Breaking The Wheel

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Game Marketing Strategy: Mapping Out Your Path to Success

Sun Tzu once said “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” In order for your tactical marketing decisions to be effective, they need to be coordinated around a central strategy. Your strategy is your guiding light for more than just ads. It impacts your target customers, your choice of platform and publisher, and how you respond to competition. In this post, I’ll walk you through the fundamentals of establishing a video game marketing strategy.

Video Game Marketing Strategy: Why It Matters

In order for individual game marketing efforts to be effective, they must be organized around a central strategy. And recall from Part 1 of this series: marketing is not just PR and sales. Marketing is the management of value creation. That includes game design, target audience, and your selection of platform and publisher. If you want effective marketing, your game design needs to be prioritized around the same strategy as your pricing, platform, advertising, and positioning decisions.

Effective marketing strategy is based on some very simple pillars:

  • What can we make that nobody else is making?
  • Who wants the thing we can make?
  • Who wants to help us sell the thing we make?
  • What are the environmental factors that might impact the thing we make?

By Reading This Post, You’ll Learn:

  • The two basic categories of game marketing strategy
  • The 5-C Framework, and how use it to develop a coherent and holistic game marketing strategy
  • What an optimal value proposition is and how to craft it

Don’t Fire and Forget

It’s important to recognize that strategy is fluid and iterative. Your video game marketing strategy is one large hypothesis about those four questions, and within that meta-hypothesis is a collection of smaller micro-hypotheses relating to your the individual tactical aspect of your marketing mix.

You will have hypotheses about the best channels to use for ads, the best way to position the product, and the best pricing strategy. As you test these hypotheses tactically, your observations may necessitate a change in the overall strategy. Maybe it means targeting a different customer base or working with different collaborators.

All of which is to say that, while you should take the time to think through your strategy and it’s tactical extensions before you get started, you should also be prepared to learn, adapt, and overcome.

Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

There are two basic methods for establishing a video game marketing strategy: top-down or bottom-up.

Top-Down

In a top-down strategy, you first find a market need and then design a game to fulfill that need. Maybe it’s a “white space” (a gap) in the current games on the market that you could fill. Is anybody making a post-apocalyptic, turn-based RPG for mobile? Or you can try to get a sense for gamers’ pain-points with what’s currently out there.

For instance, you can go through the reviews for popular games on Steam or Amazon and see if you can identify trends in the feedback. Are people voicing a consistent complaints about a game or genre? That gripe might represent an opportunity for feature design. You can (and should) also talk to gamers directly – your friends or folks in forums – and see what their complaints are. Or even use your own intuition to guide you.

I’ll cover this sort of marketing research in more depth in a later post, but the goal is never to ask people what they want. People, as the saying goes, don’t know what they want. But they do know what they like (and hate). Find out where the current market offerings are falling short.

Top-Down Pros and Cons

The pro of a top-down approach is that you are tailoring your design for a market opportunity. The approach is also useful for finding “first-mover” types of games – a game that is know for being the first in it’s category. More on that when I cover positioning in a subsequent post.

The con is that this approach is, for lack of a better term, a little less pure – you’re mixing art with commerce right off the bat. There is nothing unethical or immoral about this, as long as you are fulfilling marketing’s purpose of creating value for gamers. But the business-first approach might not be your cup of tea.

Bottom-Up

The alternative to the top-down approach is the bottom-up: starting with the game idea first. What can we make? What do we want to make? And then extrapolating a strategy from there: Who would want to buy it? Who would want to partner with us to sell it? What platform/s are the most appropriate? Is anyone making a game like this or a game that scratches the same itch?

Bottom-Up Pros and Cons

The pro of the bottom-up approach is that it’s driven by your creativity, instead of the market. The con is that you then need to retroactively fit a potentially square peg into the most amenable round hole.

Which to pick?

The choice is not good/bad or black/white. It’s a question of trade-offs, and the right trade-off is determined by your values as a person and a company. Choose the approach that feels most aligned with your values, and then optimize.


Resources that Informed and Influenced this Post

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Establishing a Game Marketing Strategy: The 5-C Framework

The framework I was trained to use is called the 5-C Framework, and it was established by Kellogg School of Management marketing professor Alexander Chernev in his book Strategic Marketing Management.

