How Words With Friends spelled Bernard Kim’s rise to Zynga top marketing role

Zynga president of publishing Bernard Kim
Zynga president of publishing Bernard Kim

Zynga’s president of publishing dives into data and innovates to keep users returning to its mobile games — but hits the pause button on plunging into the metaverse.

Bernard Kim, president of publishing at mobile gaming company Zynga, landed his current role in the most bizarre yet fitting way possible — through a game of Words With Friends.

Zynga CEO Frank Gibeau had just left his position as EVP of EA Mobile after more than 20 years at the company and was looking for a marketer and business developer to help pull Zynga out of a downward spiral that had seen a series of layoffs and steep stock drops in the preceding years.  

Gibeau had been a mentor and boss during the almost 10 years Kim spent as SVP of marketing and sales at EA, so it wasn’t unusual for the two to battle vocabularies on the Scrabble-like game popularized on Facebook.

“We actually negotiated my entire package and responsibilities all through Words with Friends,” Kim says of the fateful game played in 2016. “It really shows how expansive games are and how they are a safe platform to communicate.” 

After negotiations — and a series of games won by Gibeau — Kim came to Zynga in 2016 with the responsibility of overseeing how the company brings its games to players through marketing, communications, consumer insights, product management, business development and strategic partnerships.  

Zynga may not be a household name, but its games are. The company burst onto the gaming scene in 2007 with Zynga Poker, the first game Facebook introduced on its social networking platform. 

What followed was an expansion into mobile gaming and a series of hits including FarmVille, CityVille and Words With Friends.

Despite the number of active users nearly halved in 2014 from its meteoric engagement in years prior, by Q4 2017 revenue was $233.3 million, a 22% increase year over year and the best performance Zynga had seen in five years. But there was still room to grow. 

Kim and his team worked to continue that growth, focusing on three main pillars to market to potential players and ultimately bring in more revenue through in-game monetization. 

First, “we focus on growth through live services and having our teams fall back in love with operating our forever franchises,” he says. “Also launching and acquiring new games through M&A, and doubling down on big new games centered around large intellectual properties such as Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and FarmVille 3.

  A selection from Zynga's game library.

The third pillar involves thinking through new categories Zynga can participate in that can grow exponentially such as the “hyper casual” gaming segment, which are instantly playable mobile games players often revisit for short session lengths with quick game mechanics. These games include Words With Friends, which has been operational for almost 12 years. 

But developing the games is only half the equation for Kim. With Zynga’s business model of focusing on free-to-play games, Kim is presented with the unique challenge of drawing in new generations of players who are willing to spend money on in-app purchases or time watching ads in exchange for game perks.  

Facebook has about 2.89 billion monthly active users as of Q2 2021, and the market for mobile gaming is just as vast. That’s quite a net to cast. 

Using some of the tricks he picked up leading the mobile gaming unit at EA, Kim focuses heavily on franchise management and players’ expectations of their favorite titles to grow organically. 

“By focusing on the players, you expand the things they can do in the game they already love,” he says. “That expansion drives more engagement from our players, and more time spent in the game actually leads to better monetization.” 

For instance, Zynga put out an update to its 5-year-old, hyper-real drag racing game CSR2 in December that included a multiyear partnership with rally car racing icon Ken Block. Users can now play as Block, drive his cars and get drag racing lessons from his daughter Lia. 

“Bringing Ken Block in drives additional excitement all centered around a well-executed digital marketing campaign bringing players to re-engage into a game they’re playing and potentially bring in new players,” Kim says.   

Hit return
When organic growth through franchise favorites needs a push, Kim turns to data, using analytics pulled from across Zynga’s player base to find the right channels in which to bring new players into the company’s gaming network.

In his position, Kim closely intertwines Zynga’s marketing teams, user acquisition teams, data science teams and central product management teams to work toward finding the best way to bring players into their network.   

“It depends on the genre, but we primarily look at engagement and monetization,” Kim says, adding that the company monitors how much time people spend in games and if they come back every day. “When it all starts working together, we allocate dollars across multiple digital channels, and we start seeing returns just based on the data that comes in from tracking those players who enter our games.”

