Imagine this: You install a new game on your smartphone and can’t wait to get started. You breeze through the first level, and think, “This is actually fun!” You tap on ‘NEXT LEVEL’, already anticipating something more challenging. You’re ready to give it your all. Your eyes are glued to the screen. Suddenly, you are assaulted by a bright flash of unfamiliar colours. Jarring noise replaces the background music that you were just getting used to. It’s a 30-second video advertisement you can’t click out of.


Why traditional in-app mobile ads don’t work

Many of us have probably experienced the above scenario before. Few, if any, of us are likely to have clicked on those ads.

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Disruptive ads are making apps increasingly frustrating to use. Photo: Getty

According to marketing research company Forrester, 70% of mobile users find in-app ads disruptive, with two-thirds of survey respondents adding that such ads are downright annoying. In fact, the most highly requested feature of mobile advertisement is that they not interrupt one’s use of the app.

Another common request from users is reward. That is, incentive is needed for users to willingly interact with or watch ads. This is why mobile advertising and monetisation firms like Tapjoy and Peanut Labs offer in-app currency in exchange for app downloads, video ads, and surveys. But there is a clear issue with such exchanges — users don’t actually need to consume the ads, or play the game they download to receive the in-game currency.

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Just think about the number of times that you’ve downloaded an app for free cash and immediately uninstalled it afterwards, or let a video ad run without even glancing at the screen. Video ads may get a higher response rate than traditional banner ads, but it doesn’t mean responses are getting more meaningful.

So how can app developers open themselves up to advertisers without compromising the quality of their own app? And how can marketers receive responses to their ads that actually generate genuine ROI?

It’s time we consider product integration.

What in-app product integration is

When the idea of product integration was first introduced, it was proposed in contrast to the more well-known method of embedded advertising in film and television–product placement. We’ve all noticed the Audi cars in the Iron Man trilogy and the judges’ Coke cups on American Idol. They don’t contribute to the narrative of these shows, but they’re items you notice. That’s product placement.

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Until 2015, American Idol was sponsored by Coca-Cola, whose cups can be seen on the judges’ table every episode. Photo: Daily Mail

On the other hand, product integration is the incorporation of real-world products into a storyline, to a degree that makes it a major focal point in the film or television show, rather than simply a visual prop.

For instance, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial featured the peanut butter-filled chocolate, Reese’s Pieces, in an iconic scene where Elliott leaves E.T. a piece of the candy in an effort to lure the alien home. It’s not as subtle as product placement, but it loses none of its subliminal nature. In fact, there was a huge boom in the sale of Reese’s Pieces when E.T. was released in 1982.

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In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Reese’s Pieces candy plays a pivotal role in driving the plot forward. Photo: Yahoo!

Some app developers and marketers have taken a leaf out of Hollywood’s book. Just like in show business, where the product is integrated within the film-making process of a movie rather than after its release, product integration in apps involves market strategising and media buys at the level of development, as opposed to advertising.

This is where the creation of ‘ad-like objects’ within apps comes in. They’re unobtrusive and feel natural, but they are more than just native to the app — they make up the app.

Enough with the vague terminology, let’s just look at some existing apps that have already successfully done product integration to better understand how it works so well.

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Where you can find product integration in apps: Inventory as Ads

I. CrowdStar’s Covet Fashion and Design Home

Photo: Covet Fashion

Launched in 2013 and 2016 respectively, Covet Fashion and Design Home are CrowdStar’s two most popular apps. The former is a fashion styling game, and the latter interior design. Both of these apps have the same concept: players use in-game currencies to participate in daily challenges, in which they style models or design living spaces in line with a given theme.

So where does product integration fit into these apps? Look no further than players’ inventories.

Photo: Design Home

Covet and Design integrate real-life products into gameplay as part of players’ primary inventory. This means that in playing the game, players use apparel and furniture that we can find from actual brands in the real world.

Contemporary brands from the likes of Halston Heritage to Zimmermann have partnered up with Covet to incorporate pieces from their collections into the game, the clothing and accessories featured being true to their real-life designs as well as the seasons they are released in stores.

If a player sees a blouse they’d love to have in real life, they can purchase it through conveniently placed hyperlinks. Some of these brands even offer discounts and free in-game diamonds to players who purchase from them, a huge incentive in itself.

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Brands like Lionette by Noa Sade and French Connection have partnered up with Covet Fashion to offer exclusive discounts and free diamonds.

