Let’s cut to the chase: you’re a game developer and you’re busy. Between late nights and a day job, you barely have time to sleep, let alone comb through hundreds of articles in order to plan an entire video game marketing strategy.
Here’s where this guide comes in.
Everything here is organized to help you hit the ground running with your marketing plan, with a special focus on indie game marketing tactics.
The Marketing Mindset
In digital game marketing, as well as in other marketing fields, the name of the game is always to build relationships, not leads. If you think about everyday relationships, they come in many shapes and sizes, in varying levels of speed and intensity: sometimes a person may be a casual acquaintance for years before they become a friend, or maybe it’s love at first sight. Your job is to reach out and build a community for your video game or development studio. It may sound daunting, but if you’re enthusiastic about your game, much of the relationship building will feel natural.
The Funnel: Your Game Plan
The funnel is a concept designed to keep your marketing relationships growing, in which all of your marketing tactics and platforms work in tandem to lead your audience forward in their relationship with your game and your studio. Everything covered in this guide will “feed into your funnel” and work in a symbiotic relationship, directing potential marketing relationships to the various content you have available.
For example, your social media platform content may catch the attention of your potential audience and lead them to your dev blog, where they learn about the dev team and the development process and are encouraged to sign up for the online newsletter in order to be part of the closed beta. Right before game launch, that person is sent an email and two discount codes (one for them, and one for a friend) as thanks for participating in the beta.
And just like that, they’re in your funnel.
Think of your funnel as a riptide (or lazy river if you’re more casual of a game studio!) that keeps potential marketing relationships progressing forward regardless of where they start. From passing interest to diehard fan, your funnel gives them a steady stream of engagement and opportunities to encourage relationship growth.
Identify Your Audience, Create a Marketing Profile
Like the saying goes, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” When it comes to marketing, the wider net you cast, the shallower your interactions will be. Before you even begin your marketing plan, it’s vital that you identify the potential audience for your game.
In other words, who are your ideal players?
This goes beyond the standard age, gender, and salary demographics of old. How you choose to identify your target audience will affect every aspect of your video game marketing plan.
One of the best ways to visualize your target audience is to create a marketing profile of your hypothetical ideal client. Along with age, gender, and socioeconomic status, you’ll want to include other things such as music tastes, preferred game mechanics/genres, video game pet peeves (quick time events comes to mind here).
And a name.
The purpose behind creating a marketing profile is to humanize your target audience. It’s no longer, “What does my target audience want to see,” but rather, “What does Jan, who loves match three puzzles and chiptunes, want to see on her feed?”
These profiles will help keep you laser-focused during all aspects of your marketing process.
And if your target audience has changed a bit during the development process, or you find that you may have been a bit off with your targeting to begin with, there’s no harm in changing your profiles, either!
The important thing is that you’ve got hyper-specific marketing targets that you’re aiming for.
All else being equal, these are the four things you need to absolutely nail in your marketing plan. This is doubly true for indie game developers, since these four areas give a huge bang for your sweat equity buck.
Perhaps this goes without saying, but a good website for your game and/or studio is going to go far in establishing credibility. Your site should be clean, eye-catching, and easy to navigate.
It should also hook visitors early.
It never hurts to invest some marketing budget dollars into your website.
Your website should not be a static repository of information. Consider your landing page the gateway to your funnel, the enticing bait that will lead to hooking your target audience. Here, you can showcase your trailer (more on that in a bit), offer an easy way to opt-in to your newsletter, highlight anything newsworthy, or even reward repeat visitors with free stuff (artwork, lore, music, discounts, beta/demo codes, you name it).
Beyond your landing page, you can utilize chatbots on high value pages, such as your About or FAQ pages, to nurture relationships, interact with your audience, or share content. Both an About and FAQ page are highly recommended, as you will be able to fill these pages with rich content that adds value to your visitors, in addition to improving search engine results as well!
Squeeze pages can also be used if done tactfully, in which a visitor trades entering their email address for access to a certain page—the download page for your game demo, for example. If someone is willing to give your demo a try, then they’re probably at least interested enough in your game to read through a newsletter or two.
Your game trailer is a vital piece of media in your game marketing plan. This is where your potential audience will get their first taste of what they can expect from your game, and hopefully, it will get their hearts pumping.
While there is some creative freedom allowed in video game trailers, you want to ensure that you give the viewer an accurate representation of the vertical slice of your game: the screen time you give to game mechanics and gameplay loops should roughly represent their presence in your game.
