We spend way too much time in our team Skype chats talking about how to do a better job of… umm… our jobs. Granted, much of it is brought on by my own anxiety about the gradual death of PR as a profession, as well as an unfortunate rebellious streak that drives me to subvert the establishment at any cost…. but the fact is — despite a rather solid reputation (I hope) within the industry — we still struggle constantly to secure publicity for some of our clients. What follows is a look into the thoughts we have as a PR agency that wants to constantly adapt to changing market conditions to stay at the forefront of our business.
In our discussions, we’ve essentially come to the conclusion that we need to be more selective about the games we represent. In theory, by focusing on quality throughout — from the projects we work on to our media targeting to the actual content of our pitches — we should come out on top. But are we just being naive? Merely by focusing on doing a better job, will we get more media coverage? Or will we just spend less time being frustrated?
What’s the problem?
There are all sorts of reasons why it can be difficult to get coverage for a particular client or game, all of which could warrant their own blog posts:
- It’s a mobile, browser-based or casual game, and the media landscape doesn’t really support much coverage of these titles beyond reviews and success stories, while at the same time the consumers of these products also aren’t looking at media for reviews. (Yes, I’m simplifying the matter, and there are some other opps for coverage here… just not many.)
- It’s from a developer that nobody’s heard of yet, or who hasn’t had a critical or commercial success yet. Once you become a “media darling” it’s quite easy to secure coverage, but until then, it’s definitely a struggle.
- It’s in a genre that doesn’t “bring the hits.” Particularly among more popular media outlets, this business is all about attracting traffic, which means that AAA games, Minecraft, League of Legends, etc. will get covered at will, while smaller games in lesser-played genres are relegated to very occasional coverage or none at all. “Sorry, last time we posted about that it didn’t get clicks, so we won’t cover it again.”
- There’s no notable “hook.” If you can’t spot a single reason why a game should stand out amid the chaos of the industry, expect to pull out a lot of your own hair when you hear the question, “So why should I cover this?” Even if you think your game has a great hook, it might not be as unique as you think it is.
- And the one that causes me the most pain and frustration: The game just isn’t very good. With almost any of the points above, we can make a really strong case to media: “You should cover this game because it’s good. I promise.”
We’ve identified a number of issues with the game itself that could make it difficult to get coverage. There are other factors that have come up in our discussions — elements that aren’t necessarily related to the game — that can hamper our efforts to get press for our clients and their projects:
- Media are inundated with games. We know — because we’ve asked — that many of them receive hundreds of emails in a single day, most of which are press releases or pitches about some game or developer or whatever. If they don’t absolutely love your game or company, why would they open your email?
- Press releases and asset blasts are often pointless. Unless a writer knows about your game or company, that press release you sent to announce a new update is pretty much as useless as a second butt. Hell, let’s say that writer knows about your game but doesn’t like it. We’re back in second-butt territory.
- Pitches are improperly targeted. Shannon wrote a whole blog post about this. In the current video-game-PR model, it’s expected that you send announcements to your “media list” and that said media list is comprised of hundreds of people. If only ten of those are actually in a position to cover that particular piece of news, what value are you providing to the others? Improper targeting adds to the noise.
- AAA rules the day. While the indie scene has made massive strides in recent years (and even months), much of the video game media landscape is still focused almost entirely on AAA, big-budget titles. No matter how good your game is, if you’re releasing head-to-head with Grand Theft Auto V, you can expect to be ignored or turned away by all sorts of press. Sadly, most of those press who will turn you down are also the ones you feel like you need to hit (now, whether you should still think of “top-tier” media that way is another matter entirely).
That’s great. We’ve identified all sorts of reasons why it’s hard to get coverage for certain games and clients. But the question has to be asked:
What can we do about it?
There’s no point turning a critical eye inward if you’re not ready to take action and improve. Based on the points above, we can come up with some solutions or otherwise come to various conclusions:
Mobile and casual games just aren’t a good fit for ongoing PR.
We should work with clients on smaller-scale campaigns, focused on gaining some awareness among the few influential media outlets that do exist, securing some reviews, as well as basic outreach with mainstream media, where it makes sense. We can help with trailer production, game analysis, etc. These aren’t really PR services, but maybe it’s okay to say, “that’s really all you should do” and encourage developers to spend more money on ads or — perhaps more importantly — on improving the core game experience. With mobile and casual games, after all, the goal is to either be featured by platform holders (i.e. Apple or Google or Facebook) or to spread via word of mouth. Having a great game increases the chances of those things happening, and only in rare cases will PR alone move the needle in terms of sales/downloads/users.
Press releases and “blasts” should go away or become much less frequent.
There, I said it. Unless this announcement is actually useful/interesting to the person who receives it, it is not worth sending. It contributes to the bloating of inboxes and thus to the difficulty of getting a response to a legitimate, targeted pitch. If you’re working with a well-known developer, publisher or game, then blasts can be helpful, and are probably the most effective way of spreading news (real news) to a wide media audience. Until you get to that point, though, a press release or asset blast is a wasted effort. And in most cases, “We launched a website” is not a news story. Ever. Every game has a website. You are not special.
One-on-one education/pitching should be the goal.
