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A Summer on the Long Tail

  • Marketing is the use of lies, tricks, and misrepresentations to get people to spend money.

  • The people at Big Game Company X don't care about what I care about, they just want my money.

  • I need a smooth, extroverted, streetwise friend to do my marketing for me.

  • What I do isn't marketing.

  • "Crowdsourcing", "Web 2.0", and "The Long Tail" are meaningless terms marketers made up to make what they're doing sound cool.

These statements have something in common. They're all false.

So yesterday, John, E, Philaros, Judaicdiablo and I were having coffee and the topic of marketing came up. I'm not an expert at marketing, but last year when I had to start my own company, I spent quite a bit of time trying to learn more about it. As a result, I think I have some ideas that the indie game community might profit from.

Marketing is the use of lies, tricks, and misrepresentations to get people to spend money

If this is what you think marketing is, you're not going to get anywhere. Either your attempts at marketing will fail, or you'll turn your back on marketing altogether. Both are mistakes.

Marketing is usually defined as creating (or finding) a demand for a product. High profile tricks and false promises get a lot of media attention, but they are neither the core nor the most successful ways to market a product. The first step in marketing is NOT coming up with a gimmick. It's creating a great product.

The people at Big Game Company X don't care about what I care about, they just want my money

Actually, this may be true. But it's not true of the companies that have become successful and are staying successful. The great companies listen to their customers assiduously and bend over backwards to communicate with them and make their products better. Wizards of the Coast listens to Magic players and makes sure there's a new article on the topics those fans care about published every single day. Games Workshop employees read the message boards and they also play the games, sometimes on work hours.

The reason they do this is that they know that step 2 to great marketing is great customer service. This includes listening to the customers and knowing what the customers care about.

I need a smooth, extroverted, streetwise friend to do my marketing for me

No you don't. More on why below.

What I do isn't marketing

Now we're getting to the good stuff. Marketing is not rooted in some library of smiles and dirty tricks. It's rooted in what you, indie game designer, do every day.

What do you do? If you're a gamer then you 1) play games and 2) talk about them. This is the best kind of marketing there is. Use the Internet to talk to your fans about what you're doing. Reading a blog post by the guy who made the game is ten times more credible than a glossy ad in Dragon magazine. Posting a comment and having the designer answer you personally is pure gold.

And don't underestimate the value of actual play. Post actual play examples on the Web. Take the game to cons and play it with people. This is marketing (and good marketing at that).

When you're ready for the advanced class, use Del.icio.us and Technorati to find other people that are talking about your game or genre and engage them directly.

"Crowdsourcing", "Web 2.0", and "The Long Tail" are meaningless terms marketers made up to make what they're doing sound cool

I left these for last because these catchphrases are a measure of where it's at in the marketing world right now, and even though many indie publishers don't' know (or don't care) what they mean, they already know the lessons they refer to.

Crowdsourcing means getting your fans to create your best content for you. It could mean a collaborative effort where you find a layout guy through The Forge, or it could mean getting 500 people to submit Druegar names for your new underworld sourcebook.

Web 2.0 is a term for the new generation of Web applications, particularly those ones where you can make your preferences known and share them with the community. This is important to us, because the indie games community is strongly driven by word of mouth. I'm not sure we're leveraging Web 2.0 that strongly yet, but I have an intuition that this is the route to success for a lot of small publishers in the near future.

The Long Tail - marketers think this is the most revolutionary idea ever, but indie game publishers already know it by heart. The typical model for selling books, games, and movies is the blockbuster model. You make a product that appeals to the largest possible market and sell the hell out of it. All the products that don't become mega-hits are failures and disappear. You can picture this as a fat bell curve where a successful product lies at the highest point of mass appeal.

The long tail is the opposite approach. Instead of one big hit and many failures, the long tail is many modest hits. Another way of saying it is that instead of 1 product for a million customers, you have a hundred thousand products that appeal to 10 customers each. This is very much how the indie market works right now. No indie game sells like D&D (and I don't think any are going to). On the other hand, a huge number of indie games are modest successes for their authors, who can thus stay in business and keep making great games.

The key to making the long tail work is to keep costs low, so that it's easy to make the money back, and to use electronic distribution and marketing channels so that the 10-5000 people who are predestined to love your game can find and buy it easily.

Does this sound like settling for second best? Amazon.com, a hugely successful long tail Web 2.0 company makes MORE THAN HALF of its sales on books that are too far out of the mainstream to be carried even in a mega Barnes & Noble. Now imagine, if you will, a world where indie gaming is half the gaming market. Not only would there be a huge variety of great games to choose from at low prices, but YOU could be one of those successful indie publishers writing and marketing games that you (and your fans) love.

Further Reading

Trevor Beckwith's Selling the Invisible may be the best book on marketing ever (as if I would know). It's not relevant to indie publishing in any special way, but includes many generally useful principles.

Hugh MacLeod's blog Gaping Void, in which he shares marketing wisdom such as "quality isn't job one, being really f*&king amazing is job one". Also read his pdf How to be Creative. It applies 100% to indie game publishers. You might also consider The Hughtrain, his manifesto on Internet marketing.

Seth Godin's Blog is good, as are his books.

Buzzmarketing may be good for those who aren't afraid to get a little crazier with their marketing efforts. Buzzmarketing does indulge a bit in a love of the gimmick, but the fundamental concept of the book, building up word of mouth buzz, is solid.

Chris Anderson, who coined the phrase "The Long Tail" has a blog. His book may be a good resource, thought I haven't read it yet.


All excellent points, and exactly the things I hope to see permeate the RPG cottage industry a bit more. That said, given that reading list, I must suggest the addition of the Creating Passionate Users blog. It splits it's time between many of these marketing ideas and issues of cognition and education and, all in all, is well worth the time for anyone willing to look at gaming through a lens that include folks like Seth Godin and company.

-Rob D.

Great post.

You can see some altruistic crowdsourcing in action over at story-games, with the names project.

Cool, can you post a link? I don't frequen story games, and for some reason, I can't find the URL.

Oops, cancel that. I found it: http://www.story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=959&page=1#Item_0

I hate to be a shill for Microsoft, but this article does a pretty darn good job of explaining the whole Long Tail thing, in my opinion, although it's oriented towards software development:


Wow, that article is something else! I'll have to delve into it in more detail. Thanks, Roger!

I hope you have coffee with your friends more often to post a nice summary like that. Well done.

Speaking of long tail, I just reached my two-year anniversary of game sales (to the month, at least, if not the day), and the money is good.

My marketing investments have included participation in public fora and a presence at Gen Con before publishing my game. That's not a lot, and it's not gruelling work, although booth duty is kinda fatiguing. I've never felt like a shill or a schmooze, except for one time when I tried to get Ken Hite to look at the game, and ironically that wasn't hardly beneficial to me at all.

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