Pokémon Go Takes Over Campus

It’s been over a month since Pokémon Go was released in the US, and its creator, Niantic, has fixed most of the server glitches and launched the game in several more continents. The traffic seems to have leveled off at around 22 million users. Whether you love it because it brings people together or hate it because it creates a crowd, the game is likely to stay here for the next few months—or until a harsh winter makes these walking zombies reconsider venturing outdoors.

The success of Pokémon Go is likely to be replicated with other game developers and strong franchises (think Harry Potter), but what’s important to know is how your marketing department can leverage this technology when it goes viral.


How One University Did It

We talked with creative director Anna Lloyd Franks and digital media specialist Shibli Rahman from the Digital Media office at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to learn how they pulled off a Pokémon event in just a few days.

Friday, July 8

Anna and Shibli noticed the Pokémon Go craze sweeping campus. Students were glued to their smartphones more than usual.

Tuesday, July 12

Anna and Shibli gathered their team and brainstormed on how to take advantage of Pokémon Go’s popularity. Their top goal: promote UAB’s visibility and engagement in the local community.

The digital media team decided to send a “Pokémon Go on the Green #UABGO” letter to staff, detailing how each unit could contribute to the event using leftover UAB promotional items. They outlined the benefits if everyone contributed and participated in the event. They also emphasized that the event was not to promote digital media but to promote UAB as a whole, and they soon received positive responses from the admissions office, alumni association, student affairs, campus radio, and others. As a side benefit, these letters also worked to promote the event through word of mouth.

Since UAB is still a relatively new campus, they’re still defining their campus culture and how the institution fits with the Birmingham community. The main goal of the event was to invite the community to explore the campus and for UAB to show how they can be good neighbors.

Volunteers handmade some Pokémon gym badges and trainer hats (even for the dogs!) and baked cookies that looked like Poké balls. They planned to set up tents near the Poké stops and to deploy “lures” to attract Pokémon. Lures last for 30 minutes and create a feeding frenzy for the Pokémon, which in turn attract the players (often referred to as Pokémon trainers).

Once a plan was in place and the resources allocated, it was time to promote the event. The digital media team wanted the event to feel authentic—something that came from the students for the students, instead of a campus administrator appropriating a symbol of the students’ generation.

Thursday, July 14

Two days later, on July 14, the team coordinated with the UAB Student Group to promote the event on their social media accounts (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram).


Gotta Catch ‘Em All

Friday, July 15

On the day of the event, the team expected maybe a few dozen to a hundred trainers to show up for the event. To shield against the harsh Alabama sun, the team set up eight tents around the campus green and the Dragon Topiary, which was a Pokémon Gym. The team purchased 32 lures to deploy at each of those tents so the event would last two hours.

The turnout was phenomenal, with 200–300 people attending, including two large groups of recruits visiting campus for either a summer camp or a high school visit. The event also attracted students, staff, faculty, and alumni. Even a high school student pitched in and helped with the event by working at one of the tents. Visitors to the tents expected a “sell” from the volunteers but were pleasantly surprised to learn that UAB was simply giving back to the community and being a good neighbor.


The Net Results and How UAB Got Them

  • A better image for UAB by providing a safe and welcoming environment on campus
  • At a total cost of roughly $30 (32 lures is about 2,720 Pokécoins)
  • Donation of most items
  • Eager volunteers
  • 300 campus visitors

The key to this event’s success was the speed in which the digital team acted to take advantage of the game’s popularity. The game launched in the US on July 6, and the digital media team caught wind of it on July 8. Within a week, they organized the event, promoted it, and held the event on July 15.


Pokémon’s Future on Campus

Other institutions have integrated the game into their courses—such as Fresno City College with their PE-6 class (walking), and the University of Idaho’s “Pop Culture Games” course. Others, such as Cornell College, use the game to introduce the campus environment to incoming freshman students to help them adjust.

The main takeaway is that the digital media team knew Pokémon Go would be popular because the franchise has been around for years, and that the way the augmented reality technology is used would be novel. They also knew that if they went through the administrative channels, committees, and other time-consuming hurdles, they would lose this opportunity to sound authentic and to connect with their community.

When asked if the digital team will do something like this again, Anna and Shibli said they would consider it if the game continues to be popular. So what should you do next time a new game or technology rolls around in your backyard? Trust the people who are close to the students and understand their motivations. Not everything has the luxury of waiting for a committee decision or a focus group result.

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