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The latest gaming craze of Pokemon Go can teach event planners a lot of about what attendees want from the blending of digital and live experiences.
I think I have the recipe for why Nintendo’s Pokemon Go mobile game is such a massive hit and I believe there are a number of lessons here for event planners to learn from. The elements that make this game so addictive are the same things that make event attendees into engaged event participants. Pokemon Go is a true experience in a way that video games have only touched upon before and experiences are what events are all about.
I’m not really the core demographic for Pokemon, but I’m close. When it launched in 1996, I was a high school freshman which was about a year or two away from the oldest of its first fans. Back then, a year or two was a big margin. My awareness grew a few years later while working one of my part time jobs I had during the catering off-season – arcade attendant. This was 1999 and the card game hit fans hard and caused an addiction not seen since the last craze, Beanie Babies.
The claw machines had to be filled manually by the likes of me and that meant opening pack after pack of cards and loading them into little impossible to win eggs. I would look at the names of these characters: Charmander, Bulbasaur…Jigglypuff? What was the appeal here? It was the first time I felt a real generational disconnect. It wouldn’t be the last time. That’s all history now because within the span of 48 hours during a weekend, I connected with this franchise and became obsessed.
What’s a Pokemon?
Pokemon celebrates its 20th year in 2016 after two decades of off and on domination of cartoons, card games, and videos games in addition to a series of movies and lots of merchandise. It’s the second most successful video game franchise after only Nintendo’s other cross-generational hit – Super Mario Brothers.
The story of Pokemon is as in-depth as intricate as you’d imagine 20 years of stories would be…but it’s essentially about trainers who find, capture, and use Pokemon creatures in battles against other trainer’s Pokemon creatures. Think of it like cock fighting… but a lot cuter.
Like the hugely successful children’s franchises of Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this one amalgamates a number of things kids love in one package – collecting, monsters, sports, battling and presents it in synergized cross-media. Like the Pokemon themselves, it’s continued evolution is what brings us to Pokemon Go, what will be one of the most memorable pop-culture moments of 2016.
This Rattata jumped on my keyboard as I was writing this.
What Can Pocket Monsters Teach You About Events?
So what does any of this have to do with event planning? Turns out, a lot. I’ve deconstructed what made this game so mass-adopted that it currently has more active users than Twitter and has been downloaded on more devices than Tinder (it’s literally more popular than love now). It has sent Nintendo’s stock up 20% giving the company its first big win in years.
- Star Power
Niantic, Pokemon Go’s game developer, originally created a game four years prior called Ingress that is extremely similar to this game which utilized other technologies the firm previously developed – Google Maps. Ingress is still played today but never picked up the mass adoption Pokemon Go has in its first two days. Even when you have a great product, star power matters.
When you are planning a conference, as good as your industry speaker’s content will be… celebrities sell tickets. They also capture imaginations. The hugely popular Content Marketing World conference has featured keynote speakers such as Kevin Spacey, William Shatner, and even Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hammill will speak on content creation to the audience of bloggers and marketers. While other conferences on the same topic feature industry insiders, they don’t pull the numbers like CMW because they know that a big name and a compelling story attracts larger audiences.
- Augmented Reality
This is the component of the game that excites me the most. In order to really play the game, you have to interact with real objects and places. You can see the Pokemon in the real world flying and running around as you attempt to capture them. The blending of digital engagement with live engagement is one of my areas of expertise and I immediately recognized this game’s potential impact on events because of this technology.
Unlike virtual reality which just approximates and creates a false reality, augmented reality adds digital elements to the real world enhancing what is already there. Applications of this technology are currently high ticket items but the cost is coming down. Augmented reality has been used at trade show booths to show products too large to fit in the booth or too costly to ship as well as different colors or added features for products. Imagine instead that branded characters and mascots can interact with attendees of events or add a story element to events that progresses throughout the day.
One of the more exciting applications for augmented reality was explained to me at IMEX America this year. Both stage design and screens for events with large audiences can be digitally added into what is essentially a blank canvas of place holder objects to create a very high budget look that can either adapt to the attendees’ whim or be transformed by the design team for a desired effect. Expensive software may be replacing expensive hardware.
What the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland Browns Stadium, and Great Lakes Science Center look like through Pokemon Go
The last few years of meeting trends have really emphasized the importance of movement and exercise for attendees. Conferences now include fun runs and pedometer competitions and smart speakers have encouraged stretching, dancing, and even yoga moves into their presentations. Pokemon Go has broken new ground as a game that has motivated even the least ambulatory to go outside for a walk.
Japanese culture has been at the forefront of integrating exercise into the workplace and gaming for years and blending this Japanese property with movement feels right. The original Nintendo got kids to run in place at home while years later their Wii console made bowling and sword fighting much more active. This is the next step. The most popular games throughout history have taken place outside and this game is trying to reverse the past 30 years’ obsession with indoor sedentary engagement. Your attendees want to move around; you just have to make it fun.
I walked a mile to reach this Pokestop near my home this weekend.
What is intrinsic to video games like Pokemon Go takes a bit more strategy and effort for meeting planners. Pokemon Go rewards the player for behaviors it’s trying to cultivate. In order for an egg to incubate into a mature Pokemon, players may have to walk between 1 and 5 miles! Once a player finds 10 flying Pokemon, you are awarded with a medal. Behavior modification through games and rewards work.
Think about the main goals of your next event. How can you create a game with different levels and distribute rewards for achievement? If digital engagement is a priority, including a social media wall with a leaderboard showing who has been retweeted the most will incentivize your attendees to create better content that impacts more people. If you manage a trade show, create a game that includes selfies with each of the exhibitors in order to qualify for a prize. Make the process fun and the rewards meaningful and you’ll accomplish your event goals while raising the overall event experience.
