Whether it's O2's rugby stare-out competition or Coke Zero's Facebook application enabling users to find their look-alikes, games are a great way of creating fun interaction with a brand and gathering information about potential customers.
They can go viral, with people recommending them to their friends and, of particular benefit in the current economic climate, they are cheap. An online game can be created for less than £10,000; something more complex costs about £50,000 and £100,000 will pay for an advanced package.
'It is definitely cost-effective. Our Draw-it game received over 2m visits, which is about 9000 per day,' says Helene Manga, brand manager for Post-it at 3M. 'Tell me any other communication medium that enables you to do that with a very low level of investment.'
One of the big attractions for brand owners is that it allows them to capture data on players when they register. This can help create a long-term dialogue with consumers.
However, not all online games hit the bulls-eye and some are one-hit wonders, attracting little or no return traffic. Simply offering big prizes is not enough - the game has to be entertaining in its own right. Moreover, even when the game format is successful, it can fall flat if not properly seeded.
Like much content on the web, the ease and cheapness of the medium can lead to overuse. 'Games used to be huge. When we started out eight years ago, we were doing them for music labels and artists,' says James Kirkham, founder of digital agency Holler. 'It was really commonplace, but it slowed down because people got so used to being sent viral games that they lost impact.'
However, he believes brands are rediscovering the promotional power of games. 'There has been a resurgence in line with the developing use of digital. The approach is more considered and appropriate these days,' he adds.
Holler created a game this year for US moisturiser brand Jergens Naturals' launch in the UK. It used a simple fruitmachine format and offered players the chance to win prizes over a six-week period. Those who recommended it to a friend were entered in a prize draw to win a spa break.
One of the more successful recent online games was Orange's Balloonacy, which was developed by digital agency Poke to promote the mobile phone brand's 'animal' price plans among 16- to 24-year-olds.
The game involved a virtual balloon race across the internet, with the flight path passing over different websites. The prize was a holiday in Ibiza for the winner and their friends, which encouraged players to recruit additional participants.
Oli Christie, creative director at Inbox-DMG, which created Draw-it for 3M, stresses the importance of seeding games on the right sites and among influential bloggers, as this can make the difference between a game getting a few thousand hits or millions.
'Most people like playing games. We have even done them for financial-services brands such as Halifax and LV= Insurance,' he says. 'It is a great way of changing perceptions about a brand. It is all about tailoring the game to the target market, and not just targeting gamers.'
It should also be remembered that not all gamers are young men. Many middle-aged women are also keen players, and Christie claims that up to 50% of women play an online game once a week.
As with any online marketing, success is down to the quality of the creative con-tent. However, games have become a fun way to gather data about potential customers and interact with a brand's target audience.
Case study: 3M's Draw-it game
Most office workers are familiar with the ubiquitous yellow Post-it note, but brand owner 3M wanted to promote its wider range of Post-it stationery products.
The company hired InboxDMG to create a viral game supported by ads on sites relevant to the target audience of 25- to 45-year-old women.
Draw-it, which was launched this March, is a Pictionary-style game where players come together in a virtual room and vie against each other and the clock to guess what is being drawn on an online Post-it note. They earn points for guessing correctly, and for drawing a picture that elicits a correct answer.
Virtual Post-it products are incorporated directly into the game, including the notes on which players draw, and index tabs that are used to display the players' names.
Draw-it has attracted more than 2.5m players, with an average of 166,000 taking part every day, equating to 200,000 hours of brand interaction.