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Nov 30, 2005
Case Study

B-to-B Web Site Game Thrills Half a Million Engineers (and Counting)

SUMMARY: How can you lure visitors back to your site once they've been there? Even “registered” users don't always bother to return, and a “come see our site upgrades” email blast won't get high clicks. Promoting a site is even harder if your target audience is engineers – who infamously consider marketing messaging not worth reading. Discover how after focus group research and email testing, GlobalSpec got more than 500,000 engineers to come play a branded online game … and then stick around for a while to check out the rest of the site:
Last fall GlobalSpec, a B-to-B search engine serving engineers, was getting ready to launch a major site upgrade.

Luckily the site already had 1.3 million registered users. But, just as every site with registered users has discovered, just because people register doesn’t mean they’ll return. “Some people hadn’t been back to the site in a long time,” says Senior Director of Marketing Chris Chariton.

Chariton was smart enough to realize that while she and the management team were all excited about the site improvements, sending out an email saying “We’ve upgraded!” would make most recipients yawn and hit ‘delete.’

“We knew we needed something that would draw attention to reach out to our audience with.” To get clicks, there had to be more of a what’s-in-it-for-me factor.

President John Schneiter had an engineering background so the marketing team brainstormed with him. What do engineers find alluring? Answer: engineering puzzles and games.

What do engineers loathe? Answer: lame games (anything not devised by an engineering brain) and marketing crap (almost anything from a marketing department.)

The team decided they would test launching a game ... but only very, very carefully. Nothing’s worse than turning your target market off so they never visit you again.

Step #1. Telephone focus groups

Even though the company was founded by engineers, and had plenty of engineers as staffers, the marketing team worried in-house staff would be to close to the brand to give game ideas a fair evaluation.

So, they ran four telephone focus groups, each with 8-10 participants. “We could do it a lot quicker over the phone than by going to cities, and we weren’t limited by who would show up in a certain city. We listened silently while a professional moderator ran the group.”

Perhaps surprisingly, “phone focus groups weren’t that different from in-person groups. People do reveal personalities and reactions.”

The groups were asked to evaluate GlobalSpec’s two best ideas for an online game. Sadly, neither game won any fans. (Thank goodness the team hadn’t launched their game without asking prospects first!)

However, by asking the participants why they hated both ideas, the team learned the principals of creating a game that engineers hopefully would love. Here are their five rules of games for engineers:

Rule #1. No easy wins. Engineers don’t want to play with something that’s slick and easy. They like to struggle a bit and really apply their brains. The game has to be a challenge.

Rule #2. Lots of details. Engineers love to tinker. Your game has to have loads of little facets they can play with for different results.

Rule #3. Educational (but still fun.) “It was really important to them that it have a learning element. It had to be engineering related, but not too over the top. They want to play a game at work, but have to justify that playing a game at work is useful.”

Rule #4. No engineering mistakes. If you get the math, or the physics, or any one of these zillions of little details wrong, engineers will “call you to task in a heartbeat if you’ve got something wrong.” They want to test their own engineering brains with your game, not discover your faults.

Rule #5. Variable time to play. Since the team was hoping to get at-work plays (thereby increasing the chance that their site would be used and remembered more consistently at-work), game play had to be contractible to just two minutes. On the other hand, for sincere fans, it could expand to fill hours.

Step #2. Creating the game

The team selected game developers who also had engineering backgrounds to increase the chances of the game appealing to engineers. The new concept – build your own trebuchet. (A trebuchet is a medieval war weapon. See links below for more info.)

This time the team did ask engineers on staff at GlobalSpec to play iterations of the game to make sure the play was intuitive, fun and the engineering details were correct.

At the same time the marketing department made sure the game contained enough branded elements including logos and related links to GlobalSpec site content. “Don’t get so caught up in the game aspect that you dilute your brand,” notes Chariton.

Development time was a couple of months including extensive testing.

Step #3. Getting the word out

Although GlobalSpec had a huge opt-in list, the team didn’t blast out a “we’ve got a game” message to everyone on it. First they sliced off four 10,000 name segments to run a/b/c/d tests with.

They tested two subject lines: a. Trebuchet: The Sport of Engineers b. Take the Treb Challenge

They also tested two submit buttons in the email creative: a. Play Now! b. Test Your Skills!

In addition, to keep the game going for longer than the pop it would get from an emailed announcement, the team:

- posted a link well above the fold on the main site’s home page

- included a viral tell-a-friend option in the game itself

- started an autoresponder email to be sent in the first 30 days of every new registered user’s account to let them know about the game (the site gets thousands of new registrants a week.)

Since the game launched a year ago, more than 500,000 people have played it.

“If we had not done email testing, we would have had a 1-2% lower click rate,” notes Chariton. The test that won was the subject line “Trebuchet:The Sport of Engineers” with a click button reading “Play Now!”

Chariton figures the clarity of the message made the difference – the word ‘engineers’ and the word ‘play’ are awfully obvious to understand even if you’re just skimming an email in seconds.

Sadly the viral element didn’t work – only 2.8% of game players use the button to tell a friend. On the other hand, the game has what President Schneiter calls “astonishing legs” and still pulls hundreds of plays a day.

Much of the new traffic is driven by the blogging community. According to today’s Technorati stats, in just the past 75 days (a year after the game launched), 19 different bloggers linked to the game.

However the biggest lesson was the value of sending a special game invite to new site registrants. At the time of the game launch, the big email invite to all registered users got a 8.2% clickthrough rate. However, emails to new registrants throughout the past year have averaged a 10.2% click rate.

So newbies are more likely to click and get re-involved in your site than past registrants. (Note: We’ve seen this data hold up across multiple marketplaces.) Makes you wonder, what emailed invite could you automate to send to all your newest opt-ins from now on?

Useful links related to this article:

Creative samples from GlobalSpec campaigns for the Treb game:

Past MarketingSherpa article, ‘How to Market to Engineers: 5 Must-Know Strategies Plus 2 Surprises’

Heffernan Market Research – the firm that moderated GlobalSpec’s focus groups

Buck & Pulleyn – GlobalSpec’s creative agency

JRVisuals LLC – the game developers GlobalSpec used


See Also:

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