There is a single radical shift facing marketers and developers in the emerging digital game landscape. In the first article we covered opportunities in digital games and evidence that a lack of a new approach to publishing them is hindering growth. One shortcoming could be that not everyone recognizes this radical shift. It’s that many games in the digital distribution era are more akin to services than products, and that marketing a service has a set of different fundamentals.
The shift is very similar to when television emerged, adding to Hollywood’s annual slate of products a persistent service for filmed entertainment.
From the onset, it was apparent to TV networks that they would have to approach content development and marketing very differently than film. Their product was free to consume, with profit reliant on sponsors and advertisers. This gave a uniquely important role to audience analytics, which provided the means for broadcasters to prove the value of content. There was too much at stake for any room for error, and advertisers of powerful companies holding the money end of the stick. It didn’t take long for the industry to develop a single standard for analytics using Nielson ratings.
The ratings were projected estimates, yet they gave broadcasters a dramatic new tool to quantify viewership and thus set pricing for advertisers. Suddenly there was a need for mathematicians in the entertainment industry to do more than budget and count money. Statistics were influencing what got made, what got canceled, and how shows were packaged and promoted.
As shows came and went at a brisk pace, the networks needed some sense of consistency to their business. They needed a strategy for building audiences continuously while maintaining those they had the best they could. Nielsen was a good source of consumer research. Outside of development, it also helped networks measure how their service rated and made adjustments.
To build a following, however, these media companies had to approach marketing the same way Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Ivory Soap were building loyal customer bases. Their marketing strategy revolved around branding. Performers, producers, programs, even the network as a whole were given personas. Tuning in was akin to joining their community. Tune out and you were bound to miss something. It’s why even today TV networks quite explicitly project a feeling of belonging, presenting shows and their stars as your extended social group.
That’s what it took for TV to attract a persistent stream of customers. To a game company or product in the digital marketplace that needs a persistent player base, some of the same fundamentals apply to you. It’s part of being a game publisher 2.0.
Forget Nielsen and its estimation. We have at our disposal enormous amounts of granular data on player behavior. We can track people all the way through the funnel, from awareness to purchase. More remarkably, for some games that means from impression to click to registration through download, log in and first in-game purchase. This allows us to make informed decisions on what content to make, how to price it, how to sell it, even how to promote it more efficiently.
As a career game marketer, once I began working on digital games, I was amazed how access to all of this data immediately changed the way I made decisions. In the console days of “fire and forget” marketing, we made educated guesses on messaging and placement and hoped it worked when we fired the product onto shelves for a few weeks.
With digital games, marketing spend and execution became a gradual exercise. I could roll out a campaign then test alternative multivariate creative or shift spend from one outlet to another, and use that agility to constantly maximize key performance indicators (KPI). I was always mindful of how much it was costing me to get someone into the game, otherwise known as cost per acquisition (CPA).
To have data like this to support every decision is a powerful drug. For me, it drove the desire to reduce CPA to as low as possible. That became my primary KPI. Seeing direct response to my marketing and employing different tactics to react to it brought out my inner Billy Mays. Acquiring users became a scientific exercise.
Looking back to the first few years of this kind of execution, I can now say it’s too narrow a view on marketing. Tactics driven by analytics alone, whether DR efforts or media referral plans, do not provide value to potential customers in the way the product is being marketed.
Start with branding. So many digital games are presented as commodities with such little personal attachment. It’s why people easily decide to move on to the next one with very little emotional attachment. If a player downloads your game because of an offer for a $25 free starter pack, and the game is free in the first place, what have you done to encourage them to stay? Unless the game is delivering an exceptionally engaging experience, the next game that offers them a free starter pack is all it takes for them to jump ship.
We need to give our potential customers a sense of ownership, the feeling that they are appreciated, that they are wanted. Making an emotional connection requires thinking of them as people, not consumers. Simply changing the way you talk about them is a good first step. Words such as “acquisition” and “discoverability” have a side effect in that they dehumanize what we do. At the end of the day we are selling entertainment, not Sham Wows.
We also need to entertain them in our marketing so that they believe us when we say our product or service is entertaining. And if we want them to stick around, then we need to empower them, engage them, listen and respond.
It goes farther for games as service-based products. For these games, there is no single launch towards which you build as big an audience as possible. All of the above begins in the lead-up to launch but then continues afterwards. The strategy needs to be consistent communications through a variety of channels, usually with the goal of growing the game’s player base gradually. Launch is not the window out for these games, it’s the door in.
The strategy also needs to surround the consumer via all appropriate channels. The importance of adding layers to the marketing message has never been more critical. Key is proper utilization of the three tiers of media: paid media, a.k.a. ads, owned media, which can be your game and its assets, such as a trailer, and earned media, whether PR or social. In the world of service marketing, the ability to combine communications through these multiple channels into one integrated campaign takes discipline, guts and planning.
Layered over all of this is building appeal with longevity in mind, again much more important for service marketing. Brand affinity is critical for this. Continuing from our television analogy, digital games can look to current great entertainment service brands such as HBO or Hulu for cues. These companies are constantly looking at metrics and trying to acquire, monetize and retain users. At the same time they build their brands as quality entertainment providers, and foster loyalty and a sense of community around their products.
Enough theories and anecdotes. Starting with the next article, we’ll look at companies who get it. We’ll delve into case studies for mobile, PC and social games from people who are blazing the trail into this new digital landscape. These are game makers who effectively executed campaigns with well thought out “performance-based” marketing that also factored in branding and customer loyalty.
Steve Fowler is a thirteen year veteran of the interactive entertainment industry. He is responsible for the brand identity and launch of the Halo franchise at Microsoft Corporation, Inc., and has held marketing and business development roles at Interplay, Sega Sammy Holdings, Inc., Square Enix, Inc., and Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. He is the chief architect of the one of its kind annual industry conference the [a]list summit, and has been incubating new digital game publisher [a] list games internally at Ayzenberg Group for the past year. For more information on [a]list games, visit www.alistgames.com.