The New Rules of Video Games Marketing

James Batchelor
The New Rules of Video Games Marketing

The bedrock of any video game or console launch is its marketing.

Only with an eye-catching campaign and memorable messages can any games blockbuster hope to draw in the millions of consumers required to make it a success.

But the days of just targeting gamers through specialist channels are long gone. It’s a new world, one of trailers that are broadcast through everything from console dashboards to online banner ads. A world of constant conversation with avid fans and uninformed consumers alike through social media. A world of following potential customers throughout their daily lives – at work, at home and in transit – via mobile apps, billboards and coverwraps on freesheets.

In such a diverse, crowded and at times confusing market, the best marketing practices have evolved beyond anything we could have predicted even five years ago. With that in mind, MCV looks at the most crucial truths behind the art of marketing games today.


The entire landscape of video games marketing has changed.

No longer are promotions centred around games magazines and shops, nor are they only about selling titles. Now they are about ‘engagement’ – and not just promoting big reveals, but establishing a constant presence in consumers’ lives.

“We’ve completed the transition from push to pull marketing, from a one-way broadcast to a two-way conversation around content,” says marketing firm An.x MD Jon Sloan.

“We’re at a point where even well-designed and well-positioned ads that extort the consumer to ‘buy now’, however subtly done, are not effective anymore.”

Bruce Kennedy, creative director at design agency Kennedy Monk, adds: “Where once the salesman set his stall up in your street, now he’s in your house and he knows a lot about you. In the case of mobile, he’s constantly by your side. So it’s our job to understand the customer even more personally than ever, so the ‘visitors’ we send into this very personal digital space are charming, attractive and most of all, welcome.”

"Companies are beating their brains 
out to keep abreast with changing 
trends in consumer tastes."

Katie Rawlings, Gem Creative

This has been made possible by the widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets, meaning consumers are never away from a screen and a potential canvas for advertising.

“According to IGN research, over 75 per cent of their audience are smartphone owners, with gamers over-indexing for tablet ownership and it is this sort of insight which is really shifting attitudes of marketers within the sector,” says Nick Shadbolt, account director at mobile ad specialists Candyspace.

“A trend we’re seeing a lot of is publishers starting to use mobile to integrate various channels. For example, using QR codes and augmented reality – such as Blippar – mobile search and SMS to ‘activate’ press and outdoor ads.”


In the early days of the internet, web ads were merely digital replications of those found in magazines and newspapers: colourful but static imagery with basic information, albeit with a link that leads to an appropriate website.

But the possibilities have grown faster than anyone could have expected and marketing firms are racing to keep up with new ways they can use space on websites.

Gem Creative’s head of marketing Katie Rawlings says: “While online advertising began in the form of banner ads on websites, it has now taken the forms of viral videos, blogging, promotional campaigns on social networks and forums. Agencies and publishers are beating their brains out to keep themselves abreast with the changing trends in consumer needs and tastes.”

Even download games have transformed online advertising. With more and more consumers buying download games, marketers can follow potential customers from announcement right up to the point of purchase through the same online ad channels.

And that’s without taking into account the opportunities afforded by the now-established social networks such as Twitter and Facebook (see ‘Social Skills’, below).

“Digital routes to market which were in their infancy five years ago have now developed and matured,” says Lu Digweed, marketing and PR boss at ads and packaging firm Fluid.

“One-to-one marketing via granular channels such as Facebook, or the explosion of DLC mean companies know exactly what consumers want. Clients are increasingly looking to combine the huge reach of, say, TV with the very personalised approach of Twitter and Facebook.”


Companies have embraced the relatively new strategy of raising awareness of a retail release through the creation of original, separate content in addition to traditional advertising.

For example, Microsoft built up to the launch of Halo 4 with the popular Forward Unto Dawn webseries, which racked up 5m views per episode. That show exists largely to promote the new Halo, and yet few consumers would identify it as an ad.

Ubisoft had similar success with its Far Cry Experience, a webseries that drew in 500,000 people per episode. Meanwhile, EA’s regular video show Pwned is essentially a platform for promoting new games.

Should this content marketing activity be compelling enough, consumers will even share it with their friends via social networks, further spreading the message in a way that is far more subtle than any homepage takeover.

There are even opportunities in marketing around content that consumers have created, such as regular video shows and podcasts.

“For gaming the biggest game changer in recent years has been the massive increase in YouTube sites,” says PR agency Indigo Pearl’s director Caroline Miller.

“Videos from Yogscast tend to get over 1m views, 3.7m subscribers on the main channel, and its front page is amongst the biggest channel pages in the world. Approached correctly these outlets can show a tremendous benefit for brands.”


The proliferation of consumers on social networks and other online forums means that marketing firms and publishers can constantly compile information on what their fans want, helping to dictate the direction of future campaigns.

