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Online Public Relations: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

In his latest expose, Duane Brown looks at the art of online public relations for games, pointing out the value of "compelling content" in promoting titles - from blogs, through podcasts to social network connectivity, with best examples cited.

  Welcome back. Has it already been a few weeks since my last column? Time flies by when you are having fun. If you read my last column, then you are primed and ready to rock the online world. It moves at lightening speed, but that’s the appeal of her vixen ways. So, lets get started.

As a continuation from our last column, we are going to cover three areas. We are going to examine what compelling content really means. We are going to put the different areas of online PR to real use for your video game. Lastly, we are going to discuss what you should do once and if things go bad. I’ll also mention Sony’s fake blog for a quick detour. If nothing else, it’ll provide a “what not to do” online.

Compelling Content

There are roughly 6 billion people on earth and a good number of them probably play video games. Each of them is unique and special in their own way, but they all have one common trait. They want to be treated as the intelligent person they are.

You may be asking yourself what this has to do with producing compelling content, and the answer is everything. The minute you treat your audience as anything but intelligent is the minute you’ve lost. Regardless of whether you are making a video, a podcast, or setting up a blog or wiki, you need to take some items into account.

Don't go cheap. It shows. No one wants something simply done cheap and badly. You have to be willing to invest both finances and time into your content. If you are not going to invest the same effort you put into prepping that advertising page for Game Informer magazine, then don’t even get started. Cheap content is like a used car salesman, they can be spotted a mile away and nobody wants one.

Be creative. Don’t simply do what your competition is doing. People are drawn to creative and fun pieces of content. Participation tends to yield inspiration as well. When you get the community involved, they inspire and push your content to another level. Never underestimate the power and creativity of your community when you get them involved.

Explore untraditional places to post your content. You can always post to your own website, YouTube, MySpace, iTunes and other mainstream places, however, you can also explore untraditional places for your content. What if your video was placed at the museum’s website in your home town? There are tons of unexplored places online where you could place your content. You just need to be creative about where your content goes.

Tell the world. No one is going to know about your great content if you don’t tell anyone. Tell your mom, employees, and best friend. Just tell everyone until even your arch nemesis knows about it. The world is always on the lookout for great content, they just need to be told it exists.

Track the content. The internet is a vast place that spans the globe. These days, you need to be able to track your content and know what everyone is saying about it, good or bad. In our next and final column, we’ll show you how to do just that.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Online PR

In our last column, we talked about the different areas of online PR and gave some basic examples. This time, we are going to put them into practice and hopefully provide some unique ideas. Online PR isn’t about controlling the message anymore, as much as it’s about engaging your audience. Developing rapport and goodwill through two-way communication is a key part of your success online. Now let's see how we put everything into practice.

As a side note for the examples below, I’m going to pretend we have only one game to PR and keep things simple. I’ll also provide an example of software (or websites) to use, where applicable. If you have more then one game, you can always expand and adapt things to your situation.

Press Releases

Following the tips and advice from the ebook mentioned in our last column, The New Rules of PR will tell you how to put an online press release into practice. The authors of the book recently updated it and have a second edition out now. I’m making my way through it and so far it only builds on the first edition. Take-Two, Electronic Arts, and BioWare have been taking their press releases online since at least 2002 and gaining the full effect of that smart choice.

Blogs

Software: Wordpress, MovableType and Blogger

A blog for your video game is a great way to communicate with your audience. You can use the blog to give your audience an insider’s look at the process of making a video game. The blog could be written by the game’s producer, game designer or by a lead from each of the game’s departments.

As long as the people are writing from the heart and being truthful, your fans should find the content interesting. You can also use the blog to show off exclusive content and announce in-person appearances, as well as allow your audience to see pictures and video from events you’ve attended that they might not have been able to.

Try and answer all the comments left on your blog as it shows you are paying attention and value their feedback. Also, linking to articles that appear about your game is important as not everyone has the time to visit all the video game sites out there today.