Covet and Design demonstrate how mobile phone games can become an opportunity for brands to gain exposure and boost sales in a way that is not only discreet, but that can also double as an effortless retail experience.

The graphic sophistication of these games, coupled with their concept of theme-based challenges, effectively helps users to see how products can fit into their lives in various events and scenarios. Players have the liberty to exercise their personal style and “shop” for these specific brands to their heart’s desire.

Covet‘s corporate website even includes a page directed at potential partners, comprising vital user statistics and testimonials to help fashion brands ascertain the suitability of the game in promoting their products.

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An infographic from Covet Fashion‘s “For Brands” webpage. Photo: Covet Fashion

Clearly, this app thrives on digital collaboration.

II. Meitu’s MakeupPlus

Established in 2008, Chinese tech company Meitu was most well known within Asia for their eponymous photo editing app. However, in 2016, when they released MakeupPlus, which utilises AR technology to provide what they call a true ‘makeup counter experience‘, the virtual makeover app-cum-store quickly became their most popular app.

MakeupPlus replicates the effects of real-world cosmetics, allowing users to “apply” various types of makeup to enhance their selfies. Similar to CrowdStar games, Meitu collaborates with popular brands in the market to bring users a true-to-life experience, through a sophisticated digitisation of actual products.

Meitu launches augmented reality beauty to its app with Clinque, Bobbie Brown, YSL and more
MakeupPlus offers a wide array of real-world cosmetics for users to enhance their selfies. Photo: Cosmetics Design Europe

The app also doubles as an e-commerce platform for these brands, allowing customers to “try” before they buy. Users can directly purchase cosmetics featured in the app, making the sales element perfectly seamless.

At the heart of it, MakeupPlus provides an advanced photo editing service that isn’t aiming to sell, sell, sell. At least not that the user can tell. The same goes for Covet and Design, which are ultimately mobile phone games that just so happen to consist of these ad-like objects. Users can very well go through the game or use the photo editing service without ever purchasing an item in real life.

As much as the retail aspects are crucial to developers, who have exclusive teams dedicated to ensuring their success, they make up a secondary feature that comes across to users as an option. They are services and games before they are channels for commerce, but it is exactly this characteristic that makes them so effective at advertising products.

III. Brand-made Geofilters on Snapchat

Another great example of product integration in apps is social media platform Snapchat‘s brand-created AR lenses, or geofilters. The Snapchat Lens Studio lets brands illustrate their own personalised filters that can only be unlocked by users within specific geofences, usually within the proximity of, for example, a brand’s physical store.

Dunkin Donuts released seasonal geofilters on Snapchat in celebration of National Donut Day. Image: AdWeek

Moreover, brand-created geofilters subtly make users the (free) drivers of advertisement. Just one user has to utilise their filter for all their friends to see that oh, McDonald’s just released a new burger!

Seeing as filters are already a major feature of the app, brand-created geofilters simply function as exclusive additions to existing filters, which users are already perusing every day. That is, they’re completely unobtrusive. Companies can utilise this widely used social media app to promote events and new products in a manner that falls entirely in line with the concept of Snapchat. None of those startling pop-ups that ruin your focus.

Who can benefit from product integration

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With less disruptive ads, mobile users can enjoy the experience of apps better. Photo: Shutterstock

Product integration promises advertisement that is both visually and experientially pleasing. They’re difficult to ignore because of their centrality to the apps they appear in, yet they don’t interrupt usage of the app.

For brands, product integration doesn’t only mean that responses are less likely to be negative, but also means that their product already has a place in users’ lives. Such “ads” give brands greater exposure in a positive manner  products are not pushed in consumers’ faces, but offered as options that they are already looking for.

As for developers, they can start worrying less about their users getting frustrated with their app. Furthermore, such advertising would not actually fall under traditional advertising, but as media buys, which can be defined as ‘a flat, fixed fee for the placement and preference of content inside the application‘. This could be much more viable for developers, since a brand’s digital advertising budget tends to be meagre compared to that for media buys.

How product integration can impact future digital advertising

As more app developers and retail companies catch on to the benefits of embedded advertising, we’re likely to see more brands collaborating with non-retail apps rather than simply purchasing ad space.

A popularisation of product integration could also give developers a large incentive to create more world-interactive apps. Of course, developers must not forget that in diversifying the services their apps will provide, the primary service, whether it be a game or a virtual makeover app, has to come out on top.

Because as these existing apps have demonstrated, it’s not about what you’re told to love, but what you grow to love. Ultimately, it is positive interactions with brands (not their ads), that product integration should facilitate.

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