After the two-and-a-half-year hiatus since Pokémon Go first popped up in the long grass of the internet, the app has taken over the world in a matter of days. Since first launching in Australia and New Zealand last Wednesday, Go has not only (team) rocketed to the top of the App Store but, with a reported 20m US daily active users, overtaken Twitter and become the biggest mobile game of all time. Not bad for an app that started life as one of Google's annual April Fool's jokes.
Pokémon Go is particularly interesting because it wrings out every last drop of unique functionality from mobile devices, well beyond the touch and swipe controls of most games. The entire experience is built around location, manages to incorporate Augmented Reality in a way that feels natural – and for dedicated players, there's even a dedicated wearable device that connects via Bluetooth.
Let's focus on location, though, which is truly the heart of Pokémon Go's design. Users have to move around in the real world in order to find – and catch – the titular pocket monsters. Along their way, they'll find that local landmarks have been turned into 'Pokéstops', which dispense items each time a player visits, or 'Gyms', where they can battle other players. Depending on where you're exploring, those landmarks can be anything from train stations to places of worship to works of art to, interestingly, businesses.
One of the first photos to get passed around social media in the days following Go's release apparently showed a shop window bearing a hastily-printed sign that read 'Pokemon are for paying customers only'. That suggests a certain hostility towards the crowds gathering nearby, and players on Twitter have reported being asked to leave stores after hunting for Pidgeys rather than new PJs.But, for any store lucky enough to have been selected as a Pokéstop or Gym in-game, it's actually an enormous marketing opportunity – and one that is unique among the hit mobile games we've seen in recent years.
Rather than just pasting up stickers of Angry Birds, or putting a joke about Candy Crush on the blackboard out front, businesses have a way of tapping into this fresh wave of Pokémania directly. There's talk of developer Niantic introducing 'sponsored locations' to the app, but there's currently no advertising – none of which has stopped savvy Pokéstop businesses, which are already starting to take advantage of the game's popularity.
At the most basic, this takes the form of signs posted in the window – or on social media – that are a little friendlier to would-be Pokémon trainers. Reddit is currently (elect-)abuzz with posters of bars and restaurants which are running offers to draw in passing players.An animal shelter in Muncie, Indiana, has been getting positive coverage for its initiative posted on its Facebook page that invites kids to walk one of its real rescue dogs while out hunting for their virtual fire-breathing brethren – a post that has been shared 26,000 times in the past two days. Slightly less wholesomely, the social network is also starting to fill up with themed pub crawls that promise a route rich in Pokéstops.
These are all great examples of the kind of reactive, authentic, Millennial-centric marketing that you constantly hear about at digital marketing conferences and rarely see any actual examples of in real life.Ultimately, though, these businesses are just applying the same principles to this event as they would any other. After all, it's not like anyone was pointing to pubs with blackboards reminding you they're showing the football during Euro 2016 as a marketing master stroke.
However, there is one really smart thing that businesses are doing within the confines of the Pokémon Go app itself to literally lure in players.
This relies on a specific mechanic of the game: the ability to attach items to a particular Pokéstop, including the Lure Module, which attracts extra Pokémon to that location for all nearby players for the next 30 minutes. These items can be purchased in-app using Pokécoins – which can in turn be bought with real money. Once the Module has been attached, the location will flash on players' in-game maps.
In the UK version of the app, if bought in bulk, Lure Modules cost around £0.48 each. A full 24-hour's worth of Lures would put back a business back £22.85 – assuming it was open and promoting all day and night. For the foot traffic some merchants are reporting online, that's an incredibly small ad budget, with an apparently guaranteed ROI.
“I own a pizzeria that's a Pokéstop and I literally did this all day,” posted one Reddit user. “I had a ton of kids and adults (mostly adults) come in for a slice of pizza and a drink until the lure ran out. I've been doing it in hour intervals and posting about it on Facebook.”
It's a method that requires businesses to play by the app's rules and take full advantage of its features. Though you'll likely never see it billed as such, it's the very definition of native advertising. Whether this kind of organic marketing is something Niantic will be happy to support or try to stamp out, as with Facebook's recent moves against unpaid promotional pages, remains to be seen.Finally, what about those places that weren't selected as Pokéstops or Gyms, but want to start catching customers for themselves?
The bad news is that it might require the acquisition of a time machine. Pokémon Go's locations are based on user-generated data from Niantic's previous game, Ingress, which asked players to pick and photograph notable local spots – and these were transformed into Pokéstops and Gyms for Go.
Niantic briefly offered the chance to submit new Pokéstop locations via a support form, but has since removed the option.
The bright spot, though, is that the radius for existing spots is around 15 metres. So even if a business has narrowly missed out on being christened a Pokéstop, they might still be able to capitalise on the good fortune of their neighbours.
In all of this, it's worth noting that the version number of the current Pokémon Go app is 0.29.2. Despite the huge player base, it's still far from finished. Hopefully, as the app grows, in terms of features as well as popularity, we'll see the marketing strategies being deployed by businesses evolve along with it. Just like that one Magikarp you kept in reserve, until it blossomed into a mighty Gyrados.