the next six months, are going to be submitting themselves to the vagaries of the retail shelf-space business. That’s a business the online web folks have little to no experience in, and one that a lot of traditional gaming vets were excited to get out of.

I am more optimistic. Retailers love prepaid cards. These cards have no inventory carrying costs and no shrinkage (theft) problems because they are only activated at the checkout. Furthermore, the cards are small and high value, creating high $s/square foot, one of the key metrics at retail. In my local Safeway (picture below), there are 6-700 prepaid giftcards for sale (for everything from Red Lobster to Bed Bath and Beyond) – one indication of how much retailers love this product.

Nabeel is right though – getting retail distribution is not something that is core to the DNA of most online game publishers. Most of the publishers that I’ve spoken with work with one or more of Blackhawk, GMG Entertainment and Incomm to get their cards into retail.

For people interested in learning more about prepaid cards into retail, the Virtual Goods Summit on October 10th looks to be a good event, specifically the 10:30 panel ,”Making Virtual Economies Work — Lessons from the Leaders” where the CEO of Playspan (which owns PayByCash) will be speaking, and the last panel of the day, “Getting Paid – Build a Dominant Payments and Billing Strategy”, where the President of GMG Entertainment will be speaking. If you’re going, use “JEREMYLIEW” for 10% off of General Admission on registration.

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