With that in mind, a good game trailer should:
1. Hook From the Get Go: Steam autoplays trailers on a game’s store page. Give your viewer a reason to unmute and watch.
2. Give the People What They Want: Think to your marketing profiles. What will suck in your ideal target audience? Game mechanics? Emotions? Writing? Music? Graphics? Realistically, it will be a combination of many factors, but be sure to nail this.
3. Look Good: Don’t skimp on production values. Make your trailer something you’re proud of.
4. Call Them to Action: Whether you end your game trailer with some kind of twist that makes the viewer want to play the game or your trailer itself has accomplished that, you want to take all the hype your trailer has generated and channel it into an action: visiting your website, pre-ordering the game, trying the demo, etc.
While AAA companies may argue that game demos hurt sales, for indie game developers, a game demo—especially one that comes out before your game’s release date—can help on-the-fence customers make the jump, create buzz and hype for your release date, and be an effective tool for acquiring feedback (think early access but without he barrier of players paying up front).
Remember: anyone turned off by your demo most likely wouldn’t have bought your game to begin with. Focus on your fans and players, not the haters, and commit these two game demo tips to heart.
1. Start Your Players Off the Rails
If you’re a JRPG, you might want to consider avoiding the first 20 minutes of your protagonist’s village getting burned down. A prologue can be a great way to introduce a player to the mechanics and flavor of your game while letting them control a stronger character or two. If you’re an action or platform game, start your player off with some fun powers or movement skills that let them experiment and have fun with the controls.
In essence, get to the meat of your core gameplay loop, the cycle of game mechanics that make your game fun. If that means your demo starts at level one, then that’s perfectly fine too.
And if you can, find some way for the player to transfer their progress over from the demo to the full game to save them some time, or give them a special bonus for playing the demo.
2. Tease Elements of the Full Game
So you’ve given your demo player access to some cool abilities and they’ve gotten to know a level or world and they think they’ve got a hang of the mechanics. And that’s where they’re wrong! Your ideal player is having fun with the elements in your demo, so you should find a way to let them know that there’s even better stuff coming in the full game. The “meat” of your demo gives way to the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of your full game.
If marketing, especially indie game marketing, is focused around creating relationships and getting your audience to engage, then a game demo is one of the better ways to go about this.
How to Fit Marketing in Your Game Dev Workflow
This one’s a bit more abstract, but it’s probably the most important thing when it comes to the basics. You could have the greatest game marketing plan in the world, but if you can’t work it into your game development workflow, then it’s all for naught. Here are a few tips to manage the tightrope balancing act that is marketing and developing at the same time.
That’s it! Pack it up boys we’re going home!
. . . If only, right?
Realistically, for most indie game developers, game marketing is going to be paid for in sweat equity. But it’s worth mentioning that if you can find someone to add to your team who can handle all the marketing, or if the duties can be divided among your team, you really should. Marketing is a full-time endeavor of its own.
2. Establish a Realistic and Fluid Timeline
By realistic, your marketing timeline should be something that you’re actually capable of doing, not what you believe you should do or what you think you could do: what you actually, actually are capable of doing. Shooting for the moon is going to wear you down and demoralize you when you start falling behind into the empty void of space.
And by fluid, you should be comfortable changing your marketing timeline on the fly as needed. If something’s not working or if circumstances have changed, be ready to alter course.
3. Take Baby Steps
Break your marketing routine up into small tasks that can be fulfilled throughout the day. Find what works best for you and go with that, whether you prefer to create smaller project assignments for yourself (“make one social media post,” or, “write a blog paragraph”) or you prefer to work in small chunks of time.
Make sure you’re looking to only the next marketing deadline, which can be a great way to stay focused and keep yourself from getting overwhelmed by the whole timeline.
4. Work Smarter
Social media scheduling software, like Hootsuite, can save you time posting on multiple platforms and take some of the stress off when to post. You can create a basic post and then fine tune each one based on the platform instead of having to make multiple posts from scratch.
Just keep in mind that easy does not always mean effective. While any post is better than no post, make sure to have some platform-exclusive content that takes advantage of that platform’s uniqueness.
What’s Fit to Print
Going viral is basically every video game marketing campaign’s dream come true, but the odds of it happening are extremely low. Plus, without having these traditional forms of advertising covered, any boon you may stumble across could fizzle out. Remember: all of the marketing tactics you employ should feed into each other (and your funnel!) and create a symbiotic relationship.
