AmEx to Offer a Prepaid Debit Card That Rewards Users in FarmVille Cash

American Express and Zynga are rolling out a rewards program today that will allow players to earn virtual currency when they spend money in the real world.

FarmVille fans willing to jump through a number of hoops, including signing up for a Zynga-branded prepaid card from American Express, will earn in-game currency, similarly to how consumers earn free airline miles for every dollar spent on an airline-issued credit card.

The rewards program will first roll out in Zynga’s FarmVille game and then will expand to CityVille, CastleVille and other titles over time.

The partnership is smart for American Express since it is working hard to promote Serve, its alternative payment service that is targeting a wider demographic that goes beyond its core business user.

“It opens up tremendous opportunities to address segments of the market that we weren’t able to address with traditional credit or charge products, including the youth or underserved markets,” said Dan Schulman, American Express’s President of Enterprise Growth.

By partnering with Zynga, American Express will be able to pitch the card to a lot of new users.

The two companies started implementing the program five days ago, by offering FarmVille players the chance to visit a Serve-branded farm, where they can earn a virtual tiger. In less than a week, Schulman reports that already 500,000 people have “liked” Serve and have received the tiger.

While FarmVille is one of Zynga’s older properties, it is still one of its most popular, attracting 4.5 million unique users a day.

As I said earlier, it takes a number of steps to sign up.

First, FarmVille fans who visit the Serve farm will be prompted to plant a virtual Serve Money Tree on their farm. Then, they can register to receive a Zynga Serve co-branded prepaid card in the mail. Next, they’ll have to link the card to a bank account, debit card, credit card or cash using a GreenDot MoneyPak.

Only when all the steps are completed will they then be able to use the Serve card anywhere American Express is accepted.

Initially, American Express will reward a consumer’s first five purchases of $25 or more, but over time it expects to expand the program.

Starting later this year, Schulman said the Zynga Serve Rewards program will be able to link to deals inside of the game that can be redeemed in person. For instance, Starbucks could award consumers who have planted coffee crops a chance to redeem a coupon inside the store. Because the offer is linked to the Serve card, the discount will be redeemed automatically and consumers won’t have to remember to print out the coupon.

“It’s a closed loop for Zynga players,” Schulman said. “It’s so very different than what anyone else has done.”

Zynga’s CMO Jeff Karp said the program is not replacing the company’s current rewards program, but rather represents an extension of it. “Our goal is to build and scale the blurring of the lines between the virtual world and the physical world,” he said.

He compared it to other promotions that Zynga has done where it worked with brands, such as 7-11 and Frito Lay.

He said during those promotions, consumers were able to purchase bags of chips or other items, which had codes that could be redeemed inside FarmVille or other games. In those deals, consumers were obviously able to make the mental leap from buying something in the physical world to redeeming credits in the virtual world. Karp said the promotions experienced a redemption rate that was five to 10 times industry averages.

“What’s appealing to these brands is our 292 million monthly uniques, which is providing them with the reach of TV with the effectiveness of online and gaming,” he said.

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