Timeless communication lessons we can all learn from Pokémon GO

This is NOT just another opportunistic Pokémon GO blog post.

By Kim Farrow

Three weeks ago, the world as we know it was changed in a tidal wave of nostalgia.

It’s started with the release of a free app called “Pokémon GO” – a mobile augmented reality game based on the franchise that took over the world in the 1990s.

You’ve heard of it, right?

Since the game’s July 6th, 2016 release, Pokémon GO has taken the internet (and the physical world) by storm. According to OMD EMEA, “total shares of ‘Pokémon GO’ online content rose by 535% in a four day period.”

In-person events, including player meet-ups, lure parties, and city-wide hunts, are cropping up everywhere. On the local level, an event in downtown Grand Rapids drew the interest of several thousand people (including myself).

And if you’ve been on LinkedIn or Twitter in the past three weeks, you’ve no doubt seen at least 20 different articles about how Pokémon Go applies to marketing/business.

A “viral sensation” in every sense of the term, Pokémon GO is a hot topic for those looking to grow their business through content marketing. Articles abound with practical tips for small businesses to drive more foot traffic through their locations, case studies of businesses who have found success in “Promokemon Go-ing” (can we please coin this term?), and analyses that seek to explain the game’s rampant success.

With that in mind, this blog post isn’t just our attempt to join in the hype. Instead, we wanted to present our observations of the Pokémon GO phenomenon with a legitimate, interesting perspective, focusing on the implications it has on communication as a whole.

Indeed, the short life of Pokémon GO serves as an interesting look into the inner workings of our society. So here goes… These are five lessons we’ve learned since the release of PokemonGo, and how communicators everywhere can apply these principles.

  • Listening to your audience is key.

    Many people don’t realize that Pokémon GO was created in response to one thing: people asking for it. It started as an April Fools’ joke by Google and the Pokémon Company, in which Google released a video teasing the Google Maps: Pokémon Challenge. The video portrayed prospective Google Pokémon masters covering treacherous terrain to search of Pokémon in the real world through augmented reality. Some internet users who saw the video suggested that Nintendo team up with Niantic, who had released an augmented reality game called Ingress in 2013, to make the game in the video a reality. Niantic did the best thing it could have done in response: accepted the challenge.

    The history after that is somewhat convoluted, but the key takeaway here is simple: Nintendo and Niantic listened to their audience, and now they’re reaping the benefits in the form of an app with more downloads than Tinder and more daily active users than Twitter. That’s a pretty big deal.

    So how can communicators listen to their audiences?
    As marketers, it can be tempting to want to control the conversation and do all the talking. But it’s important to remember that communication in any relationship, especially between a business and a consumer, MUST be two-way.

    Consumers are empowered more than ever before to share what they want and expect from brands, through social media, peer review sites, forums, and personal blogs. If you work for a large brand, consider investing in media monitoring software, so you can stay on top of what people are saying about you online at all times. Tools like Mention crawl the web and email you a Google-like list of search results that include your business name or keyword. Google Alerts is a similar tool that costs nothing to use.

    If you’re a smaller business, don’t be afraid to ask your customers what they want. Use tools like social media polls and Survey Monkey to ask how you can better serve your customers, and you may find new avenues you hadn’t thought about before.

    As you’re seeking feedback, remember to stay true to your brand and mission. Be sure to vet ideas through internal teams and/or external focus groups before you change your strategic plan altogether.

  • Nostalgia wins.

    This idea is not really new or ground-breaking. Looking at Hollywood today, it’s obvious that the entertainment industry has learned how to tap into nostalgia – from last year’s long-awaited Star Wars sequel to the newly-released Ghostbusters reboot (which, because of nostalgia for the original, was not generally well-received).It’s this same kind of nostalgia that plays a huge role in the success of Pokémon GO.

    As a child of the 90s, I grew up surrounded by all things Pokémon – the games, the trading cards, and the animated TV show. For me and many of my peers, the mention of Pokémon conjures thoughts of a world before 9/11, recess, and lazy after-school hangouts. These positive associations mean the Pokémon name inspires happiness for me, even though I’d never played the games myself.