When considering this framework for your game marketing plan, I want to establish two pieces of supporting evidence. First off, Kellogg is considered the best marketing program in the world. Second, Chernev is one of the luminaries of Kellogg’s marketing department. He (literally) wrote the book on marketing strategy which is the backbone of the core marketing class every Kellogg student (including me) has to take. So I present this not as a neat academic concept but as the state of the art in the field of marketing.

The 5-C framework takes it’s name from the the five elements of a marketing strategy:

  • The Company (that’s you)
  • Customers (gamers)
  • Collaborators (publishers, platform holders)
  • Competitors (other studios)
  • Context (what’s happening in the world?)

The essence of the 5-C’s is examining value from the perspective of each C.

Company

What type of value do you want the game to generate for you and how will it create that value? Remember what I talked about in Part 1: value is not the same thing as money. If your preferred method of value creation is cash flows, that’s fine.

But your priority might be a different form of value. It might be establishing credibility or a brand for your studio. I might be creating goodwill with gamers or building relationships with publishers or platform holders. It is critical you determine which form of value you are chasing, because that will impact your decision-making.

If your main objective is cash flows, you may make different design and communication decisions than if your goal is credibility with gamers. Again, this is not a good-bad spectrum, but a dynamic of trade-offs and priorities. The earlier you establish your value priorities the easier it will be to make tough calls.

If you are facing an important decision, and one option prioritizes cash flows and another prioritizes credibility with gamers, the way to make a call is to pick the option that’s aligned with your value creation strategy.

Now, there will likely be several forms of value you want to capture. But you need to decide which one is on top of the pile, and what the stack rank of the pile is.

Customers

What type of value is your game going to deliver to gamers (or what value does your research tell you they want)? Is it user generated content? Or community? Discovery? Challenge? Depth? Again, there will likely be multiple forms of value that gamers want, but you need to prioritize because your priorities will dictate your actions. If you have competing features, and one enhances challenge while the nther supports community, the value priorities you are trying to create for gamers should be the deciding factor.

Collaborators

You will generally need the help of other organizations to sell you game. So what forms of value would be attractive to them? Cash flows are always nice, but don’t limit yourself: think strategically. Publishers might be looking for a more diverse array of games to balance their slates. Or they may need a game of a specific genre to make inroads with a new market of gamers. Or maybe they have a release window that’s too sparse.

You can also create strategic value for platform holders. Sony might want a game that balances out a Microsoft exclusive. Valve or Oculus might be looking for more exclusives to establish themselves as the premier VR destination.

The more strategic value you can create for your collaborators, the better negotiating leverage you have to capture more of your own desired forms of value.

Competitors

Simply put, what forms of value you are your prospective competitors already creating for gamers and prospective collaborators? Your goal should be to generate value that other games are ignoring (at least in your launch window) and de-prioritize forms of value that other games are already delivering.

Context

What events or trends do you need to account for? VR is a big one, as is AR. Console generation launches, economic conditions, the emergence of mobile, the drastic price cuts for major engines like Unreal. All of these events represent environmental factors for which your strategy should account. Do you want to jump on the VR bandwagon? Should you pick an engine because it’s pricing model is most conducive to your production budget? Do you want to ride the wave or buck the trend?

Remember that while trends mean excitement and attention, they also often mean that other market segments are likely under-served. The prevalence of mass-market, cinematic titles created a hole that Dark Souls happily filled. The PC gaming boom left Mac-based gamers wide open for Marathon. The over-whelming popularity of 1st-Person shooters in the wake of Halo made Gears of War‘s cover-based shooting a revelation.

Iteration and Interaction

A critical element of the 5-Cs model to understand is that it’s not a linear process. You don’t just run through the five check-boxes. Your desired form of value creation influences your choice of customers and collaborators (and by extension, competitors). But your choice of customers influences what forms of value you can capture, who your competitors are, and what collaborators you should work with. And the same is true for your collaborators.

Your 5-Cs analysis will be different on a VR platform than it will be on a console, and both would be different what it would be for mobile. And context is subjective to all four of the other factors (and vice-versa).

