How to make ads that gamers don’t actually hate
As part of The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive, Christian Perrins of ’fan-first’ creative agency Waste Creative tell advertisers that gamers won’t openly embrace them if they don’t understand the market.
“You work in advertising? So you’re a poser, yeah?” Thus began a conversation between myself and an Eve Online player at the Fanfest event in Reykjavik last week.
Hardcore gamers can invest decades in game franchises, such as Eve which turns 20 next year
This captures the antipathy many gamers have to marketing. You can’t blame them either. A lot of what gets pushed into and around their gaming lifestyle is intrusive and shallow. The irony is that, with more care and what we call a ’fan-first’ approach, gamers are one of the most receptive and rewarding audiences of all.
Gamers care more, know more and influence more, so you have to try harder
Hardcore gamers regularly play over 20 hours a week. They can invest decades in game franchises (Minecraft turned 10 in 2019, Eve turns 20 next year). Many have second (or first) careers as esports athletes, casters, creators or community mods. They create meticulous wikis, they scrutinize updates, they theorycraft on lore and obsess over canon.
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This is not an audience you can distract with shiny ads, or hype without substance, and it’s certainly not an audience whose specific needs and ideas you can ignore. Their opinion is powerful too.
Fandom fuels the market
Gaming is increasingly service-based. 80% of global revenue comes from in-game purchases and subscriptions. This continuous revenue model needs continuous demand, which is where fandom comes in. Fandom is the engine of loyalty; in fact, ‘superfans’ provide up to 72% of total entertainment revenues.
More than that, active fan communities fuel priceless insight, innovation and creativity. And the more gaming brands involve fans, the deeper their belonging becomes. Our friends at Supercell live and breathe this with its stated mission to make Brawl Stars the most community-centric game ever. That game surpassed $1bn in lifetime revenue last year.
The principles of fan-first marketing
Brands powering fans powering brands. A value exchange built on community and collaboration. It’s a different approach to traditional broadcast marketing, and it’s essential to win the trust, loyalty and advocacy of gamers like my friend at Fanfest. (Incidentally, we spent an hour together going deep on all things Eve and I think I won him over. At least a bit.)
Anyway, here are five principles of the fan-first approach.
1. Forget consumers, think collaborators
The old marketing staple of the ‘consumer’ is unhelpful. It supports the notion of ‘we build it, they buy it’ – which goes against the way most modern game economies work.
You’re looking to attract long-term collaborators and a mindset of ‘we build it together’. Some players will be very vocal, some less visible, but collectively their sentiment and signals should help shape your product, your brand and your comms, all of which will be better for their involvement and will increase their chance of ongoing purchases. And since they helped build it all, they will value it all the more. The old Ikea effect in action. (Thank you, Richard Shotton!) Eve Online is a perfect example.
2. Drop the vague personas, get specific
Aside from the most casual of casual games, you’re generally writing for audiences with deep knowledge and high critical capacity. ‘Jeff the junior sales executive who likes social media and values time with friends’ is not going to inspire meaningful comms.
Get to know the players. Work out why they play, how they play, who influences them, what thrills them, what pisses them off. Create segments based on these distinct playstyles and needs. The builders, the daredevils, the nurturers, the nihilists. There are few spaces as fascinating as gaming for a planner to work.
One of our clients is the brilliantly named SuperEvilMegaCorp and together we’ve built out incredibly vivid mobile segments for their new title using the Solsten (formerly 12 Traits) tool.
3. Make community central to your plans
Too many go-to-market plans put an emphasis on paid awareness and customer acquisition, without much thought for community building. A fan-first approach aims to build a community as early as possible, often when a game is still in pre-production.
Beginning with small groups in private Discord servers, these early bonds between studio and players kick-start the collaboration, trust-building and insight gathering. From there we allow the culture of the community to evolve naturally, giving us rituals, rhythms and content strategies that can be scaled in a meaningful way.
Look at the work Oliver at Mediatonic did building the Fall Guys community. Legendary.
4. Stop giving it all away, leave gaps for fans to fill
There are some elements of game marketing where detail is essential; update patch notes or platform information for example. But when it comes to fostering excitement and earned reach, the fan-first approach aims to create intriguing but incomplete comms plans, designed to fuel the imaginations of our astute and inquisitive players. Help them prove their smarts.
Give them creative freedom. Celebrate and amplify their ingenuity. It doesn’t have to be as facile as a treasure hunt, or as maniacal as JJ Abrams’s brilliant ‘mystery box’ marketing for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Just adopt a mindset where the fans have an active role in building the campaign with you, from theorycrafting to content creation. To quote the great Jon Steele: “When baiting a trap with cheese, always leave room for the mouse.“
5. Get comfortable with change
In the games-as-a-service space, it pays to stick to your goals but be less rigid about how you achieve them. Player sentiment can shift on a dime, technical challenges can thwart release dates, cultural moments can arrive that are too perfect to ignore.
Rather than fixing every beat of the annual marketing plan in stone, the fan-first approach sketches out key milestones and hero moments then uses constant social listening and in-game analytics to pivot and personalize the work on the fly.
That’s how we worked with Supercell to get through the challenges of their extended beta on Brawl Stars and turn it to our advantage for the game’s eventual global launch. It’s not easy work, and can only thrive when a studio and its agency have cultivated real trust and autonomy. But once the fan-first rhythm becomes natural, it makes game marketing much more enjoyable and rewarding for brands, agencies and most crucially, for players.
For more on all the different ways brands can advertise in gaming, from virtual billboards to product placements, social lenses and even games of their own, check out The Drum’s Gaming Advertising Deep Dive.