There are no rules saying how frequently you have to update your blog. However, you should try and keep a somewhat regular schedule, even if it’s just a post a week. If anyone in your PR or marketing department is doing the writing, then that should be said in some sort of disclaimer.

This keeps everyone honest and will foster a better relationship with your audience. Silicon Knights, David Jaffe and Digital Extremes are using blogs as a way of connecting with their community.


  Wikis

Software: MediaWiki, and PmWiki

I’m going to bet that most gamers don’t read the user manual that comes with their game. We expect to get it, but we don’t actually read it. What if you took your user manual online and used a wiki to construct and update it? I know this may sound crazy, but stay with me for a minute and hear me out.

Over the years, I found some user manuals oddly worded. I know this is done to save space and meet the manual’s space constraints. If you took your manual online, this wouldn’t be an issue. You could update the manual with new content if the game has downloadable content added in the future. You could even leave the wiki open to your community and have them lend a hand in its construction. You can add audio and video to your wiki user manual that you couldn’t have on the standard manual that we all receive in our games.

Taking your user manual online through a wiki is going to save you money and get your community participating. Lastly, try and customize your wiki as much as possible and add your own personal twist to it. Let your company’s colors shine through.


Turbine's MMORPG Lord of the Rings Online

I've heard a rumor that Lord of the Rings Online was going to attempt this, but so far it’s just a rumor. This may still sound like a crazy idea, but just like the person (team) that came up with the idea for the mini-PC game box that is standard on retail shelves today, it just may be ahead of its time. If you find that the two wikis above don’t meet your needs, then tryout WikiMatrix, which allows you to compare all the different wikis out on the market based on your needs or a custom search.

Message Boards

Software: vBulletin

Message boards can help you build a community around your game. Just like a blog, message boards are great for communicating with your audience and launching community initiatives. Whether you hold a contest to name a character in your game or writing dialogue for the game, remember to always keep the community in the forefront and show off the work of everyone.

As long as you are giving a reason for the community to keep coming back, they will and support your game in the process. Posting announcements, FAQs and news to a message board is fine, but anything beyond that and a blog might be a better medium for the content. Gastronaut Studios, Infinite Interactive, Project Offset and Lionhead Studios are using message boards to connect with their global audience.

Podcasts

Software: GarageBand (Mac), Audacity (PC), or your in-house audio studio

Podcasts are an interesting medium, as they haven’t gone beyond the radio show style format for the most part. With many popular games like Halo having book and movie deals attached to them, maybe the podcast novel isn’t far behind. Taking a side story from your game and podcasting it would be a way to show off the story telling ability of your team as well as their imagination.

Alternatively, you could simply take the novel you have and podcast it chapter-by-chapter and provide another way for your fans to connect with your product. Not everyone likes to or has the time to read, but most have one or two hours that they need to fill as they commute to work or school.

Once the podcast is recorded and finalized, you can post it to iTunes and your own website. Insomniac Games’ podcast Full Moon is taking off and the gaming community is enjoying what they have to say. The podcast isn’t strictly about games they are working on, but about the gaming industry from a developer’s perspective.

Video

Websites: YouTube, Revver, Soapbox, and Grouper

When most executives talk about putting video out on the web, they usually want a one off video that gets them noticed, if they are lucky, and that’s it. Some want a string of videos produced that have no continuity to them. However, I’m here to tell you that this is not the way to go about it. Producing videos like that is like only buying one month of ad space in Game Informer magazine and hoping that carries you until the release of your game and beyond.

Creating a series of videos based on your game is a better avenue to pursue and one that’s investing in your long-term success. Your series can focus on one character or a group of characters from your game. The videos can explore the back-story of your character(s) or explain something hinted at in your game but never explained. Better yet, the videos could be a mini-continuation of your story a la version 1.5 that keeps your audience engaged in your plot until the sequel comes out.

How you go about your series is up to you and based on not just what you want to do, but what can you afford to do time and money wise. Just make sure your story has a beginning, middle and end, and that it’s connected to your video game. If I watch your video and can’t tell that it’s related to your video game, what value is it to me as a fan?