Unlike many console and PC games that direct marketing dollars into cinematic and gameplay trailers for TV or video streaming platforms such as YouTube, Zynga focuses on digital marketing and advertisements with the help of its marketing AOR Edelman. 

Working in Zynga’s favor is the brand recognition its game franchises already have in the online and mobile gaming community. 

Marketing dollars don’t have to be spent on flashy television commercials starring model Kate Upton — like the Game of War franchise did in 2015 — to build brand recognition for games such as Star Wars: Hunters and Harry Potter Puzzles & Spells, which was a breakout hit for Zynga in September 2020.  

“People have heard of Star Wars and Harry Potter, so we feel pretty good about those because the brands are already pretty big,” Kim explains. 

Mobile games, particularly those free to play, are usually impulse purchases that are instant-install and instant-tracking, according to Kim. He just has to target the right audiences.

For Harry Potter Puzzles & Spells, users might be regularly scrolling through their Facebook walls, and love puzzle games and crafting. High Heels, a game developed by Zynga subsidiary Rollic, sees players maneuver an increasingly challenging catwalk in high heels, and might be a better fit for a user from TikTok. 

“On TikTok we create experiences in our game that the CEO of Rollic Games coined ‘TikTalkable’ moments, where players can show off and inspire others to come into the game and experience their fun,” Kim says. 

It helps that Zynga has its own ad network, after its August acquisition of Chartboost, a mobile advertising and monetization platform. The acquisition furthers Kim and Gibeau’s resource-intensive vision for drawing new users to Zynga. 

“We have our own supply side, which makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year in advertising within our games,” Kim says. “So we wanted to buy our own network and make sure we’re working with the demand side really well.” 

The work has paid off over the last five years. The company has grown steadily since 2017, with Q3 revenue in 2021 hitting $705 million, significantly up from $503 million during the same period in 2020. In January 2022, console gaming company Take-Two Interactive announced it will acquire Zynga for $12.7 billion, a deal set to close in Q1 2023. Both Gibeau and Kim will remain at Zynga.

Innovating for the future
With a market as saturated as mobile games, a key part of Kim’s job is differentiating Zynga’s offerings from others in the market. 

Zynga’s flagship game Farmville alone has spawned numerous lookalike mobile games such as Hay Day, The Island Farm, Farmerama and Family Farm Seaside. 

For Kim, differentiation comes in the form of innovation. With FarmVille 3, that meant marketing the social aspect of the game, including joining guilds and communicating with people online toward the goal of building up your settlement and farming for resources.

“Someone else in our guild was driving everyone to do these different things, organizing people around winning sky races and guild events,” says Kim, who played the game extensively over Thanksgiving weekend after its launch in November. “You’re part of a family going after really fun things in a world that acts as a very tidy escape from the real world.” 

Innovation also means expanding platforms. In 2022, Zynga is launching Star Wars: Hunters in partnership with Lucasfilm Games as a cross-platform game that will be available on mobile and Nintendo Switch — a first for the company. 

To prepare for its first console game launch, Zynga is pulling from Kim and Gibeau’s experience at EA and taking it slow. 

“There is a high level of expectation of what Zynga can do in this space with the Star Wars intellectual property,” he says. “We want to absolutely blow away expectations by the time we launch the game.” 

The game is set to be soft launched globally on the App Store in early 2022, but has already debuted in Southeast Asia with much success in response to teaser trailers and marketing material. 

“We’ve already seen an incredible fandom being created with fanart and YouTube playthroughs,” Kim says. 

The evolution of social media and mobile platforms plays a large part in how Zynga connects with its users. 

Facebook, which renamed itself Meta amid controversy about its harmful effects on users, has been a close partner of Zynga since the company’s formation. Zynga is still a top advertiser on the platform and has worked with Facebook to bring a social messaging aspect to its games. 

But looking toward the future, Kim is hesitant to jump into the metaverse quite yet. 

“We’re believers of ubiquity across platforms, but we want to get to the largest addressable market and mobile devices provide that for us,” he says. “When it comes to metaverse, VR headsets and other devices that Facebook’s pushing in the marketplace, the largest addressable market is not there yet.”

This story first appeared on PRWeek US.

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