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Players Lend a Helping Hand—or, Thumb

Social games like FarmVille boost charitable causes—and burnish the reputations of blemished brands

above illustration: Chris Gash; others: Martin Gee

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When Japan was hit last year with one of the biggest earthquakes ever measured, Laura Hartman received a text from her brother. Hartman’s brother just happens to be Mark Pincus, CEO of social gaming behemoth Zynga. Considering that Zynga reaches around 230 million players a month on Facebook through games like FarmVille, CityVille and Mafia Wars, Pincus and Hartman—head of Zynga’s philanthropic arm, Zynga.org, and a professor of business ethics at DePaul University in Chicago—realized they had the potential to mobilize a vast number of people to make a real difference, and quickly.

While news of the subsequent tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown spread, Hartman got in touch with Save the Children and Direct Relief. Pincus got started with his team. By end of day, Zynga had released a virtual fan—to blow virtual air—in 10 of its games that players could buy for $5, with 100 percent of the proceeds (Facebook agreed to forgo its transaction fee) going to relief efforts.

“The campaign lasted a week and raised us $600,000,” says Kelley Kaufman of Direct Relief. “Honestly, we were shocked.”

All told—with some separate help from Lady Gaga of GagaVille—the fan campaign raised $3.5 million for relief efforts in Japan.

There’s nothing new about companies wanting to burnish their image with a little public do-gooding. As trust in corporations has gone down—according to Edelman’s 2011 Trust Barometer report, belief that companies would “do what is right” declined by 8 percent last year (56 percent of those surveyed, for example, don’t trust businesses “to do the right thing)—the number of firms that dabble in social marketing has gone up. But in an age when authenticity and transparency are paramount—and companies’ business practices are easily shared and discussed on the Web—it’s no longer enough to appear good. The time is fast approaching when companies will have to be good.

“Too much cause marketing is just tricking people,” says Brian Reich, svp at Edelman and author of Media Rules! and Shift & Reset: Strategies for Addressing Serious Issues in a Connected Society. “You tell people they’re going to cure cancer and they’ll jump in once. Maybe you’ll get a second chance. But the third time? The fourth? Forget about it.”

Paradigm shifts demand radical and creative new approaches. Companies, say industry strategists, need to think of themselves not only as producers of products, but as facilitators through which their customers can engage in the world in real and meaningful ways. Which is why an increasing number of companies, from Zynga to Pepsi to Master Lock to Dial, are looking beyond traditional cause-marketing campaigns and inviting consumers to do good via games.

“It’s a transition from ‘license to operate’ to ‘license to lead,’” says Reich. “The public wants to know you’re making decisions that benefit more than just you. You still have to make money, but you have to be trusted—and it’s trust that’s going to result in more sales.”

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