If you are a board game developer like me, you are simultaneously privileged and burdened to live in this current time. We’re in an unprecedented era of creativity made possible by the internet and low barriers to entry. On the one hand, board games have seen a massive surge of popularity, growing about 20% every year for the last few years. It seems like board gaming just broke a billion dollars as a market. Now it’s about to break a billion and a half.
Where there is money to be found, there are opportunists to ready to exploit it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since competition has been forcing board games to get better and better. Yet as a board game developer, especially one working alone or in a small team, it can feel like there are too many people launching at the same time. Marketing your game online can feel like screaming into a void.
So many board gamers out there share the same lament. Why is it so hard to get noticed on the internet?
Before I suggest a remedy to being ignored online, I’d like to state four observations I’ve found in my 2 1/2 years as a game developer whose marketing is done almost entirely online. Understanding why it’s hard to get noticed on the internet is critical to understanding how to fix it. In fact, I’m going to spend a lot more time talking about why than how. Understanding how the modern internet organizes and prioritizes information is one of the most important things you can understand as a marketer, and arguably as an informed citizen.
Why is it hard to get noticed online?
The barriers to entry have been dramatically reduced and a lot of people are taking advantage of this. This is the root of every evil when it comes to getting noticed online. The internet, as a broad technological and social power, made it so, so, so much easier to reach out to people. Even in the early to mid-1990s, people were starting to use instant messaging and emails. You could make a website fairly easily back then with a little HTML knowledge, and now it’s as simple as setting up a Wordpress site. I know this all sounds like stating the obvious, but I’m doing this because we take it for granted. The world order was upended a couple of decades ago and we’re still figuring out what to make of it.
On top of that, the board game industry itself is very healthy. The internet has allowed us to reach out to niche audiences who are too small or geographically dispersed to cater to through brick-and-mortar stores. That includes the hobby board game market, which has been doing gangbusters ever since the mid-2000s, and arguably as far back as Catan in 1995. Kickstarter has allowed newbies to make games, make cash, and build an audience. Manufacturers have become a lot more accessible because of this growing indie market, making print runs for cheaper and for smaller minimum order quantities.
When you have all these many factors working together, the board game market has grown explosively in terms of cash. I think it’s grown even more explosively in terms of how many people are vying for that cash…but good luck trying to find hard data to prove or disprove my intuition! Basically, you’re playing hardball with both newbies and established businesses because the barriers to entry that used to make the hobby board game market impossible have been mowed down.
Algorithms on social media sites and search engines are biased toward established people. Because the internet opened the floodgates for information, we needed a way to organize it. Suddenly the defining struggle was not the lack of information, but lack of the ability to filter good information from bad. This is a profound paradigm shift from the way our parents and grandparents have been conditioned to think.
Social media, in my opinion, codifies the modern form of the internet. The internet I remember as a child (I was born in 1993), was best represented as a search engine. Now it’s best represented as Facebook. After a handful of companies built up the social institutions of this brave new digital world, they had to take responsibility for organizing information the way search engines used to. That was the only way social media sites could survive long enough to evolve away from being cool little oddities.
Social media sites took a note from the search engines before them: they developed algorithms to help people sort information. One of the best ways to see what information is good and what information is bad is just to see what people say. That means the stuff that gets more likes, retweets, shares, or whatever else wins on a social media site’s algorithm. Based on my observations, social proof – how people react to content – is more important than keywords.
This is all my very long spiel to say this: established people have audiences. People with audiences get social proof – likes, retweets, shares, and so on. That means their content is prioritized on social media and on search engines. That means that yours – as a newcomer – is not. They get the fast lane, you get the slow lane.
Even people who curate content online are not immune to it. They rely on search engines and social media as sources for their content. They also want to raise their own level of visibility and build their own audience, incentivizing them to do things that will get them more likes, retweets, shares…you get the idea. It’s the hype machine at work.
Your potential audience has too many demands on their attention. Social media sites and search engines are trying very hard to curate content for us. The internet provides such an unimaginably vast amount of information, though, that they can’t possibly take on this Sisyphean task. The average social media user has to wade through so much garbage to see what they are genuinely interested in. You get lumped in with the garbage if you’re not smart about how you come across.
Internet users are given the unenviable task of having to make a lot of quick decisions. Read this or that? Should I watch or ignore? In order to make sense of their feed, people have to rely on sloppy heuristics to decide what’s worth their time. That goes back to, you probably guessed it, likes, retweets, shares, and so on.
Young people are resistant to traditional advertising. We don’t live in the Mad Men era. There was a very, very brief moment in existence where you could use mass media channels like radio, television, and newspapers to drill ideas into people’s heads and be reasonably sure they’d take action based on what you wanted them to do. Don’t believe me? Read up on hypodermic needle theory – this old marketing idea that people instantly accepted what you told them like you gave them a shot of medicine.
Saying that young people don’t respond to advertising is so often stated that it’s become a cliche. From my experience, this has mostly held true and young people roll their eyes at advertising. You can’t blame them. That means that in order to stand out, you have to be creative, subversive, or already popular.
All this said, social media has led to a resurgence in advertising because of its unique ability to target exclusively the people who would be interested in a particular ad. You can definitely use Facebook ads or other forms of targeted advertising to your advantage – I’ll talk about this more later. For now, just understand that you won’t be able to simply put up a bunch of fliers, take out a TV ad, or get a lot of radio play. You need to shift your focus from broadcasting to narrowcasting by targeting a small group of highly interested individuals.