In the rags to riches stories of indie game developers, press kits are the unsung heroes. A good press kit tells an interesting story. Yes, it highlights your game’s characters, gameplay features, and other awesome aspects, but above all, your press kit tells a story that makes a good headline.
That being said, journalists can go through hundreds of press kits on a daily basis, so keeping your press kit simple and easy to read increases the likelihood of someone giving it the time of day.
Do be interesting, do be brief, and don’t be repetitive.
When assembling your press kit, begin with putting together your factsheet. This is a down-to-business list of key information for your game that includes your game name, price, developer name and info, publisher name (if applicable), platforms where your game is available, the release date on each platform, genres, any notable quotes about your game, and external links.
Your fact sheet should be easy to read (think bullet points and lists) and include anything a journalist would want to know when writing an article about your game.
Your factsheet should have its own page on the Press Kit section of your website, and you should include it as a separate file in your downloadable press kit.
Zip It Good
Speaking of downloadable press kits, to ensure that your press kit is easily downloaded and organized, create a single zip file for it and give it a very clear name. Something like “GameName_Presskit_January2019” works fine. Ease of access is key, so save any creativity for other aspects of your marketing campaign.
Within your press kit zip file, you’ll have your factsheet along with relevant game trailers and screenshots. Keep a standard naming convention for all these files to ensure that they’re easy to find in a sea of other random files.
Your screenshots should showcase the features available in the game, be visually interesting, and most importantly, they should convey a good amount of information. Make sure that as a whole, your screenshots accurately represent what can be expected from playing your game.
If you have multiple trailers, be sure to include the best ones in the press kit and distinguish them in the file name: “GameName_GameplayTrailer” and GameName_PromoTrailer,” for example.
Consider utilizing a campaign manager service or application to help keep track of who’s actually looking at your press kits and what strategies are working.
Pay Attention to the Little Guys
While it can be great to be featured on one of the big press outlets, don’t rule out smaller press outlets: they need you just as much as you need them! Think of it as a mutually beneficial relationship.
Both of you get content to share and grow your audiences, and who knows: down the line, that small press outlet might become a larger journalism website and be more willing to cover your latest project due to your good history with them!
Email Hot Tips
“If you got a few hundred/thousand e-mails a day, how would you prefer e-mails be written? Less is more. Know how to make your pitch in a sentence or two—if you can’t wrap up your own product in a concise and interesting way, we probably won’t be able to either.” —Greg Kumparak, Mobile Editor, TechCrunch
Cold emailing can be a crapshoot regardless if you’re reaching out to journalists, affiliates, influencers, or potential audience members. Here are some quick tips to get you started on increasing the open rates of your emails to journalists, YouTubers, streamers, and other influencers.
The One Thing to Keep in Mind . . .
. . . The person you’re emailing doesn’t care much about your game. They’re not on your side.
At least, not yet.
“How can they turn my idea into page views/content?”
“What makes my pitch attractive and eye-catching?”
Do Your Research
Tailor your emails to the person or organization you’re sending them to. Figure out what kinds of games they like or cover and what they might respond to. Spending a few minutes absorbing some of their content can help you refine your tactics and increase the odds of getting your email read.
Track Your Statistics
Services like Yesware allow you to track how many people open and click through your emails. Being able to track this information is vital for improving your email marketing techniques and allows you to experiment with various tactics and see for yourself what does and doesn’t work.
After all, the more your marketing works, the less work it is for you.
Don’t Send a Snoozer of a Subject Line
“XYZ game with ABC features launches on Platform 123!”
Sure, it’s informative, but creating a subject line like this ensures that your email is lost in the sea of similar sounding emails. The #1 thing your subject line should be doing is getting a reader to open your email, so think outside the box.
The General Parts of Your Email
1. A subject line that stands out! Even a blank subject line can create intrigue.
2. One to three short sentences that briefly explain your background, motivation, and inspirations. This is the human element of the email and functions as a hook.
3. Two to four short sentences explaining the premise of the game, its gameplay, visual style, and genre. Keep it brief and keep it exciting.
4. Feature list of 3-5 bullet points highlighting what makes your game unique.
5. A link to where to download/buy the game.
6. (optional, but recommended for journalists and influencers) A download key or link to a build of the game.
7. A link to your press kit.
8. A short thank you at the end.
Read over your email. It should take about 30 seconds to get through it all. If your eyes gloss over anything, consider reformatting or shortening that section.
Someone has decided to give you their email address. Great! Before you plug them into your general email list for your newsletter, consider having a separate chain of emails welcoming them, giving some backstory on your studio and inspiration for your game, and asking to hear from them if they have any questions or want to join one of your social media communities.
