November 10, 2011 / by Stone Hansard

As of late 2011, Facebook boasted over 800 million active users, and as social media becomes more pervasive in our day-to-day lives, it follows that our public relations, too, must become more social.

Until recently, social media served mostly as a conductor for disseminating PR messages that originated from a traditional pitch – a friend shares a link to an interesting story drawn from a press release, for instance. It’s a supplement to old-fashioned word-of-mouth publicity spawned from traditional editorial coverage.

However, to create a uniquely social media-driven PR environment, PR practitioners and integrated marketing professionals are turning to non-traditional methods that blur the already thin line between marketing and PR. Because typical social media users aren’t actively looking for story leads the way journalists are, they must be engaged in a way that is fun and rewards them for sharing a message.

Enter social gaming, a style of game adapted for social networking sites that gives an advantage to users with a strong social presence and a strong ability to engage friends.

A 2010 survey by PopCap Games found that nearly a quarter of all active Facebook and MySpace users participate in social games, and given that Facebook’s active user base is more than twice the population of the United States, it’s no surprise that organizations are beginning to recognize the potential in social games.

In October 2011, the Audubon Society of America launched a new marketing campaign in the form of a Facebook-based social game called Birding the Net. Created in collaboration with advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, Birding the Net sought to introduce a new generation to the joy of recreational bird watching and the importance of wildlife conservation.

Lured by the opportunity to win prizes, Birding the Net participants were encouraged to “collect” a variety of bird species that Audubon had hidden in donated advertising space across the Web. While Birding the Net is primarily a marketing strategy, its positioning in the social media realm allowed it to serve a dual-PR purpose.

Most basically, Birding the Net provided a platform on which Audubon could launch an adjacent traditional PR campaign to help rebrand the foundation, in CEO David Yarnold’s words, as “not your grandmother’s Audubon.” Indeed, outlets like the New York Times‘ Green blog, Inhabitat and TreeHugger all hopped on board to write about the game, spreading the word about Audubon’s new youthful approach.

Secondly, because Birding the Net allowed participants to trade birds with other users to improve their overall position, they stood a better chance to win if they persuaded their friends to get involved as well. The result is a game that rewards those who spread Audubon’s message the furthest.

Audubon isn’t the only organization getting in on social gaming PR. VinTank, a thinktank representing wine industry interests, created a social game called VinPass in May 2011. According to Paul Mabray, VinTank’s chief strategy officer, the cross-platform game was designed “to create a fun, engaging way for wineries to connect with people who already love both wine and social media.”

Unlike Birding the Net, VinPass more readily resembles traditional PR. The game, which shares some similarity with the location-based social service foursquare, unlocks badges for participants when they try French wines and post an original review of the wine on one of VinPass’s partner sites or apps. Small prizes such as gift cards and ringtones may then be redeemed with the badges.

With VinPass, VinTank creates an incentive for wine aficionados to share their love of French wine varieties with others on the Web, thus creating a more positive public image for their various clients. The game turns the consumer himself into a broadcaster of public relations messages.

While the traditional press kit will not see its demise anytime soon, opportunities presented by alternative PR strategies like these may put additional pressure on the industry to directly engage its audience. Indeed, as we become more accustomed to dynamic, interactive online environments in lieu of one-way media, we can only expect integrated marketing PR campaigns like these to become increasingly more common. After all, the best influencer is a friend, and what better way to engage a friend than by playing a game?

Tags : social media

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About Stone Hansard

Hansard is an associate features editor and features writer for Cision Blog, covering trends in journalism and content marketing, innovative new editorial platforms and more. He is also the supervisor of Internet Media Research at Cision, and occasionally covers jazz for Prior to joining Cision in 2010, he was the music director at WVFS-FM, the alternative radio station at his alma-mater, Florida State University. Give him a bowl of fancy ramen and a Bulls game, and he’s a happy camper.