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What's My Line? PR Strategies For Tradeshows

If you're an independent developer, tradeshows like E3 and the GDC can offer opportunites for significant media exposure. Preparing for these events by honing your message and readying press materials is half the battle.

This year you may find yourself in the midst of a scramble preparing for the Game Developers Conference, E3, or some other industry event. As you race to meet project deadlines or complete other deliverables for the event, let me turn your attention for a moment to your public relations strategy.

Now before you start backing away in disgust or dismiss PR as a topic reserved for big companies with deep pockets, be aware that there are some simple steps that you, a developer, can take to increase your chances of getting limelight focused on your company. Even if you don't like to be the center of attention, I'm sure you do like the idea of attracting the attention of some publisher who thinks your game project is brilliant, and having a tradeshow PR plan can help in that regard.

What's Your Press Message?

Let me start out by saying that plenty of executives and PR people I've known have defined "news" as anything you write a press release about. Not so. You need reporters who are going to think their readers/listeners/viewers will find your story interesting, entertaining or valuable in some way. If you understand that concept and can live by it, then you will be ahead of the game, so to speak. Plus I'm going to share some alternative ideas to the traditional press release, if you have the patience to bear with me.




If you're fortunate enough to get on camera, keep the answers short, on-topic, and cite examples to back up your comments.

First, think about PR in broad terms, like how you communicate with your target audience. In plain English, your target audience is made up of the groups of people that are most important to you and your business. Groups like publishers, analysts, other developers, and of course the consumers who will hopefully buy many copies of your game. One effective way you have of reaching these audiences is through the media. Although there are a variety of media outlets that may be relevant to your business, one of the most effective groups you can reach is the trade press, and those outlets are limited to a handful. In the trade press category you can put all the outlets (print and online) that are read specifically by people in the games industry. These include Game Developer, Gamasutra, Develop, Gamedaily, Consumer Electronics Daily (formerly MM Wire), MCV and a handful of others you can probably name without too much effort. In the consumer press category are all the game fan sites like IGN, Gamespot and Gamespy, plus newspapers, TV, radio and online 'zines and news sites read by the general public (we'll skip the magazines this time since they have long lead times of several months).

Once you can visualize the target audience in each category, it becomes easier to consider what "message" (PR slang for your unique selling proposition - what makes your game noteworthy) you should get across. Evaluate what's noteworthy about your:

  • Game (the underlying technology, its game play, etc.)
  • Business model (funding, organizational structure, corporate partnerships, etc.)
  • Company personality (an ethos that binds your company together, a common vision, a common work style, or unique public face to the company)
  • Company employees (the developers' backgrounds, experience, and so on.)

Are you using a new technology that is going to enhance game play in some new way for games that will be available a year or two from now? Is it something consumers haven't seen yet? One effective way of getting coverage is by being part of an industry trend that is already getting substantial coverage. Today, for example, one of those trends is mobile entertainment. If you have a game designed especially for "wireless" distribution, then you'll want to take advantage of the media attention that will be directed at the overall wireless topic.

As you evaluate your work for newsworthiness, put yourself in the shoes of these potential audience members:

  • A publisher looking for developers with a fresh outlook.
  • A game fan who has been playing games for years.
  • A business man who is considering a game industry investment.
  • A person who likes to read the life section and thinks games are fun, but doesn't know much about videogames or technology.

If that sounds like a lot to remember, you can keep things simpler by having just one message directed at the trade industry, or take your PR message and spin it slightly differently to appeal to each audience member.

Keep in mind that not everyone that you talk to is as savvy about technology as you. Because you are immersed in the game industry, you may not realize that the issues that are second nature to you might just now be reaching an awareness level for the general public. Rest assured too, that those important-to-your-future game publishers are also watching, reading and listening to consumer media outlets, so if you are trying to secure a publishing deal, press coverage can help.


