Get Noticed: Expanding the Pool of Customers for Your Indie Game

Published: 02/19/2018  

Last Updated: 02/19/2018

You’re a game developer, you’ve got a game that you think is really cool, the people you show it to agree with you, but what next? You need to spread the word. It’s never too early to start building a community of interested people, with the ultimate goal of turning them into customers. This is the essence of lead generation in promotional marketing.

Lead generation and relationship marketing are a lot like dating: you grab someone’s attention, start a committed relationship together, based on mutual exchange and respect, then, when the time’s right, enter into a binding contract. Unlike dating, however, the contract you want isn’t marriage, but a purchase—and your goal is to enter into that contract with as many people as possible.

Funneling Fans

When talking about this process, marketers often refer to the customer journey and the sales funnel. Various versions of the sales funnel exist in marketing literature, all of which work in essentially the same way. Their aim is to use different marketing tactics to get as many people as possible into the wide top of your funnel (leads), then pull them through (the journey), to eventually become customers at the end. The number of leads you turn into customers is your conversion rate.

One version of the funnel is the AIDA model: Attention, Interest, Decision, Action. These stages describe the customer journey from never having heard of your game, to eventually buying it. Different marketing tactics are appropriate for each stage of this journey.

AIDA model

This might look like jargon, but it’s a useful framework when it comes to marketing your game. Let’s break it down into concrete actions.

Grabbing Attention: Lead Generation

This is first contact—that magical moment when a starry-eyed gamer sees your creation for the first time and adds it to their mental “follow” list. But don’t just trust them to remember you—you need to be able to contact them. That means gathering their data, using it to build relationships, and turning contacts into leads.

What you want is permission to communicate with your leads on an ongoing basis—via email, a website newsletter sign-up, or a like/follow/subscription option on a social-media channel. Here are some of the principal tactics and how to use them:

Channel Partners

As an independent developer, it’s very difficult to go it completely alone. Whether or not you end up with a publisher, you’ll always need the support of channel partners to help get the word out there. Channel partner go-to-market programs generally take the form of a negotiated cooperation—potentially involving a discount or exclusive content—rather than being paid for directly, so it’s an efficient avenue to explore for independents. Channel partners include physical retailers such as Gamestop*; online retail portals Steam*, Green Man Gaming, and Humble Bundle; and hardware manufacturers.

The value each kind of partner can bring varies, but among the things they can offer are: access to their existing customer databases, promotion at point-of-sale (whether an online storefront feature or racking in store), pre-order campaigns, product bundling, and post-launch promotional campaigns—all of which can help generate leads and start relationships.

Calls-to-action: Use promotional messages sent via channel partners (email or website, for example) to push people towards your own social channels or website signup.

Whether you end up working with channel partners to bring your game to market or do it yourself, the following tools and tactics will help you fill that sales funnel with leads.

Website

Having a website for your game is absolutely essential, whether it’s dedicated or part of your studio’s site. Make sure the site looks great on mobile as well as desktop, and that you have the ability to capture email addresses. Keep things simple: apply Hick’s law of user experience (UX) to make user choices easy. Find more tips here.

Call-to-action: Encourage visitors to sign up for your email newsletter with incentives for exclusive and up-front info.

Social Media

One of the first places you’ll probably think about communicating your game’s virtues is on social media. Managing and feeding content to social-media communities takes resources, planning, and creativity, and you need to be social—personally responding to as many people as you can, and always with a smile.

The analytics provided by platforms such as Facebook* offer great insights into where and who your followers are, which helps you spot opportunities and target them more effectively. Services such as Followerwonk*, Sprout Social* and Hootsuite* can help you identify leads and automate your social-media management process.

If you have an offer for a free trial, use it.

Calls-to-action: Every social post needs a link to follow, a video trailer to watch, an opinion to share, or a question to answer, letting you keep the conversation going. Never let a potential customer or influencer go cold.

Facebook Analytics
Figure 1. Snap shot of some of the useful data Facebook Analytics can provide.

Paid Social Media Campaigns

Getting content to go viral organically on social networks can be difficult, as the social networks naturally want you to pay for the convenience of reaching their millions of users. Paid campaigns for specific pieces of content can gather page likes and followers, are economical to run, and the targeting tools on networks such as Facebook are surprisingly powerful.

Calls-to-action: Ask viewers of your content to like/follow/subscribe, depending on the platform.

Kickstarter*

Kickstarter is primarily a way to help fund game development during the early stages of a project, but it’s also a very powerful tool in building community and generating leads. As anyone who has run one will tell you, a Kickstarter campaign is a full-time job that requires careful planning of time, resources, and content. Done well, however, it will give you an audience who are hungry for interaction and information. 

Keep those relationships alive once the campaign is over. Use the email-update tool to send calls-to-action to followers and drive them to your social channels. Respond to questions and keep the conversation going. This Kickstarter post-mortem from independent studio Antagonist shows what’s involved and suggests best practices.

Through the Woods
Figure 2. Through the Woods* by Antagonist was successfully funded on Kickstarter.

