One of the most difficult things for marketers to deal with is watching their carefully crafted messages and campaigns try to survive contact with the audience. Prior to a marketing launch, there’s a lot of work that goes into creating the message, the press release, the imagery and the email to gaming outlets. Once the send button is clicked, there’s an immediate, but futile, dash to the sent email folder to make sure, one last time, everything was perfect. Released into the wild, that news item is subject to forces beyond the marketer’s control. The savage gamer community comes out of the woodwork to pick apart every word, every image and every perceived implication. These people descend to rip apart your marketing like birds of prey at a Tibetan sky burial. These people are the trolls, the haters and the flame war generals. Their merciless attacks on your work are an essential part of the marketing ecosystem and I absolutely love them.
Understanding Trolls Doesn’t Mean Supporting Them
As always, there’s going to be some context that surrounds my statement. As a part of a community, trolls create an environment of paranoia, defensiveness and aggression. Any marketer who willfully incites or encourages troll activity needs to understand that communities are not data points; they’re people. Feeding trolls ultimately leads to a disintegration of community, increased abuse reports and an inevitable intervention from the ban-hammer. Yet, as these trolls are a part of the gaming culture and conversation, they can give the marketer valuable insight into the competition and the blunt truth about the product.
Surviving Contact with the Enemy: The Demographics of a Troll
There are several types of trolls, haters and flame-war generals, each having their own distinct characteristics.
These are the ones who want to destroy and they toss thermal detonators into the conversation just to watch it burn. They’re armed with arguments that fixate on a particular aspect of the marketing and monosyllabically bludgeon it to a pulp. They tend to aggressively follow the thread to see the reactions they provoke, then they drop a few more. They cause a lot of collateral damage in the community simply for “the lulz”.
Armed with precise information on the inner workings of technology, they’ll use jargon laden statements to make a point. They’ll make arguments measured in milliseconds, frame-rates and pixels. However, what makes them trolls is that they’re measuring the world in binary. The product is either good or it’s bad. If you enjoy a game or a piece of technology that’s obviously inferior, you’re wrong and deserve to be corrected.
Skepticism when confronted with marketing is healthy. Gamers can smell marketing spin a mile away but the skeptical troll is different. They’ll make a bold statement and when you counter it, they require you to produce a dissertation laden with annotations to make them budge . They shift the burden of proof to you, requiring extraordinary evidence. If you fail to provide the evidence they demand, the skeptical troll declares victory.
The Brand Loyalists:
“Bioware can do no wrong.” A discussion with a brand loyalist troll is infuriating because their belief in a brand trumps all evidence. For example, when Bioware was marketing Dragon Age: Origins, their trailers had music that took me out of the moment. In an otherwise amazing game, I dreaded that music each time a new trailer was released. Yet, in conversations with a Bioware brand loyalist, they told me that the way I felt about the music was wrong. If Bioware can do no wrong, then I am wrong; case closed.
Fanboys are different than the brand loyalists. Fanboys see critical statements as hard evidence of someone else’s fanboy-ism. Each gaming console has some amazingly unique and useful aspects, both in technology and design. Yet each one also has characteristics that are infuriating and stupid. If I praised Xbox Live’s user interface and said it’s superior to the Wii’s, a Wii fanboy will accuse me of being a Microsoft fanboy.
Understanding the Hater’s Place in the Marketing Ecosystem
Again, while trolls are ultimately a destructive force in a community, they’re easily identified. Once I start seeing the seeds of a flame war being planted, I immediately start collecting data. It’s like dragging a shark onto a boat, tagging it, then releasing it. Sure, it’s a wild animal that could potentially rip you in half, but once identified and counted, the information captured is valuable and usable. Like tagging sharks, you don’t have to tag all of them, just a good sample size.
First, I count the trolls and assign types to them. I then create a Google alert with the username and the keyword of the game. I can then follow that troll across networks to track their rants. The daily alert will track my game’s reputation, exposing me to new forums, sites and networks, which allows me to identify communities that are supportive and communities that are hostile. Sure, it’s a little like stalking, but in marketing, if I don’t know what the conversations are about, I’ll always sound like an idiot when I jump in ignorantly.
If I find that there’s a high percentage of Anarchist-Trolls, I look to see the comments that follow it. It’s similar to politics, Anarchist-Trolls activate the base, they stimulate conversation and you can measure the relative size of your fan base by the arguments against these trolls.
Techno-Trolls are the best types. They’ll scour obscure corners of the web to post new technologies that may be unknown to you to prove that your game sucks. They’ll display their encyclopedic knowledge of past games that potentially could have the same flaws. Lastly, they’ll drop links of other companies that may be doing something similar. Obsessive Techno-Trolls do a significant portion of your competitive research for you.
The Skeptic-Trolls find the weakest points in your message. They rip them out and dissect them in front of you until all that’s left is the still beating heart. They’re cold, they’re calculating and they’re the marketer’s best critics.
The second best source for competitive research is the Brand Loyalist-Troll. Assuming you’re not on the receiving end of their loyalty, there are no better curators of your competitors’ history, plans, media and games. They’re a regular contributor to their brands’ forums and they’re up to date with the news. More than once, I’ve gleaned critical information from a patent search, a few rumors and reading the apologetics of a Brand Loyalist-Troll.
The Fanboy-Troll is the weakest link in the troll ecosystem. They bring little to the conversation other than accusations and one-word rebuttals. Fortunately, good communities are quick to squish the Fanboy-Troll
Being a Product Fundamentalist, Yet a Data Agnostic
It’s the marketer’s job to be a bridge between the outside world and the production and management teams. A marketer needs to be a fundamentalist, without looking too crazy. To the communities, on the social networks, in the press releases and during interviews, the marketer’s job is to present the product as having value to the right audience. Messages are crafted to make sure that audience understands that this game will bring hours and hours of fun. The marketing and PR teams brief the game representatives going in front of the public and in front of the cameras. These teams tell them what to say and what not to say.
Internally, the marketer has to communicate what the data shows. He or she needs to be able to balance the flames and the fans and collect quantifiable data to show the other teams. It’s easy to find evidence to support marketing’s internal assumptions, but any good marketer needs to understand that it’s not about their own ego; it’s about the people who want to buy and play their games. The best check against the marketer’s own ego is looking at marketing through the eyes of trolls, haters and flame-war generals.