Based on our own experiences and discussions with press, individual outreach is far more effective than a blasted press release. In an ideal world, we identify our target media — people who, based on any number of factors, might be interested in a particular game — and spend time talking to them, introducing them to the game and trying to get them interested. Once they are interested in the game, asset blasts and other announcements may actually be more useful. Identifying evangelists for a game among the media will ultimately yield regular dividends: securing reviews may become easier, for example, or we may work with the individual journalist to come up with a really interesting story to cover.
Work more closely with clients to identify hooks.
We always try to talk clients through the actual selling points of a game, but there’s room for improvement. The concept of a selling point has changed recently, as well, so this comes down re-educating developers who’ve been in the business for a long time about what’s actually a hook these days. “10 weapons” is not really a selling point anymore. Why would I want to play this game instead of ____? If you can’t answer that question, your PR campaign is going to be tough as shit, son. We have to think outside of the box here, too; in this age, it can be easier to get people talking about a ten-second video clip of intense gameplay than a big-budget 2-minute game trailer. Every little story — from the developers’ background to the tools that were used to the inspiration for a character and beyond — can be used to get publicity, so we need to work more closely with developers to identify as many angles as possible.
Related to this, we need to convince clients of a “less is more” approach. As a developer, you think that sending out these new screenshots to every journalist in the world is a good idea. As a PR rep, I know it’s not. We have to convince our clients that it’s a better idea to work with individual outlets on stories relevant to their audiences. Pray for me as I enter these discussions.
Don’t rely as heavily on top-tier media coverage.
DUH DUH DUUUUUUH. Let’s put it this way: Earlier this year we spent a crap-ton of time and money booking a press tour for Larian Studios with a preview build of Divinity: Original Sin. Despite flying a team of developers from Belgium to San Francisco and offering to go sit at journalists’ desks (so they didn’t even have to move), we still had several top-tier press turn down the opportunity. That’s fine, and was expected. We still got a number of great previews from top-tier press, though, but given that they may not have promoted the coverage extensively via newsletters, social media, etc. the stories just didn’t “resonate” with their audiences (I hate that word), and ultimately that coverage didn’t lead to a significant boost in awareness of the game.
However, when we spent relatively little time and money coordinating play sessions with top YouTube personalities, we generated close to a million video views in about a week, while the Kickstarter for Original Sin blew past our expectations rather quickly. The YouTube players’ audiences are more receptive to non-AAA experiences, and as such we had a much greater impact. My point is that while you may think that securing coverage with “big” media is the holy grail of PR, you may be living in the wrong decade. Every little bit of coverage helps. I use a brick-wall metaphor a lot: every person you introduce the game to is another brick in your big wall of potential customers. Yes, getting coverage at IGN can gain you a few bricks, but it will take a lot of effort to get there. Also spend time focusing on smaller media outlets; even though they may only reach 1000 people, that’s another 1000 potential bricks to add to your wall. We want to expand the work we do with smaller outlets and YouTubers. Simple as that.
Turn away clients and games that we can’t really get behind.
This is probably the hardest part for me, the bit I’ve been struggling with. As I’ve laid out, in an ideal world we are spending a lot of time working with individual writers, bloggers, video personalities, etc. to convince them that a particular game is worth covering, and then talking to them to come up with coverage ideas that make sense for them, the game and the outlet’s audience. Let’s say that talking to one editor in that manner takes 30 minutes. Sending a press release to 1000 people takes 20 seconds. Individual outreach and engagement is far more time-intensive, which means we either need to hire more people or take on fewer clients.
Hiring more people isn’t a great option, as I’m already losing my mind trying to manage a five-person company. It also doesn’t solve the problem of competing with our own games for coverage — there are days when we send five press releases (about different projects and from different people on our team) to the media… and I think that’s too many. As noted, press releases tend to not be super useful.
So we come down to focusing on fewer clients. It improves our ability to control the quality of projects we work on. It allows us to spend more time with one-on-one media outreach. It means we’re not competing with ourselves for coverage quite as much. It allows us to establish a reputation as an agency that only works on noteworthy projects and isn’t going to waste your time if you’re a journalist.
Yes, it all sounds pretty good in theory. There’s a big part of me that fears the change, though. Working with fewer, quality clients means that we need to charge more in order to keep our staff employed; and many indies and other companies we work with probably can’t afford “regular agency” rates. We’re placing a lot of faith in the press to actually appreciate the effort and to open emails when we send them, knowing that they’re being sent for a reason. We’re expecting clients to say, “sure, don’t worry about sending that press release if you don’t think it’s a good idea.” We’re assuming that our theory is correct, and that this isn’t all going to blow up in our face when nobody’s covering a certain game because we weren’t blasting out announcements every few days.
For the reasons above and more, we won’t be able to enact these changes overnight. Who knows; for the reasons above, we might not even be able to enact these changes. Really, I’m hoping to get some discussion going, and to share a little bit of insight into our thinking at Evolve. You know, I don’t even remember how I came up with the name for the agency, but as time goes on I can’t help but think it’s been a great choice. I’m glad that I have a team behind me that wants to challenge the status quo. I just hope others are as excited as we are about the opportunities that exist if we all take some time to focus on quality.