Events

Gaming events—be they trade or public shows—give you opportunities to show your game, gather contact information and valuable feedback, and, with a bit of luck, generate some social-media buzz. Speaking at events is also a great way to meet potential leads and is surprisingly easy to get into. If you don’t come home with a four-inch stack of business cards, you’re not doing it right.

If you speak at an event, make sure to upload your presentation to SlideShare* afterwards. Not only can this improve your profile, search visibility, and ranking (it’s owned by LinkedIn, incidentally), but you can redirect viewers directly back to your website landing page and turn them into leads.

Calls to action: Ask everyone you meet for their email address, to follow you on social media, and to directly share their experience of your game or talk with their own online networks.

Video Trailers

The importance of a great video trailer in creating impact for your game is hard to overstate, but it’s equally important to add a call-to-action at the video’s close.

Calls-to-action: Add your website URL on the endslate, ask viewers to follow you on social media, and add a YouTube* endslate overlay to ask viewers to subscribe.

Public Relations (PR)

PR is all about building relationships with the media and journalists, with the aim of having them say good things about your game to their audiences. Start by researching who to target (high-value media with relevant audiences); next, issue a press release using an email tool such as MailChimp*; lastly, and most importantly, proactively and continuously reach out to interested parties to turn them into friends who want to help.

When it comes to the emails themselves, make sure your email signature contains your contact information and logo, and, if you’ve won any awards or received notable praise for your game, add a note. Pro tip: to increase the chances of recipients opening your email (the “open rate”), include video content in the email and the word “video” in the subject line.

It’s useful to create an online press kit where media professionals can instantly get their hands on basic assets such as bios, logos, press releases, video, screenshots, and art. Rami Ismail from independent developer Vlambeer created a simple, free online press kit solution aimed at helping developers manage PR more efficiently.

Calls-to-action: Press releases should contain a website URL, social-media links, embedded video, and a press-kit link, so your media contacts have everything they need about your game to pass on to their audiences.

Young Horses
Figure 3. The online press kit for Young Horses, developers of Octodad*, built using presskit.

YouTube* gamers /Streamers

YouTube gamers and streamers have become vitally important communication channels. The most popular influencers can be an elusive bunch, even when they’re being paid, offering few guarantees of coverage. However, contacting as many relevant influencers as you can is worth your time and effort, as you might strike gold. People with smaller followings, but with an affinity for your game, can also prove valuable in reaching your niche. It’s worth looking at tools such as Keymailer that can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

Calls-to-action: Ask YouTube gamers /streamers to direct their viewers to your lead social-media channel.

Keymailer
Figure 4. Check out Keymailer and similar services to see if they can help reach video influencers.

Data Management

Social-media platforms keep your contacts for you, but you need to store other contacts yourself. Google Sheets* is a good place to start, and be sure to keep it organized, updated, and clean. From there you can export email addresses to email marketing software such as MailChimp.

Sparking Interest: Direct Relationships

Awareness becomes interest through the information you share, the conversations you have, and the relationships you foster. Your aim is to turn every single contact whose data you have collected into a lasting relationship. The key to this is the value exchange. Put yourself in your leads’ shoes—if you want them to interact with you, they need a good reason to give you their precious time.

Value comes in many shapes and forms. Here are a few examples:

  • Exclusive content: Offer your leads something they can’t get anywhere else. This could be new information (which also acts as social currency), or it could be something more tangible, such as merchandise.
  • Developer access: Game fans love a direct line to the developers, and to feel that their opinion is valued. Make yourself available, and respond, personally, to as many people as you can. Tell your story—everyone loves a good story.
  • Closed beta/early access: Letting them try out an early version of your game is one of the most powerful ways you can directly engage with your leads. If the experience is positive, it also drives advocacy (more on that soon).

Twitter feedback
Twitter feedback
Figure 5. Independent developer Fourattic responds to the majority of Twitter feedback on Crossing Souls*, and works to give value to its community.

If you really want to stand out, you can go further and create a unique community experience for your leads. Developer No More Robots did this for its upcoming game Descenders, creating a custom meta-game for beta leads on the game’s official Discord channel. On joining a particular team, fans become a part of a special community with access to a private Discord channel, events, and exclusive prizes.

Creating Advocates

If you give your leads value, respond when they call, and feed them great content, not only is it going to be much easier to persuade them to buy your game, but there’s a good chance they will become advocates

The loyalty ladder is a similar marketing model to the sales funnel—it’s concerned with the journey from lead to customer, to repeat customer (client), and finally to the top of the ladder, where they become an advocate. This essentially means that they like your game so much, they tell their friends. (Advocacy applies equally to the pre-launch phase, too.)

This is why driving word-of-mouth—virality, in other words—is such a preoccupation of marketers. While we can’t make people tell their friends, we can maximize the chances of it happening. The useful “STEPPS” model for this was proposed by professor and author Jonah Berger, in his book Contagious.

STEPPS
Figure 6. Jonah Berger’s STEPPS model for driving word-of-mouth viral communication.

Email Marketing

According to research, email is today’s consumers’ preferred way to receive marketing messages. You’ll find email marketing a cheap and easy way to stay in touch with thousands of followers, and send them enticing content, offers, and calls-to-action. Build your email database by incentivizing people to opt-in at every opportunity—on your website, social-media profiles, videos, and at events. You can also buy or rent email addresses, although it’s a much better idea to build your own list. This blog from online marketing agency HubSpot provides some useful tips.