This is a great way to start off on the right foot by giving a personal touch to your funnel before you plug them into the general newsletter or e-blast.
Pay Per Click Advertising
Paying for advertising is one of the more traditional methods of marketing, and while Pay Per Click (PPC) Advertising can be a gamble, it also has the potential to pay off quite well if done correctly.
And that can be a big if if you’re not prepared to put in some due diligence.
Advertising through Facebook is an incredibly robust option with a lot of metrics built right into the platform and it’s recommended to start here if you’re just beginning to dip your toes into PPC advertising.
With Facebook, you have hyper-specific filters you can use to determine who sees your ads: everything from location, age, gender, education level, connections, recent online behaviors, interests, and more.
Remember your marketing profile? You can create filters to ensure that only your target audience sees your advertising on this platform. This is a great way to expose new people to your game or studio and start them swimming through your marketing funnel.
While a bit more complicated, Google AdWords provides some valuable data and fringe benefits. For example, AdWords will reveal to you the high-converting keywords in your industry, which you can then take and plug into your content (blogs, newsletters, whatever) and SEO strategy.
The caveat here is that everything needs to be on point.
Everything, from your landing page to the actual advertisement itself needs to be top-notch in order to prevent Google from lowering your score due to bounce rates.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to throw $25-50 into AdWords to learn how it functions. Just make sure to be patient and KISS (Keep It Stupid Simple), because AdWords can be labyrinthian in its complexity.
Affiliates and Influencers
Affiliates are anyone who gets a bonus for each confirmed lead they refer to you. This can be as simple as a refer-a-friend program for your game where both players receive in-game rewards or go as far as sharing a percentage of profits with influencers who send players your way.
The one thing to keep in mind is that it’s vital that you are able to track where the leads are coming from so you can reward the right affiliate.
As for influencers, these are big personalities who have the potential to influence trends. Think streamers, YouTubers, or notable games journalists. The goal in contacting influencers is to try to strike up a mutually beneficial relationship in which your game provides them, in some way, with content that appeals to their own audience.
There are a lot of creative ways to utilize influencers beyond just paying them to talk about your product or offering them free game keys (and as a side note, use websites like DeepFreeze or Hunter to establish identity and reputability for anyone asking you for free game keys). For example, you could invite them to a panel discussion, playtest, or stream.
Remember, it’s your job to show influencers what your game has to offer them.
1. Be transparent about every paid piece of content. It’s not worth damaging your brand.
2. Check every paid post to ensure that the #sponsored tag is clearly visible. You can also use something like #GameNamePartner.
3. Don’t let your ads be ads: create useful content. Think of an influencer as a multiplier: zero times any number is still zero, so make sure your base content is as good as it can be.
Nobody is racing up to be the first to sign up for a newsletter, but where newsletters may lack in initial appeal, they more than make up for in their ability to retain and convert diehard fans. Newsletters can be a personal, intimate connection that your studio shares with those interested in what you’ve got going on.
Which means that you should treat your newsletter like a soap opera.
Draw your audience in with exciting content and leave them wanting more. Maybe you have an ongoing saga of your attempts to keep an office plant alive, or maybe you’re recounting a moment from your past and how that’s shaped how you approach your work day.
The idea here is that your newsletter is a way to bring a personal touch to your relationship with your audience and connect them with everything you’ve got going on. Connect your readers to your dev blog, game site, social media accounts, or anything else you think they’d be interested in.
And remember, your newsletter audience should be opt-in only. Nothing sours a relationship faster than being added to an email list without asking to be.
The Social Network
Personal connection and a sense of community are vital parts of video game marketing. After all, you’re trying to create relationships, not generate leads.
Luckily there are a multitude of ways to do this while you’re knee-deep in the game development process.
Your Brand/Persona: Be Attractive, Be Genuine
Whether you’re representing your studio’s brand or choosing to project a persona as a solo dev, you’ll want to focus on being attractive, no matter what platform you’re on. Not necessarily in the physical sense, but when interacting with the world, it’s helpful to determine the kind of persona you want to project.
That being said, you must also be genuine, especially when interacting on social media platforms. Think of it as creating a spin on your own personality or projecting the best version of yourself in order to determine what kind of content to create and how to create it.
And when interacting online, be sure to harness the power of polarity. People are drawn to ideas and stories they can relate to, but being neutral is akin to being boring. You don’t need to be edgy or controversial, but it’s important to have opinions, to believe in something, even if it’s something as small as being adamantly opposed to orange-scented dish soap.
