Just after the Marketing VP set the bar at 20,000 downloads in the first six months, Petra Neiger and the myPlanNet  game team at Cisco wondered, “How the heck are we going to do that?” The marketing budget was well under $50,000, her team was tiny and each of them had other marketing responsibilities. Nonetheless, when I met Petra this May, the program was already a stunning success and being honored with BtoB’s Social Media Marketing Award for Best Integrated Campaign.
In fact, myPlanNet, a simulation game that “puts you in the shoes of a service provider CEO,” exceeded expectations at every turn. Launched in October 2009, the game surpassed the download goal by 3,200 the end of January and has gained at least 20,000 more players since then. The game has attracted over 60,000 fans on Facebook with players from at least 2500 different companies and over 130 different countries. With 5,000 new fans joining between mid May and mid June, myPlanNet is a case worth studying, revealing six game-changing steps to social media innovation.
1. Get Management Blessing
It’s a fundamental truth that innovation requires support in the highest offices of any company. Not surprisingly, the myPlanNet game concept was “formed out of an internal innovation contest,” noted Ms.Neiger. “The idea was to find an untraditional way to engage our customer and teach them about Cisco,” she added. “Cisco is very big on innovation, wanting to show the human network in action,” offered Petra. That said, management did not write a blank check and instead put a cap on financial resources, limiting the development budget to $200,000 thus requiring the team to make the most of every dollar. This hedging approach to innovation is not unusual and can inspire further creativity as it did with this program.
2. Channel Internal Energy
Often companies overlook the importance of encouraging widespread employee involvement in their innovative initiatives, particularly in social media. This was not the case with myPlanNet. First, noted Ms. Neiger, “we had an internal group that tested the game every step of the way.” This helped keep the program on budget. Then, added Ms. Neiger, “We launched the game internally 2-3 weeks before external launch because it’s a very robust game so we didn’t know how it would work once a lot of people started playing.” This had the added benefits of enhancing morale and as Petra noted, “started a trend inside the company where other groups are starting to play the game and are inspired to try more innovative approaches.”
3. Create Something Innovative
Admittedly, this sub-head may seem a little obvious, but the key word here is “Create” and you’d be amazed how often marketers seek social media success without actually creating something of genuine value for their target. In Cisco’s case, they created a simulation game that according to Petra, was “easy to play but difficult to master; you can play five minutes or you can play for an hour.” One sure sign of success that you’ve created something innovative is unplanned press attention. “We had no PR outreach whatsoever,” added Ms.Neiger, yet the Washington Post, The SF Chronicle, numerous magazines and blogs all reported on the game, which in turn fueled social media engagement.
4. Seed Your Efforts
Bestselling author Doug Ruskoff  recently suggested that all a company needed to do was to create a superior product and, in the new world of social media communications, consumers would find out about it and beat a virtual trail to their door. This idealistic viewpoint may ultimately prove to be true but few marketers can or should take this chance right now. At a minimum, marketers need to jump-start the conversation, as was the case with myPlanNet. The game demoed at a big tradeshow in Geneva last October where, noted Ms. Neiger, “We had a camera to record people’s experiences and put these videos and images on our Game Support and Facebook fan pages.” Judiciously allocating their $30k launch budget to demos, welcome ads and content syndication, Cisco also spent $100 per day on Facebook to bring people to their fan page all of which helped spark interest in the game.
5. Keep on Experimenting
Given the dynamic nature of social media, it is essential that once you get started you keep adapting to consumer feedback and experiment as the opportunities present themselves. Noted Ms. Neiger, “six weeks after launch we started doing social media even more and experimenting a lot.” When they started seeing comments in foreign languages, they responded with a monthly report of fans by country. “People have national pride and are very into it so they passed along the link,” offered Petra who noted enthusiastically that users could be traced back to 130 different countries, thus fulfilling an important objective for this unique marketing initiative. Later on they added a holiday challenge, mini-online games and even a multiple choice quiz about the game, all of which increased fan engagement.
6. Think Small
Unfortunately, a lot of innovative programs, especially ambitious ones in the social media arena never see the light of day because their initial funding requirements are deemed to be too large by management. myPlanNet, the game, was built in 13 months with the help of external experts at a budget cap of $200,000. Though previous gaming efforts by Cisco had achieved some success, management still asked, “Why would this be different from what we’ve done before and how do we get the word out?” Petra and her team were quick with answers, having baked in a more “inclusive gaming experience” and social media-friendly elements like in-game testimonials and a dynamic leader board that allows players to see top scores by week, month and all-time. At the same time, Petra noted that “We would have loved to do more personalization within the game and to include a multiplayer aspect,” but that would have required more time and money, changes that might have prevented this winning game from launching in the first place.
Final note: Petra was quick to remind me that myPlanNet, “started as a side project.” Since then, she added, “The company realizes that the game is really good and really successful,” but she “still has a day job” as does the rest of her team--so much for award-winning marketing being all fun and games!