    In many cases, nostalgia can work to build excitement around products or brands – and often works hand-in-hand with listening to your audiences. General Mills won over many lapsed customers when they brought back French Toast Crunch in December 2014, and Coca-Cola did the same with Surge, a (disturbingly green) lemon-lime soda, in September last year. Both brands brought back their retired products in response to requests from their customers, and it has worked to their benefit.

    So how can communicators use nostalgia in their messages?
    According to Michael Schein, contributor at, “Nostalgia is, at its core, a deep longing for and connection with something bigger than ourselves.”

    Communicators can tap into that longing by creating communities around the “good old days” – through design, language, and general themes. Perhaps your brand doesn’t have something as explicitly nostalgic as Pokémon, Surge, or French Toast Crunch, but you can home in on what makes those things so special to consumers and draw inspiration in your communications.

    Use retro-style design in your ads, on packaging, and online. Take advantage of #ThrowbackThursday on Twitter and Instagram, either calling back to your brand’s history or using design elements from different decades.

    Find out how certain things from the past make your audience feel, then take those themes and translate them into a new product, ad copy, content marketing, or design.

    There are two important things to remember when integrating nostalgia into your strategy:

    1. Always, always, ALWAYS consider your audience. What were some aspects of pop culture that helped define their childhoods? By choosing to appeal to one generation, will you alienate a huge portion of your audience?
    2. Make the connections as authentic as possible. Nostalgia that seems forced or opportunistic may turn people off toward your brand, rather than endearing it.
  • Experience is everything.

    According to data from Taykey, a global analytics firm, 21% of Pokémon GO users are ages 13-17, and 35% are ages 35 and older. This means that while Millennials (age 18-34) account for a huge portion of users, those who did not grow up playing/watching Pokémon make up more than half of all users. So what is driving people to it, if not nostalgia? We’d argue the case for user experience.Nostalgia is important to rallying a fan-base, but it seems that experience is king.

    Pokémon GO offered users a different experience than most have ever had with a game. While not the first time a mobile game has used augmented reality (remember, Niantic first release Ingress in 2013), it is the first time it has taken this kind of scope. Where many video games tie someone to their gaming console, Pokémon GO requires that people get out and explore the world around them.

    Contrary to what many would guess, a person staring down at their cell phone suddenly became an invitation to chat – about the Pokémon that were nearby, the Pokéstops available, and which of the three teams that person had chosen.

    Despite issues with overloaded servers, Pokémon GO continues to deliver players with a fun, unique, and generally positive experience. This is what keeps people coming back to it – and some people (like my husband) talking about it constantly.

    So how can businesses create awesome experiences for their audiences?
    Be creative about the experience you provide your customers – when they interact with your sales team, stop by your physical store, or visit your website.

    Think about your audiences’ every day experiences – how can your business enhance them? How can you delight your customers? Add something new and exciting outside of their everyday monotonies?

    For inspiration, let’s look at two brands that are all about providing an experience for their customers:

    • Starbucks – Starbucks’ brand as the “third place” after work and home is inspiration for the experience they provide to all who walk through their doors. Comfy chairs, large tables, and an open, homey layout all contribute to what customers feel while they’re there.
    • American Girl ® – Between the books, movies, and huge physical stores, American Girl ® has delivered on customer experience for children and families. American Girl ® dolls are much more than dolls – they come with a story, complete customization, and a fun shopping experience.

    Whether you’re selling a product, service, or even entertainment, your business has the opportunity to provide customers with an exciting, unique experience. Consider your brand and get creative with how you turn typical transactions into delightful interactions.

    Finally, remember that people like to talk about their experiences with brands – good or bad. How can you make sure you’re always providing something good for them to talk about?

  • There will always be naysayers.

