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Joi Sears headshot

Pokémon Go and the Power of Social Influence

By Joi Sears

Pokémon Go has quickly and unexpectedly become a wildly successful global phenomenon. In the first week, the app had over 10 million downloads. It now exceeds Twitter in daily average users and has a higher average user time than Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp.

Yes, a game where you wander around the neighborhood catching virtual monsters is probably the most successful app of all time. And even if Pokémon Go is just a flash in the pan, it’s interesting to see how it changed the game when it comes to leveraging the power of social influence.

It’s nothing new

At first glance, there’s nothing inherently new about Pokémon Go. In fact, the game has been around for ages. The franchise has been popular since the mid 1990s, spanning both eastern and western cultures. What started as a humble pair of video games for the original Game Boy quickly became the second most successful and lucrative video game-based media franchise in the world, behind only Nintendo's Mario.

It’s no surprise that a digital revamp of the nostalgic game millennials grew up playing on their Game Boys would be so huge. We’re already obsessed with our phones as it is. And now we can use that obsession for a greater good -- capturing playful, colorful monsters running rampant through our streets and towns.

It’s interactive and engaging

“What makes Pokémon Go so intriguing is the fact that it encourages people to be more socially and physically active” said Jeremy Worker, a marketing and publicity specialist for social influencers and purpose-driven brands. “It combines the mobility of the Game Boy, the physical fun/exercise of the Wii, and the exciting new experience of location-based augmented reality.”

“This gives a reason for just about anyone to be interested. Whether it’s an excuse for exercise and exploration, social engagement, or simply to geek out on nostalgia at such a graceless period in our history. Folks are moving outside in hoards and engaging with one another," Worker said.

It leverages the power of social influence

Social influence played a critical role in making Pokémon Go happen. “Social influence is critical when it comes to engaging new people, especially those outside of your target audience,” Worker told 3p. “Pokémon was huge long before social media, but the culture was much more niche. It was geared more toward Anime lovers and cartoon-aged kids,” he explained.

Yet somehow in our technology-obsessed and overly-connected world, a niche brand managed to break through the noise and come out on top. Pokémon Go has become a social epidemic. However, its newfound success is built upon some fundamental ideas, many of which John Berger outlines in his book, "Contagious: Why Things Catch On."

It’s all about word of mouth

Word of mouth is the primary factor behind 20 to 50 percent of all purchasing decisions. It's way more effective than more traditional advertising techniques for two key reasons. First, it’s more persuasive. We are more likely to trust the opinions of our family and friends than an advertisement.

Think about the last new restaurant you tried or that app you downloaded because your friend suggested it. We take the word and opinions of those around us as bond. It’s in our nature. We are constantly selling thoughts, ideas and products in our daily conversations.

Secondly, word of mouth is more targeted. It’s naturally directed toward an interested audience. We don’t necessarily share an interesting news story or recommendation to everyone we know (aside from Facebook). We tend to select particular people who we think would find that given piece of information most relevant.

This idea alone is what made Pokémon Go blow up long before social media got ahold of it. And although word of mouth is the primary factor behind most purchasing decisions, only 7 percent of it happens online. If you downloaded the game within the first few days of its release, chances are you were prompted to do so by a friend.

It cashes in on social currency

In general, people want to be cool. They want to be in the know. Knowing and talking about cool things makes you seem cool. People share things that make them look good to others. Just as people use money to buy products and services, they use 'social currency' to achieve desired positive impressions among their families, friends and coworkers.

The basic idea is to give people a way to make themselves look good while promoting your products or ideas. One way this can be achieved is by leveraging game mechanics. Users can post screenshots of the rare Pokémon they just caught on social media, or even play with friends to tally scores. This comes naturally for a game, of course, but true game mechanics can be applied to almost any brand, business or cause.

It’s inclusive

“I’ve personally been surprised to witness swarms of unexpected gamers -- from seniors to parents with their children, to squads of awkward pubescent boys and girls -- all out and about in the blazing summer heat,” Worker told us. “I’ve never seen a phenomenon like this before.”

The inclusive nature of this game enabled what was once a niche community to become more accessible and less mysterious. “You no longer have to learn how to play from someone else within that community,” he explained.

“You can do your own research, download the app and become a Poké Master without the awkward learning curve conversations that come along with entering into any exclusive groups. This has created exponentially more exposure and has led to a greater, more significant growth in terms of the sheer amount of active interest and engagement.”

It’s remarkable

Pokémon Go is remarkable in the sense that location-based augmented reality is still a relatively new concept. The idea that a Pokémon can appear on a sidewalk or even in our own backyard is mind-blowing for some. This is not only the future of gaming, but also the future of how we interact with our world.

Although the Pokémon craze may die down a bit in the coming days, weeks or months, it still remains a shining example of how social influence can inspire a social epidemic. The question here is: How might this new technology be used as a tool for social innovation?

“Companies are investing heavily in these physically and virtually interactive realities that all seem to cultivate this sort of sub-currency," Worker said. “Maybe in the future, companies can build in incentives for good deeds in exchange for virtual currency, like picking up trash, recycling or getting involved with community activities. The possibilities are endless.”

Image credits: Brandon Simmoneau via Mauna Nada (used with permission)

Joi Sears headshot

Joi M. Sears is the Founder and Creative Director of Free People International, a social enterprise which specializes in offering creative solutions to the world's biggest social, environmental and economic challenges through the arts, design thinking and social innovation.

Read more stories by Joi Sears