Guerilla marketing is a staple of any red-blooded startup. But what happens when marketing takes on a journalistic bent and then add to it the high-wire act of doing it live? That’s when Guerilla goes Gonzo. Gonzo—a form of journalism with no claims of objectivity and whereby the journalist may also become part of the subject matter—was an apt description for what my startup, Evolve, experienced last week at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.
Here’s our story:
NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION
Evolve is a four-person outfit. We’ve been angel-funded over the past three years with 99% of our funding going toward engineering and related technology costs. I’m an unpaid CEO. We don’t have a PR firm and we don’t advertise. Everything we’ve done from a marketing standpoint has been bootstrapped and limited to what attention we can attract to ourselves mostly through our membership, which is growing steadily at a little over 125,000 registered users. We launched open beta with fewer than 10,000 users about a year ago. 10x on 10,000 in a year is nice, but to hit another 10x this year we are looking for new ways to get the word out.
We attended GDC last year. It was mostly a reconnaissance mission for us to learn where we might fit into events like this down the road. Through the experience, we made some really great contacts. One of them was Twitch CEO, Emmett Shear (more on that later). The team decided it wanted to attend GDC this year but was intent on making the trip more productive from a business standpoint. On the other hand, since we weren’t actively raising capital and weren’t seeking anything in particular from game developers (we’re an open, game-agnostic platform), we thought it would also be a great time to simply reconnect with those we’ve gotten to know in the industry in a way that didn’t suggest any quid pro quo or ulterior motive.
In order to address the second point, we decided we wanted to host a modest happy hour. Come by, say “hi”. That was it. Just our little way of saying “thanks” and “it’s good to know you”. We rented a loft located about a block-and-a-half from Moscone Center, sent out invitations, and then set out to figure out how we could really make the most of the trip. It turns out the answer to that question was in finding a way to connect our altruistic impulses with the shared business interests of our industry friends. Which of course was our babies—our companies; our products.
FINDING THE WIN-WIN-WIN IN IT
GDC is about sharing insights and ideas. And it’s very much about showing off. From models hawking energy drinks to 3D modeling software, everyone is clamoring for attention.
The Evolve team needed to create its own buzz—on an extremely tight budget. We knew we couldn’t compete with sexy street teams, nor could we afford any high-gloss, pyrotechnical exhibits. So we focused on ways of harnessing the excitement that was already there and packaging the event in a way that was relevant to our target audience (gamers). We started to ask “what if”:
What if we could get some of the industry’s best and brightest game developers to talk about what they’re up to and to demo their most recent work?
What if we could bring the “GDC experience” to gamers who can’t be there? And finally,
What if we could use Evolve to deliver the experience?
At this point it’s probably helpful to mention that Evolve had recently released a premium service tier called Helix that features universal gamecasting from Evolve’s in-game client to the video streaming powerhouse, Twitch. With Helix, gamers would be able capture virtually any PC game being played on Evolve and stream it instantly to their Twitch channel with a single click. With this functionality in-hand, Evolve could serve as a roving broadcast booth, live from the conference.
The combination of great content (games) and great exposure (Twitch), made possible through a great platform (Evolve), was precisely the win-win-win we were looking for.
GUERILLA MEETS GONZO
The idea of a roving media event was soon tempered by all sorts of tactical and technical reality checks, not least of which was how we were going to muster the bandwidth for high-quality video streaming from the underground cement bunker also known as Moscone Center. This resulted in a number of adjustments to the plan, which ultimately lead us back to our conveniently located loft (already equipped with ample bandwidth), where we could host a list of esteemed guests in our very own make-shift studio.
But now, without the ability to spontaneously tackle game developers directly on the expo floor, we needed to fill out our developer “dance card” beforehand. This is where the importance of networking, persistence, and a little luck comes in.
The team at Evolve has always believed that if you wait to network until you need one, you’re too late. And never before did that prove to be truer. We needed to call in a ton of favors from numerous friends and friend of friends, like the indefatigable video show host, Blake Morse, to not only help us land our top-notch guests, but to procure the front page exposure on Twitch that ultimately convinced our guests that an interview/demo with us was worth their time.
In all, we scheduled a jam-packed two-day live event, consisting of thirteen interviews from such game industry luminaries as Jenova Chen (Journey) and Ragnar Tornquist (Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey) as well as some awesome looks at games like Tripwire Interactive’s Rising Storm and PAX East’s Best PC Game winner, BeatBuddy. We were even able to get some press out of it.
This was guerilla marketing at its core, but with a twist. We were going Gonzo.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, UH, WHERE’S THE SOUND?
We’re not professional videographers. Our technology was made for individual gamers for use on their personal computers. So setting up a full studio was somewhat outside of our team’s expertise. Plus, let’s not forget that Evolve’s live streaming functionality was still in development when we hatched our plan. Helix with streaming was released only 2-days before the actual event. Could we get from webcam to webcam-in-picture and back to full webcam as we hoped? Without interruption? For all these brand new games (often untested until often right before the interview)? Those were things that were somewhat in our control, so we were ok with all that.
But what if someone doesn’t show up?! We were going live without a net. This was baptism by fire.
Besides our killer technology, guests, and homepage real estate, there were still numerous other variables we needed to wrangle. We worked closely with our friends at Twitch and Blake (and his entourage) to spec out what we needed:
Step and Repeat Backdrop? Check
HD Camera? Check
Mic Stand/Boom? Check
Gaming Rigs? Check (thanks, Alienware)
Check, check, check, and check!
We were loaded for bear… until we started to stream. What’s with the sound? TURN UP THE @!*%& SOUND?!!! The high-end mic(s) that we purchased did not have sufficient power from our USB-oriented setup. Help!!! Eventually, we figured out we needed a preamp. Duh!
With our production capabilities established, we could finally focus on our guests and delivering some great content to our audience. The schedule was tight, some of our guests ran long, ran late, and one had to cancel. We even added a couple awesome last minute guests, including another Kickstarter success story, Code Hero’s Alex Peake. It was a juggling act that was as thrilling as much as it was exhausting.
THE PAYOFF, CLOSING THOUGHTS
What started out as a trickle of viewers on our Twitch channel, exploded into thousands the moment we hit their homepage. We created a leaderboard in the green room, sparking a friendly competition between guests for who could generate the most views during their segment. By the end of the event, the Evolve channel had taken in over 380,000 views.
SO, after stumbling around initially, we ironed out the kinks and were able to produce some quality material that our guests, our host, and our partner could all be proud of. Our technology enabled one-click gamecasting and webcam streaming on every. single. game. And when Jenova Chen ran late the morning after he swept the GDC Developers Choice Awards the night before, I even got a little air time.
Guerilla had gone Gonzo for us and we considered it a success. It was definitely a great experience. We are incredibly grateful to all the folks that it took to pull it off. We won’t forget their contributions and dedication to helping out our humble little gaming company. Especially Twitch. They are the real deal. It would have been very easy (and completely understandable) as a big dog with 30M users and numerous partners vying for their attention to blow off a year-old conversation and to leave a small startup twisting in the wind to fend for itself. But they didn’t do that—they took us under their wing and helped catapult us to the next level. We simply couldn’t have done it without their collaboration and support. Thank you.