Matching Your Message To Your Goals

Once you have formulated one or more story angles, go back to your company goals (e.g., finding a publisher) and ask yourself if coverage based on your ideas can potentially contribute to any of those goals and thus to your bottom line. Take time to think about what a journalist's reaction might be, and how your story will stand up against all the other PR noise at the tradeshow. Again, if you can tap into a current trend, you've got automatic interest from a certain number of journalists and you've won more than half the battle. On the other hand, if your big news is that you've signed a partnership deal to offer your existing technology in combination with another company's technology in a package deal - GONG - don't start making plans for a press conference. In fact, events like press conferences and parties are highly overrated as a PR tool in most cases, so think long and hard before you step into that ring, especially if you aren't a big-name company with deep pockets.

One example of a game developer's story angle might be that your game was selected as a finalist in the Independent Games Festival (IGF). You might be thinking, "Oh, the IGF already issued a press release about that." Great, that's a start. But there are probably a few other things you can do. What about contacting some of your favorite game fan sites to find out if they'd be interested in a downloadable demo of your game? And while they're at it perhaps they'd like to write a few lines about what attracted the IGF committee to this project. Or maybe there's a human interest angle if you contact a lifestyle writer at the major newspaper nearest your hometown. Certainly readers would be interested in a story in the lifestyle section about a local team of developers traveling to a major game conference because their game was selected as a finalist. Story elements might include how you got into game development, what went into making this game, what makes your game stand out among other contestants, and what it means to your development team personally to have your game chosen as a finalist.

Because you have limited time and resources, it's important to prioritize which of your story angles and target outlets can give you the most exposure. Certainly you could write a press release and pay to have it distributed on one of the wire services, like PR Newswire or Business Wire. Generally you can't just put out a release and then not take the time to do some follow up, so be prepared to put a little more into it than just typing up your news. As an alternative, I recommend selecting a handful of journalists and sending them your story idea in a short email. This is called a "targeted pitch", and it can be more effective than just sending out a release, especially if you get the interest of a trade outlets that executives read all the time.

When sending out your news, make sure it goes only to the appropriate contacts, versus spamming everyone at the media outlet. You'll want to target reporters who have a track record of writing about similar kinds of stories/products/news. If you don't already know who those individuals are, spend some time reading past issues to figure it out. If you are exhibiting at a trade show, usually you are eligible to get a copy of the registered press list, which usually contains contact information. Just be forewarned that at least half of the media representatives don't register until they get to a trade show, so any lists you get in advance will only give you a starting point from which to work.

Your message should be straightforward and brief. Most journalists get deluged by pitches and "news" announcements every day. If you haven't captured a journalist's interest in the first couple of sentences, chances are the person won't read more of it (or even open the email, since the reporter is probably previewing it through their email program before they choose whether to open or delete) and your effort will have been wasted. Your entire e-mail shouldn't be more than two short paragraphs, with a link to your company website for more information. Finally, don't forget to include your phone number, in case the journalist can't wait to get started working on your story idea. Make sure the number you list is one that you can check for messages even after you're on your way to the tradeshow.

Now that your press release is presumably in the hands of the press, what else can you do? Call a reporter, using the same guidelines as you would when pitching via e-mail -- keep it short and to the point. Avoid the mistake many a rookie PR person makes in calling a journalist to say, "Hey, did you get that press release I sent over?" It's okay to follow an email up with a phone call (that's one phone call) if at first you didn't get a response, but just get right to what you think they will be interested in. Journalists are usually working under a deadline and can't always spare as much of their time as you'd prefer to have. Control your expectations when it comes to the type of response you'll get from the media. It's not unusual to try to make contact with the press and get little or no response. Take heart though, because even just one article that mentions your company might prove valuable in closing a future business deal.

Other PR outreach you might do now includes calling the managers of the tradeshow to make sure their PR people, and more importantly, their media spokesperson, know about:

  • The news announcements you'll be making around the time of the show
  • How you are involved in any hot industry trends
  • Great visuals you'll have on the show floor that they can point out to camera crews.

