We humans are predictable primates. We smell food, we salivate. We see someone we’re attracted to, our bodies react. From an evolutionary perspective, most ingrained behaviors are founded on the principle of risk vs. reward. In other words, we want to get more out of something than we put in obtaining it. This principle has been a powerful driver in the evolution of life since we were nothing more than a group of self-replicating proteins languishing in primordial soup. Marketers have spent a lot of time and money discovering and manipulating the process that people use to determine risks and rewards.
We go through a nearly unconscious and repetitive pattern to determine whether or not the reward we crave is worth the investment we put into it. Behavioral psychologists identify it and marketers use it to achieve a variety of goals. First, we need to be made aware of the reward. Breaking through the clutter and the noise, the marketer disseminates information and media that will make you notice it. The second phase of the process is to consider the options available. Once the consumer has considered the options, they’re likely to make a decision. At this point, a purchase is made. The last phase attempts to retain the consumer in the marketing risk vs. reward loop to create a continual avenue to reach that consumer again.
No Time to Be Shy… Grabbing Your Attention
Arguably, getting you aware of a new game is probably the highest hurdle. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, unless energy is applied that overcomes that state. Making consumers aware of something new shares that same principle. People are familiar with the things they know. When new information is presented that references existing knowledge, it’s easier to recognize and process. New information needs to hit us around three to five times before our brains recognize that information as familiar.
The most consistent part of generating awareness is releasing just enough information to make you want more. The tease can be released in the form of a short new video, announced during one of the many industry events or leaked to some of the enthusiast press. The obvious problem with these strategies is that there has to be a significant investment or existing interest up front. You don’t get to walk on stage during the Microsoft press event during E3 unless you’ve already got a lot of weight behind you. Smaller game companies strive to tap into their social networks, create clever websites, videos and attention-grabbing media releases. Without a hook, the desire from both the press and the gaming public tends to falter.
Some of the more memorable efforts to make gamers aware of a new game have been Blizzard’s original World of Warcraft trailer, Gears of War 2‘s hauntingly memorable “Mad World” trailer and, on the indie front, PAX 2010 really caught people’s attention with trailers for games like Super Meat Boy and Plane Weaver. While each of these games was built with some solid attention to gameplay, the media grabbed the public’s eye, making them games to watch. While there are no rules to grabbing the attention of the gaming public and generating the initial awareness, without that exposure to the game, the marketing fails as it starts.
Influencing Which Game You Purchase: The Consideration Phase
Marketers know that consumers have many options and different pressures influencing their purchase decisions. Considering limited resources, should you get Call of Duty: Black Ops, or is Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood a more attractive option? Or maybe you’d be happier with a new hard drive for your Xbox 360 and one of those insanely sexy Tron themed controllers from PDP. Once a gamer is in the consideration phase, the marketer needs to communicate a lot of information as briefly as possible.
With the relatively uniform pricing of video games, one of the major factors of consideration is almost moot. I’ve even seen it dozens of times at GameStop; a customer walks in and wants to get a used copy of a newly released game. With the discount only around five measly bucks, over and over, they opt for the new copy. Within platforms and genres, there’s very little price competition. The game itself is the primary driver of purchase. At this point, the gamer’s been exposed to screenshots, multiple trailers, dev diaries and clever inserts in magazines. The gaming press has tracked the game’s progress, gained access to the creators, and there’s a mad rush to connect to the consumer in order to influence them.
There’s naturally an overlap between the awareness and the consideration phases. Not everyone’s as obsessed with the industry as we are… I know that I check about five to ten sites multiple times per day to scan the news, while my Twitter feed is churning bite sized content at me constantly. This overlap in consumer intent is one of the reasons why the media about the game that’s pumped out during this phase is about aspects that could drive purchase intent.
An example of this type of intent-based marketing can be found in the marketing cycle of a MMO. It’s clear that this genre of game attracts people from the casual to the core gamer. For this reason, the marketing efforts need to convey aspects such as crafting, story, exploration and character customization. Simultaneously, there’s a strong competitive community of gamers who play MMOs for the PvP, leader boards and high-end content. In terms of demographics in MMOs, the media and messaging needs to hit the right balance of casual expression and exploration based content as well as competitive high-end content.
For a look at how core gaming structures its media for intent, look at Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood‘s YouTube channel. There’s almost 90 videos loaded, from looks at multiplayer to story to dev diaries. Each video strives to communicate value to the right people at the right time of their decision making process.
Click the Button, Swipe the Card: The Acquisition Phase
Once the consumer starts leaning towards a decision, it’s time for the marketer to close the deal. The acquisition phase is one last push to the consumer that makes one option stand out from the others. This is the realm of what marketers call the “value add”. Sure, you could pre-order a game from either Amazon.com or GameStop, but Amazon will give you $10 off you next game purchase and GameStop will give you an exclusive in-game hat. This phase is not about the game, it’s about putting that extra bit of value that makes you jump.
The consideration phase is probably the most rational phase of the process. Yet as you pass from consideration to acquisition, you’re ready to buy something. Sometimes, waiting the few days to get it delivered is a bit too much to ask for, so you hop in your car and head off to the store. For the marketer, the acquisition phase is the closing argument; it’s finding that right bit of value that will convince you to make the decision immediately. For the consumer, the acquisition phase is about getting the game. For both, it’s about closure. This action is the culmination of the entire marketing campaign. It’s a process that’s tracked, tweaked and replicated hundreds upon hundreds of times per year.
You Got ‘Em Once, Go Get ‘Em Again: Retention/ Re-Marketing
Once you’ve made your decision and you’ve made your purchase, there’s still a hell of a lot of money to be made off of your commitment. Retention and re-marketing has the dual goal of keeping your attention focused on the company and their games and convincing you to make micro-transactions in the form of downloadable content, avatar perks, customizations and horse armor. At this phase of the process, community management comes into play.
You’ve bought the game, you’ve played it, you’ve spent time hunting for obscure achievements, you’ve started following the community manager on Twitter, and you’re still connected to their Facebook page. Retention is designed to keep you engaged. With a strong community, you’re likely to participate and return to the media outlets. With regular updates, you’re more likely to play the game again. As the company releases downloadable content, as a part of the community, you’re in the direct line to get that information. Secondary sales of DLC have proven to be quite profitable and companies are beginning to explore the boundaries of value with their content. Games schedule and pace their DLC releases to coincide with a dip in game activity, and community events and marketing continue to reach you throughout your experience.
However, from a marketing perspective, the retention phase is absolutely critical. I mentioned that the awareness phase is the most difficult hurdle, and it’s also one of the most expensive. The cost of delivering a message four to five times to the same person is staggering. The retention phase significantly cuts the cost of awareness to the consumer the next time there’s a message to distribute. The retention phase reduces the barriers between the marketer and the consumer, priming the consumer to enter the marketing loop all over again with the sequel. If the retention phase closes properly, the initial investment into the consumer could pay off time and time again by creating a loyal and aware consumer.
It’s All a Part of Our Nature
We humans are hard wired to look for value. We evaluate opportunities, weigh consequences and then we make decisions. We’re influenced by millions of years of evolution supported by constant examples of consumer decision making. Game marketing is unique in the massive variety of different types of media produced; the synchronized partnership between development, production and marketing; and the early adoption of new channels to market games. The good news is that even though marketers follow this phased approach nearly verbatim, gamers are savvy, skeptical and observant. Gamers can see through a lot of the immediately obvious marketing blathering and call us out on it. I’ve always believed that if you can convey value and distribute relevant content to a group as vociferous and opinionated as gamers, as long as you’re not afraid of getting viciously skewered occasionally, you can pretty much market to anyone.