One of the most common questions I get asked from indie developers is “should I spend my small budget on PR or advertising?”. It’s a common dilemma not solely contained within the realms of indie games, but it’s arguably more important and costly given the limited marketing budgets of any given indie project.
Having ran and written for several professional games media sites and now a video game PR company, I have seen the merits and faults of each firsthand. The greatest shift in the last ten years has been the decline in banner advertising, which has directly caused the shutdown of many websites due to income loss.
However, the decline in the value of advertising doesn’t necessarily relate to the most important thing indie devs seek: user acquisition. So the original question still remains. To answer the question in detail, we must first look at what banner advertisements seek to do and how effective they are at doing it.
Advertising on any given game website or a straight-up Google campaign will likely yield very little by itself. For a straight-up full reskin takeover campaign on a fairly popular games media site, you're looking to spend (at a conservative estimate) around $4CPM (cost per thousand views) which could run up extremely expensive costs on any given month for a popular website.
The most important stat to look for is CTR (click through rate) for people who actually click on the ads, which is likely to be way below 1%. In reality, you're looking at around 0.30 to 0.70% on a good day. Even less will be total conversions, meaning people who click on the ads and then proceed to buy or download the game.
This potentially means that if you hypothetically had a $3000 marketing budget for your game, you could blow all that on a single website with next to nothing to show for your investment. This is the sad truth about advertising: it’s a single marketing device in the online space that’s costly and ineffective unless combined with other marketing efforts.
PR, on the other hand, can be much more effective. It’s not without its own set of drawbacks however. A study from 2014 by Nielsen, commissioned by inPowered on the role of content in the consumer decision-making process, concluded that PR is almost 90% more effective than advertising. The power of media coverage and influencer-promoted material is vastly superior to a single advertising campaign.
Media and influencer coverage is not only more valuable in terms of long term lifespan, but has proven to affect consumer decisions more effectively than advertising. It’s similar to word of mouth in that a consumer is much more likely to purchase a product based on a friend’s recommendation. The same is true of a consumer when they are recommended a product by a media outlet or influencer they like.
That is not to say PR is not as costly or risky as advertising. A hypothetical $3000 will maybe get you a month or two of PR if you negotiate (insert shameless plug of Vicarious PR here). It also worth taking into consideration that PR will not guarantee user acquisition and any PR company that says it can guarantee UA is an outright charlatan. The same goes for coverage. A good PR company will, of course, be able to get you coverage through their connections and resources with ease. But they can’t guarantee it, and those who do are lying (whether they deliver it or not).
Overall, in terms of indie marketing, using your budget towards PR is going to likely net superior results and return on investment than spending the same amount on sole advertising. Any marketing budget for indie developers is going to have to get the biggest bang for buck possible, and every dollar has to go the extra mile. From my direct experience, I have seen the buyer’s remorse of countless developers who have opted for advertising instead of PR for everything (from Kickstarters to full launch), only to regret that decision in droves later on.
If you are stuck on which option to take, remember that PR is more likely to be valuable and effective. But remember to choose your PR company or in-house PR specialist well. Thoroughly research your options, and remember that people who tell you only good things are selling you something versus telling the truth. The sign of a good PR person is that they tell you a realistic view of your chances and be there to guide and advise you throughout your development and promotional lifecycle.