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Marketing meatball theory: How to use free to get more followers

It is really hard to get anyone to actually buy anything, much less take an action like joining your mailing list or Discord. It is even more difficult when you are offering a game that is different, or a bit avant garde.

Chris Zukowski, Blogger

September 17, 2021

6 Min Read

It is really hard to get anyone to actually buy anything, much less take an action like joining your mailing list or discord. It is even more difficult when you are offering a game that is different, or a bit avant garde. The reason is they don’t know if what you are offering is any good. So, rather than take the risk, they just walk away.

The best way to get around this is to offer a tiny piece of it for free. Who can say no to free? If they like it then they are much much more likely to pay for it.

If you have ever been to a US-based Costco you will be familiar with the people at the end of every aisle giving out free samples of one product or another for free. Then, right next to them is the product which you can add to your cart. It is a brilliant tactic that we should employ when marketing our own game.

I accidentally called it the Marketing Meatball Theory during a recent GDC podcast and promised the hosts that I would write a post about it. You can listen to it here:  https://podcasts.apple.com/us/...

Here are a few ways to use the Marketing Meatball Theory to give away a free thing to get something in exchange

How to make the offer

The main thing when giving away freebies is they should be used to get people to do something in return. These are called "lead magnets" because they attract people who are somewhat interested (aka a lead) but are hesitant to take the leap and follow you.

Basically you use it as a small metaphorical carrot like this: "Join my mailing list to get a free copy of the first game in my series"


"Join our discord because this Thursday we are giving away a free copy of our game to 10 of our members"

See? It is just a teeny tiny offer to get people to act. They just need a little push and this can be enough to do it. The important thing here is you don’t want to just give away the game for nothing. Instead use it in exchange for them following you.

So what makes a good “meatball?” Here are some ideas.

A free game

Maybe you created a game that didn’t sell very well. Maybe you have an old game that is past its prime and doesn’t sell much any more. Maybe you made a game jam game that is funny but doesn’t have enough material to be worth developing into a full game on Steam. You probably can’t make much money from these. But that doesn’t mean they are useless.

You can give these games away as your "Meatball." There are a couple ways to deploy this.

1) Upload the game to itch.io and send out a link to it when someone joins your mailing list.

2) If the game is on Steam, request a bunch of free keys and hand them. (Be careful though, Valve gets suspicious if you request too many keys. Try to keep it under 1000.

3) If you have the game on GOG, they seem to be more liberal with their keys so you can give out a lot more copies through them.

4) Show up on random discords that would like your game and throw out keys like you are Santa. People will start worshiping you like a mythological present giver.

IMPORTANT: In my experience giving someone a .zip file to download does not go very well. Most folks are suspicious of downloading files from unknown people. Remember you are using “meatballs” to grow trust. A shady file download does not inspire confidence.

A demo

This is probably the most common form of freebie. Most games suck and so you need to prove that your game is actually good enough to spend money on. A demo alleviates those fears.

The tricky part is you need to create a demo that leaves the player wanting more instead of making them feel so satisfied that they don’t need to buy the full thing.

Similarly Demos are often required to enter into shows like MIX, PAX, Steam Next Fest.

Couple tips:

1) Keep your demo short, less than 30 minutes of play time

2) ALWAYS link to your social media / mailing list / discord from the game. You want to move them into your funnel.

3) Share your demo with a streamer’s community. A streamer is more likely to play your game on stream if their community is asking them for it. A demo is a great way to get them interested.

4) Keep your demo up past the competition you may have entered it in. It takes a while for a game to get noticed, tested, streamed, then played by the community. So you need time. For more information see this post.


In my experience the beta access “meatball” is the best way to get people to join your mailing list or Discord. Here is how it works

1) During some big promotion have a giant banner, or ending of a trailer that says “Beta coming soon, to save your spot, join our <mailing list / discord>”

2) Promote your upcoming beta everywhere you can: streamers, social, on your steam page, press.

3) Remind new beta subscribers to wishlist your game

4) Remind people to invite their friends too.

5) Keep beta short (1 weekend or 1 week MAX).


A quick contest is a great way to giveaway a “meatball” in exchange for them joining your community. Here is how.

1) Be sure to comply with all local laws for how to fulfill your contest (please consult with legal)

2) Pick items that can be cheaply shipped world wide (like print materials) or steam keys, or gift cards.

3) Do a full marketing campaign about how your are giving away a few copies of your game / gift cards.

4) To enter the contest, advertise that you will be picking X people from your mailing list / discord.

5) Be sure to do multiple messages to your community counting down to the deadline when you will be picking winners.

6) When you pick the winner broadcast the winners (with their consent) so that people know you are a trusted person.

7) Remind people to wishlist.

What doesn’t work

Free steam keys, beta access, contests are all very helpful in incentivising people to join your community. In my experience there are a few things that don’t work too well. You can use them just don’t expect too much of a response

1) Soundtracks - I think because kids these days just want to stream their music on youtube and streaming services. Therefore they don’t typically value music as an individual good that can be downloaded. Plus it is hard to manage MP3s when you typically stream music.

2) Downloadable .exe / .zips - mentioned above. People don’t trust them.

3) Digital files like wall papers and avatars. - Some people like them but they don’t if your game is not already popular / released.

Happy Meat balling

So remember, giving away 1 meatball is a great way to encourage people to buy a whole case of them. It is always important to use the give-away strategically so you can “warm up” the people who sample your product so you can contact them again and remind them when the game launches.

If you need more information about how to market your game, check out my weekly newsletter here.

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