How can I get noticed online?
Everything I said above ultimately circles back to the fact that getting noticed online can be extremely difficult without an established name brand or a lot of resources. There are some steps you can take to improve your situation, though. You can slowly build an audience online using the tips below.
Understand it takes time. Because social media and search engines are so biased toward the established, it will not be easy to break through the noise. It will take years of persistence to build an audience. The only way you can shortcut this is with money, either by outsourcing grunt outreach work to workers for wages OR by paying for lots of highly targeted advertising. If you are working alone or in a small group and you don’t have a lot of money to burn, get comfortable and accept that this process takes time.
Figure out who your audience is. Because it’s going to take time and hard work to build an audience, you need to make sure you’re spending your time wisely. To make for a smooth rise to prominence online, you need to clearly define your audience and pitch directly to them. Don’t waste a second on an untargeted audience. That’s like running a marathon in the mud – time-consuming, exhausting, and pointless.
You may want to refer to A Crash Course in Board Game Marketing & Promotion for more information.
Have a clearly defined marketing strategy. You can read more about that in How to Choose & Use a Board Game Marketing Strategy that Works. The short and sweet version is that you need to go in with a plan. Because it’s going to take a long time to push through the noise, you want to make sure you’re using your time very efficiently. Figuring out your audience is a great start, as is coming up with a pitch that resonates with them. That’s not enough, though.
You need to figure out what you’re going to do once you have people’s attention. You need to have a website or landing page for them to go to. You need to have a community or mailing list for people to join. You need a way to stay in touch so you can ask everybody to take action when it counts. You need to figure all this out so that your time is being used as effectively as possible.
Use data to figure out what your audience likes. Planning is an indispensable part of building an audience, and – more broadly – a business. It’s a shame that plans break down the moment they’re put to use. That’s why you need to rely on data.
When you’re first getting started, you need to set up a system for gathering data. Find the analytics/insights feature of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites you’re using. Set up Google Analytics for your website. All of these systems will help you collect the data you need to move forward. Instead of saying “this post was kind of popular, I’ll do another one like it,” you will have specific, empirical, hard facts and figures to aid your decision-making.
If your main goal right now is to build attention, figure out which metric best indicates when your content is getting attention. On Instagram, it’s likes and comments. On Twitter, it’s retweets. On Facebook, it’s shares and reactions. On your website, it’s page views. Then maximize that. What breaks through the noise on social media changes often, but the general rule of thumb you want to follow is “do what will get you seen by the most people in your audience.”
Pay attention to which of your tweets, posts, articles, and pages are the most popular. Use hard data to tell what’s doing well and what’s not. Find your top 10 tweets, posts, articles, etc. and write down the aspects that all of these things share. For example, let’s use tweets and say your most common tweets are all specific advice, 100 characters or less, and contain a photo. That means in the future, more of your tweets should contain specific advice, 100 characters or less, and a photo.
What works for your audience will be different than what works for my audience. That’s the magic of collecting data, though. There is a lot less guesswork this way and you can focus on doing what works.
Play the algorithms. You cannot beat the algorithm unless you are a Kardashian. (If you are, then I’d like to welcome you the hobby.) If you want to build up a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google searches, or any other site that I can’t think of or doesn’t exist at the time of this post’s publication, you need to do one thing. You need to do this for every single website you want to build up a presence on too.
Take 30 minutes to browse each site and see what conditions cause posts to get popular. On Facebook, posts with a lot of comments and reactions are prioritized. On Twitter, it’s retweets. On Instagram, it’s likes and comments. On Google, numbered list articles tend to rise to the top. Every few months, review the conditions that cause posts to get popular. These conditions will always change. Make your content meet the conditions. In doing so, you won’t automatically get noticed, but you will dramatically improve your odds.
Once you perfect your message, use highly targeted advertising. Remember how I said a few paragraphs ago that “the only way you can shortcut this is with money,” referring to the process of breaking through the noise? Advertising, particularly on Facebook, is the best way I’ve found to do this. Facebook ads are a great force multiplier if you have the cash. You have to know your audience, know what they like, have a strategy, and tweak ads based on what the data tells you. If you do this right, though, a couple hundred dollars can put a lot of eyes on your projects.
I know a lot of game developers don’t want to spend money on ads. I know it’s expensive to self-publish games. If you’re clever, though, you can get an email address for every $1 you spend on Facebook, and as many as 5-10% of the people you email might end up buying your game. That can add up really quickly.
One method I’ve found particularly useful is to set up a giveaway contest on Facebook. Give away some game or some gift that will attract people who would like your game. Take out anywhere from twenty to a few hundred dollars to boost the post. I’ve gotten emails for as cheap as $0.50 each, once you consider the price of the giveaway prize plus shipping.
Sharing your thoughts online does not have to feel like screaming at the void. You need a clear plan, time, hard facts and figures, and an understanding of how the internet curates information. Keep at it for a few months, experimenting and tweaking as you go along. At first, nobody will notice. Then a handful of people will notice you and your audience will grow to dozens, hundreds, and thousands with time. Work smart and be persistent!