With the number of U.S. coronavirus cases hitting a new high this week and the prospect of another round of lockdows on the horizon, brands are looking for safe ways to interact with consumers.
Specifically, brands that once relied on experiential marketing are exploring new platforms for opportunities that give customers the interactions they crave.
What was once a niche platform frequented by users who watched gamers stream, Twitch is a growing and more general marketplace. The platform boasts more than 15 million daily users and is more popular than networks like CNN and MSNBC.
In the past year, streamers on Twitch have expanded well beyond gaming. The Creative section of the site allows artists, animators, designers, programmers and even cosplayers to show off their craft.
Since the pandemic began, more people are using the platform just to connect. This month, the Just Chatting category has an average of 277,951 viewers at any moment, which is more than the most popular game, League of Legends, which averages 218,394, according to businessofapps.com.
Investing in marketing on Twitch was an easy decision, according to Greg Tedesco, EVP of New York digital at Zeno Group.
"Fish where the fish are," he says. "We believe in an audience-first approach to marketing, and the Twitch platform is ripe with avid gamers, influencers and millions of daily active users."
Some brands dove into the platform headfirst. Chuck E. Cheese streams kid-friendly games like Animal Crossing and Fall Guys for its more than 26,000 followers.
Even politicians like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) partnered with popular Twitch streamers this month to play the hit mafia-like game Among Us in an effort to boost voter outreach. At its peak, the stream had a staggering 435,000 viewers.
The Amazon-owned streaming platform is so popular with millennials and zoomers because it breaks down the wall between influencer and consumers, says Greg Brown, SVP of global platform strategy at FleishmanHillard.
"With Twitch, a streamer can interact with their audience in real-time through the chat functions, in-stream monetization and in-stream gamification," says Brown. "It's a more symbiotic relationship where a consumer can have a real dialogue with the creator and the brand."
Creating the perfect campaign on Twitch is trial and error as the platform evolves from gaming to include other verticals, but there's plenty of room to grow.
Companies that target the younger, predominantly male gaming demographic have been successful on the platform for years, but with the rise of arts and beauty channels, any brand can find a patch, says Bryan Pedersen, chief innovation officer at MSL.
"There’s really no campaign or brand that can’t work there, much like other marketing platforms," he says. "It’s about finding the right message and connecting to the audience."
Brands like DHL and TMobile have found footholds in esports, a once-niche category that has boomed during the pandemic. With 84 million viewers, esports is projected to have more viewers than most professional sports leagues in America by 2021, including MLB, the NBA and the NHL, according to technology consulting firm Activate.
However, Pedersen warns that brands should enter the esports arena cautiously. "These numbers are fragmented across many different games," he says. "Hockey, baseball and basketball don’t change, but audiences need high-quality, competitive games that are built for viewership."
Another piece of advice: use Bit commerce. Twitch Bits are a virtual good that users can send in chat to support their favorite streamers.
When Gillette renewed its Gillette Gaming Alliance this year, the brand continued its Bits for Blades program, where Twitch users who buy Gillette products can enter a unique promo code at checkout and receive Twitch Bits in return.
For brands who want to focus on purpose, charity streams are popular across the platform. A company can partner with a streamer who encourages donations while they play and include information on organizations through their moderators.
"The way Twitch is set up works perfectly for fundraising because they work with a platform called Tiltify, which makes it super easy to donate," said Patrick Wixted, SVP of client services at Ketchum Sports. "Then the streamer can talk about the charity or the cause and engage in chat."
But to drive proper engagement, brands need to have more than the right idea and the right platform, they need the right person or people behind the controller, whether that's someone at the brand or a sponsored streamer.
"These guys are streaming hours upon hours a day and getting these big audiences, so they're so good at articulating brand messages in a meaningful and valuable way for their audiences," says Wixted. "That's why working with streamers is so popular."
Wendy's has been one of the biggest hits on Twitch, leveraging its snarky social media voice and connection with younger consumers into a channel with 105,000 followers. The fast-food chain started streaming the hit game Fortnite in 2018 and has since played other popular games to promote new menu items.
"We've identified the right individuals inside the Wendy's organization that are passionate about jumping into gaming and knowing what gamers really prioritize," says Jimmy Bennett, Wendy's VP of marketing for media, social and partnerships. "We have to make sure we show up with authority, confidence and authenticity because in this landscape, these are folks who will see right through you."
Authenticity drives any successful campaign on Twitch because users are typically averse to traditional advertising, says Pierre-Loic Assayag, cofounder and CEO of influencer analysis firm Traackr.
"Traditional advertising, even through influencers, is a no-go on Twitch, probably more so than any place else," Assayag says. "The biggest success we've seen on Twitch is in established partnerships that combine relevancy and longstanding relationships between influencers and brands."
Twitch is full of marketing opportunities, but Pedersen warns that with any live event, there's always risk.
"There’s always the danger of not being able to control the message," Pedersen says. "Look at what happened with perhaps the best known gamer, Ninja. The audience can be quick to judge, and comments can rapidly spiral out of control."
In 2018, the gaming superstar was heard using inappropriate language while rapping along to the song “44 More” by Logic.
Brands must do their homework when choosing the streamer, Tedesco says.
"Having a proper influencer-vetting criteria in place is imperative for any campaign," he explains. "Brands and marketers should look beyond the quantitative data of viewers and followers and do a more qualitative assessment including content quality, ensuring values align with the brand, historical searches on past content, etc."
Influencers should also be integrated into a brand's overall comms strategy.
"You can't think of your influencer campaign in a vacuum," Asssayag says. "Rather, you have to think of your strategy on Twitch as a system where you have some owned media and some influencers, and you're always thinking about what will be happening next for both."
In fact, the best way PR pros can increase the success of any Twitch campaign is integration across platforms, said Bennett. Twitch shouldn't be treated as an outlier.
"We're always working on matching our Twitch voice and interactions across all our social platforms to strengthen the relationship we have with these fans and making sure we're living up to the expectations they're putting forward for us," he says.