“The internet has proved to be a reliable source for gathering data,” says Gem’s Rawlings. “Anyone can research the target market through surveys, polls, and focus groups via online media. This has enabled the consumers to contribute in the decisions pertaining to product offering thus enhancing sales.”

"Where once the salesman set his 
stall up in your street, now he’s in your 
house and knows a lot about you."

Bruce Kennedy, Kennedy Monk

An.x’s Jon Sloan adds: “Where we are both blessed and cursed now, especially in the digital sphere, is in the availability of data, data and more data.

“Previously, customer insights came in fairly limited ways: internal sales reports or POS data, consumer behaviour reports, focus testing. Now marketers can access a huge range of real-time data but are, at the same time, bombarded by it. So, the difficulty arises in how to sift through it to gain useful, actionable insights.”


Much like the viral spread of content marketing, consumer opinions can be another form of marketing in itself – albeit one that firms have no direct control over.

Metacritic reviews, opinions aired via Twitter, forum discussions; all of these are keeping games at the forefront of the public mind.

“Word of mouth has always been the Holy Grail of marketing and PR,” says Indigo Pearl’s Miller. “This is now much easier to ignite due to Twitter and social bookmarking, and of course the feedback from these outlets can be crunched in to data that allows brands to improve their product and messaging.”

But Lick Creative’s creative director Dan Bacon adds that this comes with a price: “Brands now find themselves in a world of high accountability, with reviews and user posts acting as benchmarks that additional consumers will judge.

“Whether we like it or not, user driven information is becoming more and more what other consumers use to make decisions and marketing teams need to adapt their processes accordingly. “We need to accept that we are maybe no longer in charge of a brand’s image to the same extent.”


Marketing campaigns can’t follow a cookie-cutter structure.

What works for one release won’t necessarily be as effective for another. Every promotion must be planned from the ground up.

“There’s no magic formula,” says Game Room’s managing partner Lau Glendinning.

“Strategies and channels will vary in effectiveness, so planning a proper launch strategy is essential to determine the right choices.

“You have to ask yourself is this a new IP or the latest installment of a successful franchise? Do you need to attract new fans or re-engage with an existing community? Who are your target audience? Where do they consume content? What’s your budget?”

"We need to accept that we are 
maybe no longer in charge of a 
brand’s image to the same extent."

Dan Bacon, Lick Creative

An.x’s Jon Sloan urges publishers to stray away from the usual multi-staged game reveals, perhaps announcing future plans so fans have something to look forward to.

“Instead of planning the standard teaser, announcement, and launch videos, you could plan a web series against a more frequent calendar,” he says.

“Make sure your audience knows when your new content is coming: they’ll look forward to it and be more likely to share that content around their own networks.”


A crucial decision in any marketing campaign is how long your activity will run for.

Blockbusters like Call of Duty and FIFA will often be persistently promoted from announcement to launch and beyond, with POS calling for pre-orders as early as six months before release. Meanwhile smaller or newer properties will concentrate their activity around release.

“Campaigns where we have engaged earlier as part of a long-tail strategy have resulted in better pre-orders,” says marketing agency SJS London’s client and planning director Rachel Norman. “This then allows us to develop short-term tactical strategies that can concentrate on more direct calls to action, rather than trying to squeeze a narrative into limited channels or timeframes.”

Lick’s Bacon says: “With short-term campaigns, it remains the marketing team’s responsibility to monitor and adapt to the shifts in media and communication channels.

“However, long-term requires a complete business shift into accommodating media and the role in which it plays in our everyday lives. It is no longer good enough to have scheduled campaigns.

“We now need to have continuous dialogue with our consumers.They are growing more demanding and it is only those that fulfil those demands that will flourish.”


As video games have become a more widely accepted form of entertainment, their competition for consumer spending has increased.

Not only are publishers trying to secure more sales than their rivals, they’re also competing with films, home entertainment releases, smartphones, tablets and other consumer electronics, and a myriad of alternative luxury items.

“There’s no guarantee of cut-through,” says marketing firm Studio CO2 director Steve Cross. “You have to be aware what else is going on at the same time, not just in gaming, look at the big picture, and make sure that your campaign is true to the product.”

Uber’s Benjamin adds: “It’s certainly noisy out there but a lot of it is simply an annoying cacophony. To stand out from that you need clarity, intrigue and a reason to exist.

“Gamers are an emotive, passionate and loyal bunch. So tap into their emotions, tell a story, try and give your campaign a narrative and purpose.

“Marketing and feelings seem like uneasy bed-fellows but if a campaign can be delivered with an element of heart and, dare I say it, soul, then you’re already on track to capture the emotions of your target.”


