Influencers hold some serious power when it comes to reaching an audience and influencing their game buying choices. In this blog I'll discuss what influencers are, why we should care about them, and how we can leverage them as game developers.
What are influencers?
Influencers are people who have the ability to influence the behaviour or opinions of other people. In the games industry, the main influencers are YouTubers, Twitch streamers, and a slew of gaming news / review sites. In this blog, I’ll mainly be focusing on YouTubers and Twitch streamers, and how to leverage their ability to tap into a wide audience in order to better market your games.
Before we continue, let’s look at some numbers to understand just how impactful influencers can be. According to Twitch’s 2016 Year in Review, 292 billion total minutes were watched on Twitch in 2016, which works out to around 405 million hours per month. According to StatisticBrain, YouTube averaged 3.25 billion hours watched per month in 2016, with 4.95 billion video views every day. Several of the top YouTube channels, including the one holding the #1 spot, are primarily gaming channels. It’s fairly evident that these two sites hold a lot of power in being able to reach a huge audience of gamers, and being able to tap into that audience would be greatly beneficial to the marketing efforts of game developers. However, simply conducting ad campaigns on these sites would likely not have the impact that we need. Many people ignore ads, and more still use software like adblock to skip straight to the content. By utilizing influencers on these sites, your game becomes the content, rather than just an advertisement. Viewers will be more receptive to your game, because someone they enjoy watching is playing it, hopefully having fun with it, and possibly recommending it to them.
Where to start?
The first thing you should do before approaching any YouTubers or Twitch streamers is to make sure that your game is polished and FUN. You want the first impression to be a good one, because it won’t just be the first impression of the player, it will also be that of the entire audience watching. Furthermore, the last thing you want is for the influencer to encounter a game-breaking bug on their first playthrough, which will almost certainly ruin the first impression of all their viewers.
Next, you want to make sure that people know that they are allowed to use gameplay footage of your game on their channel. This is pretty easy to accomplish, but it is also an important step because no content creator wants to risk a potential copyright strike on their channel. This could simply take the form of an entry in the FAQ on your game’s website or Steam page.
How to find influencers?
You can find resources online that list influencers, such as the Big List of YouTubers, which shows their subscriber count, language, contact email, and preferred genres. However, I prefer to actually get on YouTube and Twitch and find content creators that I think would be a good fit for my game. If you’ve done any market research for your game, then you should already know who your competitors are. Once you know this, you can go on YouTube and Twitch and find people who are streaming and making videos of those competitor games. Rather than just hitting a wide swath of content creators who may or may not be interested or have a significant audience size, this will give you a focused list of people who you know play the type of game you are making, and who you know have an audience that will watch that type of game.
How to contact influencers?
You should typically be trying to contact influencers by email. You can try something like Twitter if you can’t find an email address, or if you are not getting a response via email, but email tends to be more reliable. You can usually find the influencer’s “business inquiry” email address on the “About” page of their channel. If you are looking to contact a Twitch streamer, you could also try Twitch’s built-in private messaging system, but avoid the messaging system on YouTube, which is notorious for being riddled with spam.
If you are just looking to spread word of your game but do not want to engage in paid promotion, then the best way to do this is just by including a short description of your game (think elevator pitch) in your email, along with a key or build of your game. The description is there to pique their interest, as most content creators will not go out of their way to look up or play a game that they know nothing about. You want to include a key or build in your email by default, as opposed to asking if they are interested first and then sending the key in a follow-up email. This saves time for both of you, and also means that you don’t have to keep track of which influencers you have or have not sent a key to yet. Marketing your game in this way is beneficial to all parties involved: you essentially get free marketing, the influencer gets more content to put on their channel, and the viewers get more content to consume.
If you have more of a marketing budget, you may be interested in paid promotion of your game instead, which basically means you are paying an influencer to play your game. Since this is a paid advertisement, you are essentially paying the influencer to portray your game in a good light. Most influencers have a set rate for this, which should vary based on their viewership numbers. In your email, you should give them a short description of the game as before, ask if they are interested in a paid promotion deal, and ask how much they charge. When they reply with their rate, compare it against their average views per video to make sure you are getting a good value for your money. It is especially important with paid promotion to make sure you choose influencers that regularly create content for games that are similar to the one you are making, so that you are guaranteed to get an audience that enjoys that type of game.
Good and bad examples of working with influencers
An excellent example of working with influencers is the partnership between Counterplay Games and Brian Kibler, a YouTuber and Twitch streamer known for playing strategic card games such as Magic: the Gathering and Hearthstone. Counterplay Games created a game called Duelyst, which is a free-to-play collectible card game with tactical elements. The partnership involved the creation of a series of videos in which Kibler introduces the game to his viewers and teaches them about the mechanics, game modes, and other fundamental elements of the game. This partnership was very successful because it was able to leverage an influencer who is passionate about collectible card games, tapped into an audience that was already interested in these games, gave them an introduction to the game, and gave them a taste that made them want more.
A poor example of working with influencers is how Warner Bros Interactive handled the promotion of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. First, they reportedly did not give out keys to anyone who would not sign a contract saying that they would portray the game positively. Second, they did not publicly disclose that the influencers that they partnered with for paid promotion were actually being paid by them, instead representing the content as independent, objective opinions of the game. This behaviour was entirely unnecessary and probably harmful to their marketing activities, as the game was widely recognized as being a fun game and could have stood on its own merit. In addition, Warner Bros were later investigated and charged by the FTC for not adequately disclosing that they paid influencers to play their game on YouTube.
Benefits of working with influencers
Low-cost marketing – The first benefit of working with influencers is that oftentimes you will be getting essentially free marketing for your game, just by giving them a key or build of your game.
Effective marketing – Influencers are one of the most effective forms of marketing. People are more likely to buy something if someone they respect recommends it to them.
Win-win-win – Working with influencers can be a triple-win. It’s a win for the game developer because of the marketing, it’s a win for the influencer because they get more content for their channel, and it’s a win for the audience because they get more content to watch.
Pitfalls of working with influencers
Beware the key fishers – There are people out there who will pose as influencers to try and get a game key from you, only to turn around and sell the key. If you ever receive an email from someone claiming to be an influencer, make sure you take the time to check out their channel and try to verify who they really are.
Ethics of paid promotion – It is important to keep in mind the ethical implications of paid promotion. If you are engaged in paid promotion, the audience should be aware that what they are watching is an advertisement, and not necessarily the personal opinion of the influencer.
The folly of copyright claims – DO NOT try to make a copyright claim on a video in order to take down a bad review of your game. It never works out the way you want it to, it can start a nasty witch hunt, and it makes you look like an evil villain, which will leave you in a worse spot than you started in. Instead, address the points made in the review, fix your game, and contact the reviewer afterward suggesting that they update their review to reflect the update you made to the game.