    As with anything that takes the internet by storm, Pokémon GO has its fair share of haters.The biggest criticism people seem to have about Pokémon GO is that playing it doesn’t add “real value” to the world (although I’d argue the same point for most entertainment). Other complaints include the dangers of playing while driving, players’ willingness to trespass to catch a Pokémon, and a general lack of attention to surroundings. Additionally, many have taken issue with the game’s intrusive privacy policy, which originally allowed read and write access to users’ Google accounts (Google has since issued a fix for this).

    Complaints about Pokémon GO seem to prove one point we’ve seen time and time again: no matter how popular a brand/product becomes, they will have people who don’t agree.

    So how can brands cope in the face of naysayers?
    For one, it’s important to remember that your brand may not be for everyone.

    Of course, there is validity to consumer complaints and your business should never seek to do harm. But it’s important to stay true to your company’s vision and mission, even if some people don’t like or simply don’t care about what you have to offer.

    Take, for example, Voodoo Doughnut. Their branding is somewhat provocative; they are not afraid to use expletives or make a raunchy joke. These are traits that can certainly turn some people away from their brand – but they also inspire fierce loyalty from other customers.

    So what does that mean for your business? For one, know what your brand stands for. Your brand may be committed to philanthropy, but also alright with dropping a few f-bombs here and there. You’ll need self-assuredness and consistency to overcome any complaints people have about these brand traits and, conversely, to draw support from people who like what you’re doing.

    Second, always be open to listening to both customer praise and complaints. Work with your leadership team to determine which complaints need to be addressed and resolved, and which are coming from people outside of your audience.

    Again, you’ll want to ensure your business practices are morally and legally sound, but knowing who you are can help build loyal fan-bases who will cancel out any noise from your haters.

  • Technology does not equal the demise of human-to-human interaction.

    For years, experts have predicted that technology would render younger generations unable to interact with one another face-to-face. And I see some truth in this statement. With advancements like email, texting, social media, and Snapchat, people can still keep up with their friends without actually needing to talk. One friend recently lamented to me how her sister, a high school freshman, sits in the same room as friends sending them texts and Snaps, rather than talking.But Pokémon GO has proven that this is not always the case. On the contrary, technology can be a way to facilitate conversation. The Grand Rapids Pokémon hunt I mentioned earlier drew at least 5,000 people to a downtown center on a Friday night, and everywhere I turned, I could see people talking; groups of friends, new acquaintances, and complete strangers all interacting face-to-face – all because of technology.

    In the same way, technology like Skype allows people to “see” and talk to one another from across the world. Internet dating gives people the opportunity to find their soulmate from different states or continents. Sites like allow like-minded folks to find people who are geographically close to them to pursue their interests together.

    While technology has made it easier for us to communicate without actually interacting, it also offers boundless potential to connect with other humans in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

    So how can communicators use technology for better human interactions?
    The key takeaway for communicators here is simple: just because we don’t HAVE to interact with one another, it doesn’t mean we don’t WANT to.

    Granted, there are probably some April Ludgates in the world who welcome the excuse to never talk to anyone but, for most, human interaction is necessary.

    As a business, don’t rely on technology to remove the humanity from your communications. Instead, think about how it can help you reach your audiences in more personal, more authentic ways.

    Maybe you can connect fans of your brand/products through social media. Perhaps you can host in-person events to encourage your employees to chat with customers face-to-face. Or maybe you can partner with nearby businesses to create an app that rewards people for discovering the area around your location.

    One SaaS provider for Reach hosted an in-person event to provide additional training, then held breakout sessions where users from all over the state could network and share ideas. While they could have just as easily held the event as a webinar, their choice to bring people together strengthened my relationship with their brand, and helped me appreciate the people who are working behind the scenes to make my experience the best it can be.

    Consider how you can take this same creative approach in your own interactions with customers and the experiences you provide.


There you have it. These are five major observations we’ve made in the wake of Pokémon GO, and our thoughts on how businesses can put them to work.

Did we miss anything? Do you disagree with any of these? Let us know in the comments below! 

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