Show organizers get lots of opportunities to talk with the press about what's "hot" at their shows, and they help reporters identify game industry trends. But they can't mention your game or company as an example of those industry trends if they don't know your company's direction. If you're a natural communicator and good at summarizing ideas and explaining innovations to the uninitiated, you can offer yourself to consumer media as an expert on those industry trends.

One cautionary note, make sure any press effort on your part has the prior approval of any relevant corporate partners you're working with. These companies need to be prepared for any press inquiries they get as a result of your company's pitch -- not to mention the fact that companies can get testy when news that relates to them reaches the media before they think it's time. The other factor to consider is that you don't want to double up on public relations efforts already being handled by someone else. In the case of the IGF finalist scenario, a quick call to the event's PR contact can probably verify whether your intended outreach would be a duplication of something that has already been done. If you're lucky, you might get some help, or at least some feedback, from someone who has done this kind of thing before.

Creating Support Materials

As you begin conducting outreach (or, in a perfect world, before you contact the media at all), you will need to prepare PR support materials. Exhibitors get access to the press room for press kit distribution, but any attendee can create some PR backup for themselves. Above all, have your business cards available - they are invaluable for basic networking, and isn't that what tradeshows are really all about? Even if you have to print the cards out yourself, make sure you have a way for people to remember you once they return home. If you keep your eyes open, you may find that the reporter who didn't return your call is now standing behind you as you wait in line to get into an after-expo event, and while it might not be the best moment for a hardcore PR pitch, at least an introduction and friendly conversation might help you get a return phone call next time you have something important to say. If you do decide to develop a press kit, which is no small undertaking, they usually contain the following elements:

  • A one-page description of your company (often referred to as a 'backgrounder')
  • Recent press releases
  • One-page product descriptions
  • Frequently asked questions
  • Key personnel biographies
  • Game demos and other visuals (screen shots, company logos, etc.)
  • Copies of positive media coverage from the past (if available)
  • Your business card

Another public relations tool you have is your company website. Make sure it is up to date, and consider the type of information that journalists, potential business partners and consumers alike will need about your business and your games. You can use it to help reporters tell your story by posting downloadable game demos of projects in development, screen shots, short video clips, company logo, headshots and short biographies of key personnel, and press announcements. If a game is part of the story you're telling this year, consider burning a handful of game demos on CD and taking them to hand to journalists you meet.

Before you get to the show, spend time thinking about what you might talk about if you are presented with a chance to interact with a reporter. If you get an opportunity, what is the one message you want the audience to walk away with? Is it that you're developing games for cell phones? Is it that your game will introduce some new gameplay feature that fans will love? Is it that your team includes some notable game developers? Practice delivering that message, whatever it may be, in your responses to various questions and topics that may arise. If you find yourself invited to give a radio or television interview, you should keep your responses simple and brief and pepper them with examples that people can relate to.

Perhaps this is a good time to mention that everything you say and do from the time you leave your house for the tradeshow reflects back on you and creates the perceptions others in the industry will have of you. More than one company secret has been let out of the bag by unthinking employees traveling to trade shows on planes, chatting in hotel lobbies and the like. I've seen business relationships that became strained when someone overstepped social boundaries after one too many drinks, and company representatives who just plain missed opportunities -- or worse yet, killed the respect of someone important -- because they were focused on the party aspect. If you are your company's spokesperson, it's a 24/7 job when you go to an industry event and you'll want to be perceived in a positive light. You want potential future business partners to see your company as filled with knowledgeable, interested, upbeat, and trustworthy people. That said, it's good to have fun while you're doing it.

Last, but not least, when the show floor closes and it's time to pack up and go home, don't make the mistake of thinking you're done with PR until next year. The week after the show is the time to follow-up with the people whose business cards you collected at the show who requested more information about your company. If you went to the show as a finalist in the IGF and now you're a winner, go back to that reporter and pitch him again, this time with an even stronger angle. Create a press list, so that next time you have news you know who to send it to. Next year, if you start a little earlier, try to achieve more exposure by submitting a unique speaking proposal for the conference. At the very least, as a speaker your show pass will be complimentary!



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