Zynga Is Now Offering Native Political Gaming Ads for Presidential Campaigns

Game maker and partner Rubicon Project have Beltway connections

Headshot of Marty Swant

Zynga is about to give political game theory a whole new meaning: The maker of FarmVille and Words With Friends is partnering with Rubicon Project to develop native programmatic ads targeted at voters ahead of the 2016 presidential race. 

Zynga's in-house design and development team will work alongside political campaigns to create branded "SponsoredPLAY" ad units that will appear while users are playing a game. The mobile ads will show up as optional mini-games similar to the style of the game being played. The announcement comes during a campaign cycle expected to surpass $1 billion in digital ad spending, according to a recent report from Borrell Associates.

Amy Gershkoff, Zynga's chief data officer, said the SponsoredPlay ad units are designed with players in mind while also incorporating the goals of political campaign clients. Games could incorporate campaign goals such as issue awareness, email collection, fundraising or polling.

"It's not just that consumers are engaging with this content. It's also that they're remembering this content and that it's impactful," Gershkoff told Adweek. "And that's what campaigns are looking for heading into this election cycle. They don't just want to capture voters' attention. They want to change their minds or get them so fired up that they want to help the campaign. They're looking to create action, and that's what [the SponsoredPlay ad] are designed to do."

San Francisco-based Zynga hasn't gotten presidential candidates Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders to commit to ad buys yet. But the Zynga-Rubicon team seems to have lucrative connections. 

For instance, Gershkoff managed media planning for President Barack Obama's data-heavy presidential campaign in 2012. And Rubicon Project's senior vice president and head of corporate communications, Dallas Lawrence, served on former President George W. Bush's communications team.

Using Zynga's player data, SponsoredPLAY ads will also benefit from location-based targeting nationwide through Rubicon's automated advertising platform. This will allow candidates to zero in on swing states and customize messaging on a state-by-state basis.

Zynga—which began offering SponsoredPLAY ads last year to brands including Clorox, Netflix and Progressive—has already seen impressive user engagement. The gaming company's ads are optional, as players can choose whether to see promos (sometimes in exchange for game points). With a 51 percent opt-in rate, the company says engagement is six times higher than it is with traditional mobile ads.


"Campaigns have to think more creatively and have to really branch out from a TV-centric strategy to begin to think of other places with core audiences to get their message out," Gershkoff said.

According to data from a new study of Zynga game players conducted by Nielsen, about 90 percent of players polled said they're registered and plan to vote in the 2016 elections. The poll also found a fairly equal split between parties, with 40 percent identifying as Republican, 30 percent identifying as Democrat and the rest remaining unaffiliated. Key issues for them were foreign policy and the fight against terrorism, followed by entitlements, the economy and immigration.

Voters are also playing games more often. According to comScore data from October, the average smartphone user spends 5.5 hours per month playing games—more than he or she spends with Netflix, Snapchat, Twitter or ESPN.

The announcement is the second this week made by the two companies. On Tuesday, Zynga announced it selected Rubicon Project as the exclusive partner for programmatic direct advertising through Rubicon's automated guaranteed buying.

"You're seeing digital and social transition from a nice-to-have for a campaign to a must-have," said Lawrence of Rubicon.

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.