Developers know that social media marketing can be exhausting. There are a billion platforms you have to manage, each with its own quirks, workflows, and best practices. There's the growing user awareness of the social media algorithms, the never-ending torrent of content to compete with, and overwhelming amount of negative comments.
But there's a reason developers are active on social media: it's where the players are. In the midst of all the mess, what are the best ways to forge connections with players who love your game?
With social media best practices shifting on a regular basis, it's nice to check in with the experts from time to time. Riot Games global social media lead Amanda Jackson (who works on the accounts for Teamfight Tactics (TFT) and Legends of Runeterra (LoR) has been tackling these challenges for the last four years and knows that other marketers, developers, and community managers are trying to solve the same problems she is.
Jackson's basic-level advice for any online marketer is to meet players where they are, rather than forcing them to gather on one platform or another. But that's just the beginning of what she's learned while shepherding Riot's strategy-focused spinoffs through the world of social media.
What do game devs want to communicate to their fans?
Jackson works on two Riot Games properties that helped put the "Games" in Riot Games. Both Legends of Runeterra and Teamfight Tactics are League of Legends spinoffs, which meant that when the company launched social presences for both games it had to find who its fans would be, knowing only a handful of them would migrate from the League playerbase.
"Something that I like to think about when approaching social media is 'what is the main thing that you want to communicate to your fans?'" Jackson explained. After determining that message, Jackson said that social media teams can establish social and content pillars to drive the rest of their strategy.
In her case, she and her colleagues wanted to focus on providing "unique" and "cool" experiences on social channels that are unique to their games. She pointed to the wacky tone of Teamfight Tactics as one jumping-off point. Though TFT features many League of Legends characters, it has a more funny, zany, laid-back tone than the competitive MOBA.
TFT is a light strategy game, and Jackson said its audience is more receptive to puzzles and brain teasers than other Riot Games communities. "Those fans are interested more so in that kind of content versus other ones," she explained.
Sometimes that content takes shape by asking players how they'd response to in-game scenarios pulled from TFT. Jackson described that scenario as building "big brain moves" that players can pull off in strategy games, and asking players what their next move would be.
The cards have been dealt and the game is in session! Who's face is gracing your character sheet in this campaign? pic.twitter.com/yAN8jZg4gq— Legends of Runeterra (@PlayRuneterra) July 11, 2022
It's a strong case for social media managers to not just know the audiences for their games, but to forge a relationship with the games themselves. Jackson's process can be tweaked and adapted for all kinds of games. League of Legends players probably don't want to be asked to solve in-game problems, but they'll likely be excited to watch how someone else makes the most of their favorite champion.
If you want to see this in action, you can watch how companies like Respawn Entertainment also feature "big-brain" player clips on their social channels.
Tick tock, eggs. Maggie’s comin’ for ya 🎯pic.twitter.com/jsNbivcScm— Apex Legends (@PlayApex) July 18, 2022
Asking players to divulge how they'd deal with a particular attack in a first-person shooter probably won't deliver results, but using these clips can help players learn from each other.
How Riot Games picks new social platforms
When a new social media platform picks up traction, there are two ways that a social media manager might learn about them. First, an enthusiastic junior on their team might pitch the new platform, particularly if they're younger and it's a platform more popular with younger players.
Second, a company executive has learned about some hot new social platform from either their kid or other mainstream news coverage, and tells that social media manager to build a content strategy for it and have it deployed by next week.
Jackson is living this phenomenon right now with the growth of TikTok. When platforms like Tiktok are still finding their feet, she says it's better to give it a little bit of time before going all-in. "We really want to be mindful and specific about where we're going and making sure if we are going into new platforms, it is going to be best serving audiences there that make a ton of sense," she says.
"When we do go and launch channels, it needs to be with the best intentions in mind and the best kind of content strategy and plan to fully support that moving forward."
Having had both juniors and executives pitching her on emerging social platforms, Jackson's had to put that playbook into action in response to both groups. She explained that when a junior employee familiar with a new network comes to you with a pitch, the best response is to give them a chance to show you what it is they're passionate about, what their plans would be, and how they'd approach it.
"That's the way I like to facilitate mentorship in that kind of regard," she said, noting that it still wouldn't translate to a full-steam effort.
She often takes a similar tack when receiving feedback from upper management as well. Executives sometimes have a tendency to say "hey, here's a great platform, let's go," but Jackson said it's better to maintain that slow, considerate process even if there's pressure from above.
"It's about taking the time to actually get on the platform, taking time to consume as much content as you can until you have a really clear understanding of how brands or users are interacting with the platform," she said.
With regards to TikTok, she explained that she's watched brands on the platform find success when they act as "creators." "It doesn't tend to be as kind for brands that operate the way they would on any other platform," she observed.
Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok all use video...differently
Video content is an essential part of any modern marketing strategy, but any marketer can point out how frustrating it is when already-expensive video production doesn't just translate equally across popular video platforms.
It's actually been a decent challenge for games on TikTok, especially since the platform exclusively uses vertical video. Games are a natural fit for YouTube, which supports the horizontal video of PC and console games.
Jackson again pointed to the need to be "cool" and "unique." "For TFT, instead of just a gameplay clip or something like that, what are some cool things you could do with content capture?" she asked. "Could you tell a story with the different tacticians and Little Legends where they're doing something goofy, where you have more spins or zooms or things of that nature?"
"I think also moving away from the idea of needing those heavily-polished or highly-produced assets that have key visuals [is important]," she added. "In the past, assets had to have that highest level of polish or it couldn't go out the door. I think that's kind of shifting a little bit with what we see in short form video that's becoming dominant on all platforms."
The reception to less-polished content has also shaped Jackson's thinking on how her team uses vertical video.
In a world of pure polish, every shot of TFT would be perfectly framed, with no obvious uncomfortable cropping. "But social moves in such a quick way that we're not getting as much pushback from fans," she noted. Even if TFT video looks a little rough, fans still respond if the story they're telling is getting through.
Adapting to the almighty algorithm
With the exception of holdout Twitter users like yours truly, most social media users are neck deep in algorithmic content distribution. It's so pervasive that TikTok users will refer to "different sides" of TikTok, a reference to the vague gatherings of users who tend to view the same type of content.
Jackson said that at Riot Games, her team tries not to get "too bogged down" with thinking about gaming the algorithm. "We've never taken the approach of 'Instagram is prioritizing Reels above everything else, and that's what we have to do,'" she said. She prefers analyzing what kind of content her team can execute well on, whether it will resonate with players, and if they'll engage with it after viewing.
"Not every post has to do those absolute numbers where it's blowing the roof off because everyone in the world saw it. We just want it to resonate with groups that are going to connect with it the most," she said. In her view, building a healthy content strategy outweighs chasing the latest trend.
On the one hand, that independence is admirable. On the other hand, a non-zero amount of social media content is trend-chasing. You have meme templates. You have TikTok audio remixes. You have pop culture and current events. Plenty of social media brand managers in video games build content based on referential culture.
What is nightmarish about that strategy, however, is when that trend-chasing gets nasty. During actor Johnny Depp's defamation lawsuit against actor and former spouse Amber Heard, some companies and content creators jumped on the bandwagon of making reaction content, or content referencing the trial.
In that case, these brands suddenly associated themselves with a slow-motion, real-time instance domestic violence, and sparked anger from some viewers.
"Doing due diligence to take a look at what everybody is doing at that moment is really important," Jackson said. "There's this natural inclination that if something is trending right now, we need to hop on it at this exact second." She also noted that when a company has the opposite approach—requiring content to go through two layers of approval before it can get out the door—it can sabotage a team's efforts.
What's an example of how marketers can make this work in real-time? Jackson referenced the "pondering the orb" meme of 2021, where internet users goofed on an old art piece of Saruman from Lord of the Rings. The TFT social media managers brought the meme to Jackson, noting that there's a Little Legend named Dango in their roster who is a floating cat orb.
After some giggling and sign-offs, a "pondering the Dang-orb" meme was born.
Can't talk, pondering this dangorb pic.twitter.com/oCscB1e5U0— Teamfight Tactics (@TFT) December 6, 2021
"That's harmless, that's in good fun," Jackson said.
The TFT team also took advantage of the Noodles the Pug "no bones" meme to highlight the Little Legend Gloop, who also has no bones.
When it's a no bones day but...— Teamfight Tactics (@TFT) October 19, 2021
so is every day. pic.twitter.com/6VVeBHG4xf
"For us, it's about identifying the areas where we have something unique that we can use to lean into it a little bit more, and then doing due diligence to ask if this meme is worthy of our investment," Jackson said.
Now if you're familiar with the "pondering the orb" meme, you might remember that the art in question comes from the 1986 tabletop role-playing game Middle-earth Quest: A Spy in Isengard. That means the art is copyrighted either by the book's creator or the Tolkien estate.
It does raise the specter of copyright issues, which can dramatically hit a company like Riot Games. If you or your team is nervous of a challenge like that, Jackson encouraged developers to look at their own games' assets to see if there's anything that aligns with a meme or social media moment (like the "no bones" meme from above.
"If you are able to leverage the things that your game has, you can recreate [a meme or trend], put yourself into the conversation and make it your own. That's usually the best advice and something that we try to go by as well."
The world of social media marketing can be full of contradictory information and well-intended advice that can lead developers down dark paths. Jackson's perspective, and how it translates into marketing content for Riot, is a helpful guidepost for developers looking to market their games online.