Empire Avenue Provides Social Gaming Opportunities –and Challenges– for Brands

Empire Avenue Logo

The one liner: Empire Avenue is Farmville for Social Media.

Gaming: A Native Behavior to the Social Web
Remember, gaming is nothing new to social media, from influencing the most popular Digg users, to Twitteratti, top contributors at Techmeme, or brands with the most Fans on Facebook –this is a native behavior. After signing up for Empire Avenue last night (here’s my account), I met with the CEO Duleepa Wijayawardhana, aka “Dups” to understand his vision, about the company and opportunities for brands. While I’m still experimenting with this platform, it’s worth noting initial reactions on how this tool will impact consumers and the opportunities for brands and threats for other vendors. The tool offers an open API where 3rd party developers have already created an app, that I purchase for 99cents for use on iPhone, it works decent.

How It Works: A Social Game Where Your Friends “Buy” You
Empire Avenue is a social game. Each user is valued at a set share price around $9 “Eaves” (their currency) and the value will increase as others purchase their shares, or as the user does social behaviors on other sites, and also participates in Empire Avenue such as actions, unlocking features, or dividends from virtual goods or ownership in other members. As users gain more net worth, they’re able to purchase virtual goods, on a quest to be the richest player in the game. The net result? This is a highly addictive experience that is similar to stock market gaming of your own social network.

[Virtual goods, like real world Jewelry are the same –they offer little utility, but social prestige]

This small team of about 5 is based in Alberta Canada and has a mere investment amount o $300k although they are already starting to generate revenues from users buying the “eaves” currency using real world dollars. Founded in Sept 2009, although they had a first version by Dec, then restarted in Jan 2010, and launched to friends and family last year. They launched this iteration about a month ago, and it’s starting to get activity in the social influencer community that I closely monitor for trends.

The team has developed some advanced algorhythems to understand the behaviors in the major social networks that users can connect their accounts to such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Linkedin, Facebook Pages, and Empire Avenue Itself. Unlike my critique of Klout, they don’t look at just ‘interactions’ but seek a higher degree of interaction to fold into their analysis. In fact, because there’s a user behavior of buying and selling of stock of other players, the game won’t suffer from the Klout issue of Kenneth Cole’s Klout points rising during his debacle. Each user has up to 100 points for their Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other accounts which is roughly equivalent to Klout scores.

Threats to Klout and Social Analytics Firms
Empire Avenue is a threat to Klout (and competitor Peer Index), as it aggregates data and evaluates from multiple social networks –Klout only uses Facebook and Twitter data.  Social Analytics firms that try to understand the engagement of social media accounts are also at threat as Empire Avenue aggregates content from several locations and involves data from their game mechanics.

[Empire Ave has a built in Advocacy Loop. If you ‘own’ shares in a company, it’s in your best interest to get others to buy it, and to tweet and FB about them to increase over value]

Opportunities for Brands
There are a handful of immediate opportunities for brands which I’ve listed in a maturity roadmap:

  1. Getting Started: Create a company account.  You can create a business account or a personal account, and your fans and advocates can interact with the account, buying and selling your content. There is no cost to build this account, so those that are seeking to innovate and stay ahead of the curve should do this now. They will verify business accounts (like Twitter did for a while) by looking at which accounts you’ve linked to your profile, you can request verification by our Empire Avenue team by e-mailing verification at empireavenue.com. For some examples see Sears, Oreo (login required)
  2. Leverage your existing social media investments: the game is fueled on it This game rewards social media interactions from third party accounts like FB and Twitter, using their connections tools you can tap into your existing investments. As a unique behavior, the top members (influencers) will do the same, suggesting this is a refined group of highly engaged influencers.
  3. Glean intelligence on who’s an influencer, see how they behave. This platform can help identify interests of users (by pulling in interests from Facebook profiles) that will help brands find those that are the most engaged by a particular topic. They look at each channel differently as each social media tool has a different type of behavior type.
  4. Utilize Game Mechanics as a Reward Mechanism. Expect brands to ‘reward’ their fans by buying their shares in this game for doing certain achievements like interacting with the brand on other social networks.
  5. Engage in Conversations with Influencers. This tool has a stream of content, and the ability to leave comments, shoutouts, notes, and other features. As a result, Community Managers can engage with influencers. Secondly there is a VERY active chat room that’s provided on the tool that enables rapid dialog.
  6. Advanced will Deploy Virtual Branded Goods from Empire Avenue. Brands love to put their logo on just about everything, so expect branded virtual goods to quickly fill the inventory within the game and other branded experiences.  Right now, they offer some virtual goods from rafts to luxury boats that users can earn by spending their hard earned virtual currency. Also see how there are cost per actions, where brands can have users opt in to watch commercials or get involved in marketing to earn Eaves points. Update: I’m told by founders that they are going to be doing branded items soon. They also have a system to convert Eaves to real world offerings (maybe coupons/discounts) etc.
  7. Expand by Leveraging the Open API The platform offers an open API and 3rd party developers have already created a mobile application on iPhone which I bought for 99 cents (yes, real money) brands can quickly tie this data into CRM systems, loyalty programs, SMMS systems, and potentially even email marketing systems to integrate.

[Opportunities of Social Gaming Platforms: 1) Engagement with brands, 2) Loyalty program tie-ins, and 3) Advocacy through social media with engaged consumers]

Risks and Challenges for Brands
No platform comes without challenges, in fact, the more I probe around, the more challenges and hurdles I find, among them are:

  1. Engagement may not have direct tie to purchase point. Same arguement against rest of social media, where’s the ROI? While engagement and advocacy are high, a tie back to the top line revenues or reduced costs isn’t clear. If eaves can convert to special deals, this will be negated
  2. The User interface is very confusing. For first timers the overwhelming set of features is daunting. The team tells me they are removing features every day to streamline
  3. Game will be flooded when mainstream pile in Expect the Social media elite will flood the tool, although they set some policies in place to reduce gaming, such as making sure people’s share value doesn’t get too high so it’s still affordable. Once celebrities get wind of this tool, expect more flooding, quickly followed by brands, the it will start to normalize after a dip in activity.
  4. While the game fosters advocacy, consumers may not have affinity for the brand Concerns over why consumers will join and purchase from brands. Is it because they love the brand, or because they think the company will be more social and increase net worth? It’s not clear if this is true advocacy or just game mechanics (or a little of both)
  5. Lack of features for brands to reward their consumer shareholders. Right now, other than the increasing value of a share, there’s little reason for consumers to want to keep value of share. In fact, if dividends start to slow down, consumers may sell the brand stock and purchase an up and comer.
  6. Gaming of the system. This, like all other social sites becomes a system to beat, and loses value, and we move on to the next.

Related: see this helpful interview by Robert Scoble with the founder, and this take from David Armano on social currency, also see Caleb’s take on how some companies are getting involved, or Anise discusses how it’s getting competitive, and more from Domino how there’s an influx of players, Ford’s Scott Monty sees the opportunities, and long term player Adriel is focused on his Gamification, and this post discusses how Ford and Intel are getting involved, and Samsung’s Esteban has conducted an interview, Joe Chernov discusses impacts to PR professionals, and Peter Kim suggests there are other places to place your bets, along with this warning from Adam, Stowe Boyd suggests to look the other way.

Caveat: I’ve updated this post quite a bit, since posting it, as I’m learning new things.