TechCrunch has some market analysis about ubiquitous Facebook-game-manufacturer Zynga today. The article outlines some hard facts about the game maker and some apparent missteps. The commenters have even more value to add to the discussion.
TechCrunch blames Zynga’s failure on its varied leadership and the limiting moves by Zuckerberg, but Zynga’s fall out of fashion was its own fault. TechCrunch misses a major point by neglecting to mention human behavior. The nature of trends, psychological and sociological aspects of human behavior, is behind the immediate success and eventual petering out of Zynga games like Farmville and Cityville.
Zynga games are built to be trendy. They are light, have viral elements, and are mindless. The problem: Trends don’t last. Viral games don’t sustain players. Zynga seemed to recognize that trendy game-making was their brand’s forté; The company put out game after game with similar names and almost identical aesthetics in attempts to lure players to new ‘Villes while they left the old ones to whither. This is an OK business model, in theory. But Zynga studied up on gaming, game culture and the typical Facebook user when they should have been going to Fashion design school. In the über-trendy fashion industry, some houses have managed to stick around for centuries, seemingly by simply putting out trendy pieces and then moving on; This isn’t the whole story behind their staying power, though. Zynga should’ve uncovered some of the fashion industry’s secrets.
Zynga may acknowledge we’ll all be wearing silly bell-bottoms again once a new generation discovers the joys of those voluminous cuffs, but Zynga doesn’t notice the 30 to 40 years that pass between fashion trends. Zynga’s iterations of games came very quickly with little or no rebranding. If the fancy new Zynga execs had studied the fashion industry, they would have learned what fashion industrialists know about trends and human behavior. These experts carefully study the silhouettes of the past to predict the future, then they constantly re-brand the house to answer the customers’ needs. They expand into new (but related to their core customer) markets, e.g., related products like perfumery or children’s clothes. They change their look, offer new accessories, etc., all staying within the brand’s values and reputation.
(For an example of a fashion house with staying power despite founders’ deaths, corporate takeovers and numerous designers, we can look at the history of the famous Paris house of Lanvin . Lanvin’s timeline is typical of the fashion juggernauts like YSL, Dior, Louis Vitton and Givenchy.)
Zynga’s seemingly endless supply of simple social games for Facebook and for mobile platforms didn’t look or act any differently from each other. The new games were the same old time-wasters that intruded on friends’ news feeds. It’s as if Zynga offered us bell-bottoms, over and over, without changing anything but the color of the denim. We got bored.
Another aspect Zynga seemed to miss was the social element. We know the sharing and the multi-player-like in-game features of Farmville, but Zynga forgot to examine real-world social cues and rewards that help habits and identity form. A casual Facebook surfer played out the social capital Farmville gave them quite quickly because the game was simple and the timing obligations (e.g. you lost your crops because you didn’t water them 5 times yesterday) were too constraining for a typical person. Then, that same user was forced to spend more social capital on credit when the Farmville updates started to annoy his real life friends.
Zynga experimented with some sticky power by tying in some real-world charitable donations, in essence trying to attract users to the game by integrating in philanthropy. Again, this is an OK business model. This approach doesn’t typically bring in new users as much as it helps keep old ones, but it’s usually pretty effective. But then Zynga tripped over some nasty scuttlebutt about keeping some of the donation money. Because Zynga changed from novelty to annoying on Facebook in a matter of months, users dropped loyalty with that whiff of scandal. Plus, charity or no charity, the games still required big time and asynchronous social commitments. Most users tire of that very quickly.
I also wonder what demographic research Zynga did. The games had wide-spread participation but then, to me, seemed to trickle down to only Baby Boomer women and young children (mostly girls) with smart phones. Neither one of these cohorts are on Facebook en masse yet, nor do they all have smart phones or mobile devices. Facebook bans children under 13 although many parents are allowing access by age 10, 11 or 12. But my 6-year-old likes Zynga games on his iPod and he’s nowhere near having a Facebook account. My 12-year-old would hangs out on Instagram and isn’t interested in Zynga games on her iPhone.
Companies need long-term demographic plans for trends, sketched out by age group and location at the very least. Fashion houses do this all the time. Lanvin, along with their designer Alber Elbaz, started offering pieces to discount clothing retailer H&M in 2001. Elbaz was quoted as saying, “It wasn’t about just doing a dress for less. It was about, ‘Can you take a dress by Lanvin and translate it for another audience?’” Zynga seemed to think their audience was every person in the world. They designed for the masses. They had the idea that everyone is a gamer and their lowest-common-denominator products would dominate across all platforms.
Fashion houses know they cannot please everyone, nor can they partake in every trend. They know that being loyal to their core customer, designing only for them, then designing for that customer’s family members, is the best way to keep reinventing yourself in a fickle market. Find your customer, know her values, her obligations, her demographic, her typical lifestyle, her past, her likely future. Deliver garments for each stage of her life, for each need that arises. Show her designs and new products that she knows were meant for her. Give her a new company name every once in a while so she can feel current and relevant when she tells her friends where she bought her pants. Don’t condescend. Don’t assume she can’t understand a complicated design. Give her substance and fill the part of her identity that she wants you to fill.
Zynga condescended to the users with mass garbage games. They didn’t target a core customer. They neglected to care for their users’ real-life social life by making game announcements intrusive and time-heavy. They never rebranded or offered different products of substance that answered the need of a core customer.
To a lot of us Internet and Web users, Zynga felt evil after a while. They turned evil not just because the games were ubiquitous and annoying, but because we got the sense that they thought of us as stupid automatons easily fooled by shiny new iterations of the same old pair of bell-bottoms.