Ubisoft's Rayman Raving Rabbids

You might also want to check out Lightreading.com’s Web Video Cheat sheet article, which has a list of over 70 video sites. Sometimes taking your video to a niche site might yield a higher return on investment than just placing it with all the usual suspects. Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? Ubisoft’s Rayman Raving Rabbids Valentines Video was a funny way to use their characters in video.


  Social Networks

Websites: MySpace, Facebook and Bebo

The great thing about social networks is that they have a built in community and allow external linking to other websites. Once you’ve setup your profile page, creating the content for it becomes primary.

Depending on the site, you can add video and pictures to your profile page. Ubisoft’s Rayman’s Raving Rabbids MySpace page is a great example for a recent game. They add video, pictures and content they think their community would want. Keeping all your profile pages updated is a time consuming process, so make sure you don’t bite off more then you can handle.


Cryptic Studios' City of Heroes Online Newsletter

Online Magazines/Newsletters

Software: Usually custom built

The transportation industry has been doing it for years and so has the City of Heroes/Villains developers Cryptic Studios. Producing your own publication whether it’s a comic book, novel, magazine, or newsletter is an unique way to show your true colors and adds another dimension to your online PR campaign.

Not everyone who reads comic books or goes to their local bookstore plays video games, but by tapping into that market you are exposing more people to the history and characters in your video game.


Practicing safe, ethical and smart online PR

Originally, I was going to write this two-page explanation about what safe, ethical, and smart online PR really means. However, I’m not going to do that. I’ve simplified the entire process and came up with a test that you or anyone can perform to know if what you are doing is safe, ethical, and smart online PR. Just ask yourself this one simple question:

Would I want what I’ve done showing up on the front cover of newspapers around the world tomorrow morning for the people I care about and everyone to see?

If you answered yes to this question, then odds are you are being honest and treating your customers as the smart and savvy people they are. Now I know everyone has a different idea of morals and we certainly won’t all agree on what is ethical, however, I think we can all agree that if you are cheating or not being completely honest with your audience then something is up. People want to be treated with the same respect they would show you.

If you didn’t listen to my advice and things do go bad, then there is only one thing you can do. Admit to it, right away. Don’t wait and see if things cool down, because they won’t. Admit to what you did wrong and hope that people will forgive you, even if they don’t forget that you treated them badly. Which brings me to Sony’s fake blog from last year.

Sony’s Fake Blog

Sony’s fake blog, www.alliwantforxmasisapsp.com, which was made in conjunction with Zipatoni, didn’t practice safe, ethical, and smart online PR. The public felt they were mislead about who was updating and maintaining the website. It wasn’t two teenagers who wanted a PSP for Christmas, but many felt it was marketing people from Zipatoni.

The content wasn’t compelling or well thought out. How could two “teenagers”, who look 30 something, afford let alone have access to a warehouse that is supposed to look like their house is beyond me. The videos looked cheap and badly shot. There was little, if any, creative thought put into the videos.

FYI, Sony and Zipatoni, most young people today have access to some pretty high-end equipment when it comes to filming and media. You shouldn’t have gone cheap at all. The writing on the blog was over done in what could only be called “teenager-speak”. It would have been better to practice better spelling, grammar and general punctuation than try and sound like a teenager.

In the end, this fake blog lacked honesty, heart, respect, and anything we could remotely call compelling content. Sony and Zipatoni, I urge you to never try this again.

Conclusion

This may seem overwhelming at first but if you break it down into manageable pieces, you’ll be able to tackle online PR for your video game. Not every online PR tactic will work for every video game, but if you focus on what you think will work, you’ll be fine. The above ideas are just the tip of the iceberg and what is possible. If you harness the unique qualities that your video game has, you’ll come up ideas and tactics that will set your video game apart.

In my last and final column, we’ll be covering how to bridge the gap between online and offline PR and what tools to use to track your messages once it’s out there. Remember, if you don’t want your mother reading what you’ve done on the front page of the paper tomorrow morning, then don’t do it. Until next time, please practice safe, ethical and smart PR.

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