Use an automated tool such as AWeber or MailChimp to send great-looking and engaging monthly newsletter emails to your subscriber base of potential customers. Take some time to understand how to use the powerful analytical tools for tracking and monitoring your subscribers’ behavior, and improving your emails’ open rates, click-throughs, and read times.

Community Management

Gaming communities of fans live in a number of different places online, from Facebook and Twitter, to Reddit and specialist forums. You don’t need to be proactive on all of them, but you do need to make sure you feed the ones that are most important to you. You also need to monitor the rest for mentions of your game.

Whenever an opportunity arises to insert yourself into a conversation, do it. More often than not, people love hearing from a game’s development team. Just remember to always keep a virtual smile on your face—never respond in anger. If you’re not sure your response is the right one, park it, ask someone else, and come back to it later. Remember, once posted, anyone can see what you write, and every one of those people is a potential customer.

Using Data and Analytics

Gathering masses of data on your leads, fans and followers, and then not doing anything with that information is an easy situation to fall into—either through lack of time or just not knowing where to start. Nearly every marketing platform from MailChimp to Facebook provides great data-analysis tools and advice, and you will benefit by planning time each week to review what’s happening with your fan base and to make notes. Only by doing that can you see what works, what doesn’t, and figure out what you need to do next.

MailChimp
Figure 7. Example of MailChimp* email marketing analytics on its reporting dashboard.

Decision Time: Influencing Choice

One key thing to remember—that seems almost counter-intuitive in this era of hyper-choice—is that marketing wants to make our decisions easier, and it does this by reducing the choices we’re faced with.

The way we do this depends on the situation. If it’s a first-time purchase—for example, a brand-new game IP—your potential customers are going to be looking at what other people are saying. Before the Internet opened the floodgates on user reviews and YouTube gamers started earning six-figure salaries, specialist game-journalists were the real influencers. They still have an important role (not least when it comes to reviews on Metacritic, which has become a go-to yardstick for game quality) and often have very large or specialized audiences.

The power of traditional media, however, has been unseated by user reviews and video influencers. We now tend to favor the opinions of people who are just like us. You can’t control what people write and say in reviews and streams, but, if you have a good relationship with as many fans, followers, and influencers as possible, you can build a groundswell of positivity for your game. 

We love hype trains. The phenomenon of social proof states that people imitate others because it’s the right thing in a given social context. This means that buzz—good or bad—snowballs. That buzz can manifest in the form of reviews or posts on social media. If you’ve done your relationship marketing well and the game is good, the chances are better that the buzz will be good and word will spread.

Spurring Action: Buy Your Game

If you’ve turned leads into relationships, pushed the right buttons to help their decision-making, and your game is as good as you think it is, then this part should be a shoo-in.

Sales promotion is the general name for marketing tactics that are concerned with nudging people to make that all-important purchase. This includes pre-order incentives, discounts, value-add deals, and point-of-sale retail marketing. The latter is channel-partner marketing, and covers everything from visibility in physical retail stores to being featured on the front page of Steam or GOG.com at launch, or during a sale. Physical retail marketing is an expensive business; but when it comes to online stores, if you have good interest in your game and can get a foot in the door, then you stand a chance of grabbing some of that valuable front-page real estate.

Green Man
Figure 8. Sales promotion in action during the Green Man Gaming 2017 winter sale.

Another marketing model that comes into play between release of your game(s) and its/their various versions is the loyalty loop. When the game is a sequel and the experience with the previous game was a good one, the decision is already easier for the buyer. Once invested in the brand, they want more—so, when it comes to a share-of-wallet buying decision there’s a good chance they’ll pick your game.

Indie Game
Figure 9. Illustration of the “loyalty loop” where customers turn into repeat customers.

In practice, the loyalty loop takes customers from the bottom of the sales funnel and reinserts them back at the decision stage the next time they’re triggered to purchase. With gaming, that trigger can be any of your marketing activities, from receiving an email or reading a social-media post, either about the sequel or about a new game that you are releasing. Your ongoing relationship with each customer will influence how long they stay with you as a player and whether or not they become interested in your subsequent product releases.

Aside from the experience with your game, loyalty is encouraged by factors including after-sales service, availability of relevant information in a knowledge base, FAQs or forums, and sustained communication through social media and email.

Every customer relationship is a long-term commitment. Stay on the best possible terms with every one of your customers, fans and followers, so they’re always ready to invest in your next DLC or game. You never know when you’ll need them again.

Look after your customers, treat them with respect, and they will look after you.

Glossary

  • Email open rate: The percentage of recipients who open the email you’ve sent.
  • Email click-throughs: The percentage of recipients who click on a link in your email.
  • Email read times: The amount of time a recipient spends reading your email.

Resources

Intel® Developer Zone (Intel® DZ): https://software.intel.com/en-us

Product and Performance Information

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Performance varies by use, configuration and other factors. Learn more at www.Intel.com/PerformanceIndex.