Ultimately, it’s important not to get caught up in using new-fangled technology and outlandish promotions if it doesn’t serve the intended purpose: selling games.

“Underpinning all of these new practices, the theory of marketing remains the same – understand your market, understand your product, and bring the two together in the most cost effective way possible,” says Fluid’s Lu Digweed.

Uber’s Richard Benjamin reminds publishers that traditional marketing routes still stand: “POS should always be considered, but good luck in finding an actual store to stick it in. Likewise with press – a magazine ad can still be highly effective with those that see it.”

"The great thing about marketing
is that 
it never stays still and
evolves on a weekly basis."

Richard Dennis-Jones, Target

And crucially publishers and marketing firms must constantly monitor the way products are promoted. Methods have changed considerably in the last decade, and that momentum is not slowing.

“The great thing about marketing is that it never stays still and evolves on a weekly basis let alone yearly,” says media agency Target Media’s trading director Richard Dennis-Jones.

“Fears of TV’s demise have been unfounded and the rise of tablets and mobiles is not only fascinating but is bringing mediums together, enabling on-demand viewing and revolutionising how we consume newspapers and magazines.

“Rather than channels becoming more or less efficient they have evolved and it is now about ensuring you are using the channels correctly and succinctly.”


The public has mastered social media such as Twitter and Facebook far quicker than corporations have, and it’s up to marketers to close that gap.

“Social media has driven the biggest changes in marketing practices in recent years, turning consumers into brand ambassadors and giving big organisations a human voice,” says Suzy Barns, director of design agency Studio Diva.

“It has produced a whole new set of rules and has created a whole new way in which to engage an audience.”

However, there are of course pitfalls to avoid. Simply spamming Twitter feeds with promotions will irritate consumers.

Marketing firm Game Room’s Lau Glendinning warns: “Social media is a double-edged sword. It’s a brilliant channel for disseminating cool stuff directly to your fans but it has empowered gamers to demand more and more content, which is then scrutinised and critiqued in public.

“We’re expected to deliver a perpetual cycle of assets and news to feed the machine, with success tracked and measured from more than a year out via Facebook Likes, YouTube views and pre-order sales. But never release content for the sake of it.”

Fluid’s Lu Digweed adds: “Tides of popular opinion can change in an instant, and there are many examples of campaigns unravelling because of the mis-use of social. Tone of voice must be 100 per cent consistent with the campaign messaging.”


As with any service sector, marketing is one highly dependent on the budgets publishers spend with them. Sadly, the recession has taken its toll.

“Let’s make no bones about this, budgets have shrunk. In some cases painfully so,” says ad firm Uber’s Richard Benjamin. “It’s become increasingly difficult with some budgets to achieve any truly constructive marketing.

“Bigger titles rely on rather safe creativity. The smaller stuff needs to be clever, engaging, fresh. The big budgets can help a campaign shout in the consumer’s face. Smaller budgets can whisper intrigue into their ears. It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun one.”

Design agency Kennedy Monk’s Bruce Kennedy adds: “It’s no secret that budgets are being squeezed across the board year-on-year. Expectations are increasing as clients look to maintain and build market position or enter a competitive new market, but are looking not to spend more.”

Standards of quality are also rising, says creative agency Studio CO2 director Steve Cross.

“There’s no room for ‘fluff’ any more. Whatever you do has to work its absolute hardest to be noticed and remembered,” he says.

“Every piece of activity has to work damn hard, particularly online. Your first creative will be available for a long time.” Even when a budget is agreed upon, the constantly changing fortunes of the industry can have an impact.

“With 12-month campaign lead times or longer, budgets shift and can even get cut mid-project,” explains marketing firm Game Room’s Lau Glendinning.

“The best agencies will develop a campaign idea that has the flexibility and depth to be fully scalable at every budget level. “Cutting drastic corners with production quality smacks of a low quality product – choose quality over quantity every time.”


Since most publishers have their own in-house marketing teams, what are the benefits of commissioning or collaborating with external agencies?

“Few publishers have or would want to have the head count that the level of experience and specialism of an agency brings permanently in the business,” says SJS’ Rachel Norman.

“The burn rate wouldn’t be sustainable. Engaging agencies on a project-by-project basis allows for best use of intellect and budgets.”

Uber’s Richard Benjamin adds: “Many agencies work in various industries across numerous channels. Uber, for example, works across entertainment, travel, electronics, food and drink, and fashion. This mix of touch points means we can inject our learning across other sectors.”

Indigo Pearl director Caroline Miller adds that the rise of new marketing channels like social media mean that even PR agencies have a hand in game campaigns: “The lines between marketing and PR are blurring more than ever. Marketing and PR have become much more agile to reflect social media outlets where subjects can have an extremely short lifespan.”



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