- Progressive Events
I found myself in downtown Cleveland going from building to building and walking into places I’ve seen for years but never entered because of Pokemon Go. It reminded me of a good bar crawl or progressive dining event. One of the biggest fights I have when working on events that take place in exciting cities with attendees coming in from all over the world is fighting their natural inclination to explore. Consider progressive multi-venue events that give attendees a more varied look at a city or you’ll find yourself losing them to their wanderlust.
I haven’t time to see the renovations to this park for the Republican National Convention but I made time to go there to find Pokemon.
- You’re Only as Good as Your Last Event
One of the more remarkable parts of the Pokemon Go story is just how bleak Nintendo’s future looked before the release of this game. For years, Nintendo has labored under the delusion that they were a hardware company that sold games in order for people to buy their consoles. This is why they have been the last holdout of the mobile gaming revolution.
The reality is that their intellectual properties are their true treasures. Their last hardware release, the WiiU, has been a complete failure by anyone standards and they haven’t even been able to attract a buyer for their company. All that background information is to set this up – you are only as good as your last event. Just because you were once the industry innovator doesn’t mean you always will be nor deserve to be. You have to put the work in and can’t stop being inspired to push the envelope on what it means to be a creative professional. On the flipside, if you’ve been in a rut, it’s never too late to turn it around. Make the event you are working on right now the best you’ve ever done.
- Where You Are Matters
Pokemon Go works because of its adaption of the world map and GPS. Custom wayfinding for larger event venues has been an incredible boon for conference organizers with this technology built into the event app. GPS-based data gathering has given planners a view of daily traffic patterns that are instrumental in planning for future events. Zone triggers have also been used to alert attendees entering areas of a venue or for exhibitors to get the attention of trade show goers. All these technologies utilize GPS based technologies that are aware of your every movement in time and space.
- Their Phone Is Their Window to The World
Nintendo finally gave in to releasing software for mobile platforms. Most people don’t want one more piece of hardware in their lives when they can consolidate everything on their smartphone. Have you seen people using calculators, alarm clocks or voice recorders lately? The same goes for event tech. Expensive dedicated hardware devices that have one function seem clunky to attendees now and developers have taken notice. Event tech that is run through the attendee’s phone is often also less costly because it scales up to any sized room for often the same investment. Second screen technologies for presentations including live polling will probably never be hardware driven from this point on and that’s just the beginning.
Remember to pay attention to your surroundings and play responsibly.
Want to know one of the major reasons Pokemon Go was such a big hit in two days? It has no pay wall in order to play. As a free download, the game offers value to users for no investment but endears you to want to invest after you’ve become addicted. Adapting the freemium model for your event can come in a few ways. If you produce educationally driven events, offer articles from presenters prior to the event date in your content marketing strategy. If you produce events with live entertainment, consider a venue with balcony seating for selected group of diehard fans and a VIP experience below. For non-profit events, create a smaller preview event where you have the opportunity to hook influencers and philanthropists to your cause before the main event. Providing something for nothing strategically gives future pay attendees stake before they decide to invest.
This parking lot wasn’t free but it didn’t cost me anything to capture this Krabby.
- Wearables and Battery Life
Pokemon Go is a real smartphone battery guzzler. For those who play the game, it’s already been the number one drag on power and on data usage. Nintendo created the problem and soon they will sell you the solution – the Pokemon Go Plus! The Plus is a Bluetooth wristband that will allow players the ability to interact with the game without having to open their phones. This means for $35 more, players will have more phone battery power, and will be able to engage with the game more conveniently.
Like most wearables, that’s the end goal - simpler accessibility in less burdensome ways. They come in the form of RFID badges, light-up wristbands that interact with sound, and even wireless headphones for silent discos. Wearables can (and should) be branded and give attendees a tangible enhancement to event experiences.
Another takeaway for planners is this – attendees can never have enough power for their phones… and they are willing to pay for it in the form of actual money or time spent in a sponsored phone charging booth.
- Meme Yourself
Pokemon Go has also gained a ton of exposure on social media from the form of ready made meme opportunities shared online. Users have had a lot of fun creating selfies or otherwise showing off pictures of Pokemon interacting with the real world. In an event landscape of what seems like over proliferation of photo opportunities in the form of green screens and photo booths, lets not forget that people sharing photos online is by no means in a down swing. In order to stand out and get people to interact with your branded photo stations, it pays to chase trends. They are very fickle but being on the top of the current zeitgeist will get you the impressions you are looking for. For instance, if your photo booth included Pokemon this week… you’d get a ton of buy-in.
Trying to catch a Zubat and I don’t care who can see.
- Embrace Cutting Edge Over Perfect
Pokemon Go has experienced a lot of bugs and problems with server capacity but none of that seems to slow down the adoption rate.
Tim Corporaal of Event StoryBoard Canvas and self described ex-hardcore gamer gave this smart perspective:
“The game itself is full of bugs and is nowhere near perfect, but the excitement of the vision they have makes the faults seem unimportant. Being able to take part in a progressive vision is appealing. Most meetings lack the vision and courage to try something completely new.”
Younger and tech savvy audiences love to be part of movements towards a better way of doing things. If you aren’t swinging for the fences and adding an element to your design that is progressive, you might see diminished attendance.
The biggest takeaway I have from this game is to not take yourself too seriously and have unapologetic fun. People giggled and asked if I was playing Pokemon when they saw me on the busiest street in town earlier today. I owned it and said “Yes!”. While they walked away another person came behind me and asked, “What level are you on?” and just like that we connected. Make sure that fun is a priority in your events and stick up for your future attendees by asking “Yes, but will this be fun?” at each and every intersection of the event timeline. That’s a pretty good method for you to catch’em all.