So, don’t think of this as a set-in-stone decision or a series of multiple-choice questions. You need to think through how your choice for any one C impacts the other 4:

How does......the Company influence:...the Customer influence:...the Collaborator influence:...the Competitor influence:...the Context influence:
The CompanyWhat forms of value can this customer provide me?What forms of value will this collaborator be willing to share with me?Are these competitors already capturing the form of value I want?What events are impacting me?
The CustomerWho would find value in this game?What forms of value does this collaborator offer to the customer?What customer are my competitors not reaching or satisfying?What events are impacting the customer?
The CollaboratorWho would receive value helping me sell this game?What forms of value can this customer provide potential collaborators?What collaborator are my competitors not partnering with?What events are impacting the collaborator?
The CompetitorWho is my competitor?What forms of value for this customer are competitors already serving?What forms of value is the collaborator already receiving from competitors?What events are impacting my competitors?
The ContextHow should I respond to current events?How is this customer responding to current events?How is this collaborator responding to current events?What are my competitors' reactions to current events?

At a high level, marketing is the effort to provide something that is both valuable and unique. Valuable so that you can capture your own desired forms of value in return. Unique so that you don’t have to compete with anyone else. So, in using this chart, your goals is to identify a combination of customers and collaborators that allow to develop offerings that are valuable within the current context, and in ways not already provided by the competition.

Optimal Value Proposition

The end goal of this exercise is to establish what Chernev calls an “optimal value proposition”. By understanding the openings and the opportunities in the market, you can develop a value proposition that (again hypothetically) creates the maximum possible value for your company, your customers, and your collaborators. There is an important dynamic to acknowledge here: the optimal value proposition, while it creates the most value overall, might create less value for you than a different configuration of the 5-C’s.

In other words, you might have to claim less value for yourself in order for your collaborators and customers to claim more and have a greater joint value creation. Again, this should not be viewed as good/bad, but as yet another trade-off. Do you want to pick the configuration that creates the most value for you, or the most value overall? And, once again, this is a question of values and priorities.

Your Target Customer is the Lynch Pin

Your ideal target customers is the one for whom the confluence of the other four C’s creates the best optimal value proposition. IE, a target who:

  • Creates the most value for you
  • Creates the most value for your collaborators (who in turn will provide value to you)
  • Is receiving little value from your competitors and/or who creates the least value for competitors
  • Who is positioned, contextually to provide value to you

Why is Value so Crucial?

Again, let’s return to the definition of marketing we established in Part 1 (courtesy of Chernev):  “Marketing is the art and science of creating value by designing and managing successful exchanges.” Value is the name of the game in marketing. It’s everything.

If you understand the form, or forms, of  value you are trying to deliver and capture, you can better establish your development pillars and prioritize efforts and expenditures. You can also better manage communications: if you know what your customers and collaborators want, you can focus your messaging on those forms of value.


Further Reading If you Enjoyed This Post

Marketing Games: Sun Tzu and the Fine Art of Succeeding Before You Begin

Competitive Advantage and the Productivity Frontier: Why Dark Souls is the Ikea of Video Games

Five-Forces Analysis has Grim Tidings for Free-To-Play on Mobile


No Game Marketing Plan Survives Contact With The Enemy

Again, your video game marketing strategy boils down to a hypothesis: this approach to selling my game will create value. As with all hypotheses, you need to accept that yours may be wrong. Expect to iterate and refine every aspect of your strategy as you go.

Find ways to test your hypotheses by talking to gamers, play-testing your ideas, meeting with and paying attention to collaborators and keeping an eye on your competitors. Iterate, adapt, and overcome.

In the next post, I’m going to show you how to use a “white space analysis” to find gaps in the market and make your game stand out. So click the link to read on!

In the meantime, got any good examples of a great marketing strategy behind a game? Tell me about it in the comments!


Key Takeaways

  • To maximize the effectiveness of a marketing campaign, all of the tactical activities need to be organized around a central strategy
  • Strategies can be top-down (market-based) or bottom-up (product based)
  • The framework for analyzing a market in order to craft a strategy is the 5-C framework
  • The 5-Cs are Company, Customer, Collaborator, Competitor, and Context
  • It’s important to understand that the 5-Cs all impact each other
  • The goal of a marketing strategy is to establish an optimal value proposition: a product that maximizes value for you, your customers, and you collaborators
  • Strategies need to be fluid and observation drive. A strategy should be treated as a hypothesis to be tested, not as stone tablets from on high

Click Here To Read The Next Post In The Series!

Return to Video Game Marketing table of contents

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“Game Marketing Strategy: Mapping Out Your Path to Success” by Justin Fischer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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