When figuring out how you want to interact online, do your research!
Look at the online presence of some of your favorite studios. What are they posting? What works and what doesn’t work? Don’t be afraid to copy the feel or the style of another developer’s online presence—just don’t steal their content!
In the words of Gary Vaynerchuk, writer of three New York Times bestsellers and owner of the massive Vayner Media, “Content is king, but context is god.”
What this means is that you need to know your platform before posting.
Instagram is all about the visuals, with some room for commentary in the caption.
Snapchat is ideal for using influencers to market something for you with their style and following—if you can swing that.
Twitter is great at linking to other forms of content with witty comments attached. Don’t underestimate that URL space!
Facebook, love it or hate it, is a jack-of-all-trades platform. Like with your website, chatbots can be utilized to help give the visitor useful information and can even funnel them into potential sales or link them to relevant information. You also have the option of interacting with other groups or pages, though you’ll need to legitimately contribute to those communities to avoid coming across as shamelessly plugging yourself.
While there is a lot you can do, don’t spend all your time on social media (after all, you have a game to develop). Just a few minutes every couple of days can do wonders, and remember to interact! Like, comment, share mention, be a part of the social aspect of social media.
Hashtag Hot Tips
Some quick tips on hashtags: sometimes, the most popular hashtags aren’t the best to use.
Spend some time researching more niche hashtags that could relate to your game. Think genre, location of your studio, and specific communities that you might have relevant content for.
Context, context context! Is there a trending hashtag du jour? Can you jump on that bandwagon? Think about how many businesses took advantage of the #PokemonGo trend.
As a general rule, high traffic hashtags tend to bring in new players, while niche hashtags tend to help build your community of fans.
Did you know that the only ingredient you used to need to add to cake mix was water? But when people used that cake mix, they didn’t feel like they had actually made a cake. So now, we have to add eggs, oil, and water to cake mix.
How does this relate to game development?
Well, when people invest in something, the finished product is much more rewarding. Everything from IKEA furniture to video games. And cakes, of course.
Developer blogging is your way to let your audience invest in your game, especially if you open development process up to take suggestions. In addition, posting developer blogs improves the SEO of your website and gives you content to crosspost to your other areas of marketing.
Now, you won’t always be be posting content directly related to game development. It’s actually okay to have posts about nothing (keep in mind that Seinfeld is a show about nothing). There’s nothing wrong with posts that are 90% entertainment and 10% content if that’s what you’ve got to work with. It certainly beats not posting anything at all.
When coming up with ideas for content ask yourself some questions:
What’s going on in your life?
What happened that’s embarrassing?
How are you getting through the holiday season?
What’s your ideal vacation?
What funny thing happened in your life that you learned a lesson from?
What did taking a break from coding to watch a movie teach you about work-life balance?
Talking about these things and tying it back into your life as a game developer can be a great way to build your community and drive traffic. And don’t forget about your persona. You’re presenting the best version of yourself here.
Be sure to create a backlog of articles so your posts can come out with regularity even if you get to busy to write new posts. Having some “evergreen” content—posts that are, essentially, timeless and can go out whenever—in your backlog can be great if life gets too busy or you need a break.
And don’t be afraid to reach out to other blogs for opportunities to guest or crosspost! This can be a great way to build relationships with other developers and draw in a new audience.
These are just a couple additional marketing tactics you can try out!
Whether you’re working with another game developer that you’ve struck up a mutually beneficial relationship with or you’re utilizing your own previous game titles, a great way to get the word out about your game is to do a cross-title promotion.
Things like guest characters, in-game events or notifications, special event items, and more can be used to inform an already attentive audience about something that may be right down their alley.
Cashflow doesn’t start and end at game sales. Got good music? Sell original soundtracks! Good art? Autographed posters!
Make figurines or plushies of your most iconic characters, slap your studio logo on mugs, T-shirts, and USB sticks. If you’ve got diehard fans, figure out what they want from you and provide it.
Not only will your fans be able to support you outside of just buying your games, but you’ll also have a nice inventory of swag for any contests, giveaways, or conventions!
Nothing to It But to Do It
There’s a lot involved in digital marketing if you’re a game developer, but don’t feel like you have to do everything all at once. A lot of your video game marketing plan will involve creating passive marketing content—your website, game trailer, demo, etc.—so pick one and get going!
Where are you planning on starting?
Let me know in the comments below!