Interview: Sulake's Jeremy Monroe Talks Targeted Advertising To Teens
Social network and virtual world Habbo (formerly Habbo Hotel) began in Finland in 2000, and has since grown to a worldwide community with over 100 million avatars registered and over eight million unique visitors monthly -- heavily biased to the teen demographic, but with an even split between males and females.
Ad support plays a significant role in Sulake's business model for Habbo, and the company often partners with major brands like Target or participates in promotions for films like Harry Potter.
Here, Sulake director of business development Jeremy Monroe talks to Gamasutra about the challenges of creating, integrating and marketing brands to a diverse, worldwide community of teens.
What role does creating opportunities with brands that fit with the audience play in Habbo overall experience
Jeremy Monroe: It's critical. Actually, I think it's something that is at the forefront of our brains when we go into a partnership. Not only does the company, but the property that they want to bring into the community -- does it fit? And we are willing to say no, if we don't think it's a fit.
We do a lot of activity, like with Global Habbo Youth Survey, which is our market research, about what the community is interested in, how and where they're spending their time. What brands are interesting or cool to them, and what brands aren't. And what movies are interesting to them, what genres are interesting to them.
We take that data, and it's really the basis for how we approach potential partners, prioritize those partnerships, and prioritize the type of properties that are coming into the Hotel.
You have a highly internationalized product, unlike some of the other networks. You began in Finland, and launched globally over time.
JM: Absolutely. I mean, I think it's one of the ways that Habbo continues to differentiate itself. When you have the opportunity to bring something to the community that recognizes the cultural differences, and recognizes the interest-level differences -- because, sure, teens to a large extent are all very similar, but at the same time they have a lot of different interests.
And in the U.S., I think that becomes critical when we're talking to partners because the U.S. gets bored very fast, and they want new, and interesting, and fresh on a regular basis.
How granularly does the brand feedback break down for you?
JM: We have pretty good information breakdown. So if we pick a partnership, or we pick a property, whether it be a movie, or a musician, or something like that, and maybe it fits, let's say, the male demographic, we want to make sure that we come back, either simultaneously, or shortly thereafter, to bring a partnership, or to bring a campaign, that is addressing the other demographics.
Particularly just straight male or female, we want to make sure we're engaging both sides, because we're nearly 50/50. I mean, it's 49/51. And if we don't [balance our attention], we're missing out on a large portion of our population.
How do you look at the integration of these things in your game?
JM: Well, the simple answer is, if it fits, then we take a very serious look at a partnership. And we are investigating a lot of different things with a number of different partners. How we can expand the capabilities of our campaigns, of our activities, of our competitions.
We don't like to be overly overt. It's just not what we want to do. We want to make sure that it's integrated into the Habbo experience. It's integrated into what the kids are doing naturally, or talking about naturally.
I think that the way that Habbo learns the best is we're finding partners who are willing to experiment with us, so that we can get information about what works and what doesn't work. And then when we find something that works, or doesn't work, we either build off of what works, or we say, "Okay, it didn't work for this reason." And then we come back and try something a little bit different.
And so, like with Paramount, it was one of the first times that we really integrated a brand, and built an entire furniture line behind this property.
What property was that specifically?
JM: Spiderwick. And the kids love it. It wasn't one hundred percent, in-your-face all the time. It was very much just built in terms of: we're going to have a competition. We're going to build a maze, and you can run through the maze, and you can win some prizes. And even buy the furniture.
We look to engage the Habbos in as many ways as we can. So we have all of that going on though our production environment. And then we also bring in one of the stars from the movie, and have them get on the radio and create a character and go into the game, and interact, and have a party. Or be a judge, or some other component. I think it's really about working with somebody who's willing to try something new, and learn from that, and come back and bring something else that's very compelling.
Paramount's been fabulous for us. I mean, they're great advocates to what's going on in Habbo, and we love the work that we're doing with them. So we want to find partners that are equally engaged in the process, and equally as enthusiastic about what's happening in the space, because it's a new space. And there's a lot of stuff.
It's going to be very interesting to see what happens, because I think people are really going to push. I think Habbo's going to continue to stay up front, and push how we can immerse our community in interesting experiences. And with that, how we can engage brands to help with that process.
Something I was really struck by when I saw Sulka speak about the world of Habbo is that a lot of the behaviors organically grow out of the audience. They're not so much based on what the content that is pushed out from Habbo itself, but the way that the users interpret and define their own experiences. That must present a lot of challenges in the realm of marketing, which is traditionally pushy.
JM: It goes back to when we were talking earlier about making sure that, when we look at a partner, and we look at their properties, what tools can we also provide the users, so that they can create their own activities. It's awesome to sit back and watch what the kids do with what we bring them, and they do stuff that you would never think of.
And again, the more you do that, the better understanding you can get for the things that they might do. And when we have a better understanding of what that might be, then we can continue to feed tools that perpetuate that self-expression, that creativity.
And I think that's really what it's about. I think it's what it's about for casual gaming and for social, more focused games. It's about the connection. It's about the self-expression. So it is challenging, but I think it's really important to stay engaged, very engaged, with your audience, and to listen to them. And to do the type of research that Habbo does on a regular basis.
Something that is interesting to me is how you have to orchestrate the implementation of these things with your developers. It's not just simple as like on a web service, where there's the box this big, and your ad sales people just have to sell in those boxes. This is integrally tied into the game itself. So working with the community of developers you have in your company, how is that?
JM: There are certain aspects of it that we can take care of locally -- most of the stuff that happens on the website, we have the capability to take care of that.
When you talk about things like what we did with Spiderwick, building an entire furniture line, absolutely it's critical to communicate with headquarters as early as possible, and get the framing and dialog, and creative aspect of that going, so that not only are we giving the developers time to build something interesting, but we're also making sure that there's an iterative process with our partners to make sure that it maintains the brand that they want communicated within the community.
It's important that we do that early and often, and even in the stuff where we do have the capability and the power to change something on the website, or on the web pages, we're in constant communication, and have an open dialog with the developers.
What's your experience about people's reactions to find marketing content in their leisure activity this way?
JM: There's so many messages coming at all of us, and teenagers in particular, that it really puts the onus on us, and our partners, to make sure that we build something that -- and now I sound like a broken record -- that's compelling.
And if we do our jobs, which I think we've done a pretty good job of, of paying attention and listening to the research as it plays out, and keeping that dialog going, then we'll know if we pushed it too far with a brand, or with an activity. Because they'll tell us.
And that trust, for us, and our community, is a really important aspect of what we're doing. And to continue to maintain that trust, and to build it up, it's important that we listen. If they're telling us that they don't like something it's important that we don't bring it to them anymore, or we change it in a way that it's interesting.