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Marketing tips for indie developers who hate marketing

Chris Zukowski discusses the fundamentals of marketing for indie developers who don't know where to start

Indie developers don't want to think about marketing their games. In his GDC talk about 'What to write so people buy', Return to Adventure Mountain's founder Chris Zukowski addressed that specific elephant in the room.

"You just really want to make a game, you don't really like the marketing thing, but you do it because you know you have to," he said. "I get it and that's why I wanted to do this talk. I want to teach the real fundamentals -- not tricks, nothing sleazy."

Zukowski focused on the basics of marketing, with one major piece of advice applying to all aspects of marketing: always have a call to action.

"A lot of people hate marketing because they think of it as coercion," he said. "The goal of marketing is actually to find somebody who's predisposed to like your game and show them that this is exactly the type of game that they want. If somebody doesn't like first-person shooters and you're making an FPS, no amount of marketing or ad spend is going to convert that person."

Why you need a marketing funnel

  • Identify the social media platforms that fit your funnel

When it comes to building a strategy, it's all about the marketing funnel and how to make sure you get your target audience from one step to the next. It has four basic layers: awareness, interest, desire, and action.

Each step of the marketing funnel has its preferred platform

"It's as old as marketing," Zukowski said. "Your goal as a marketer is to find a person that's going to like your game and go from awareness -- not knowing about your game -- to being aware, to being interested in it, to desiring it, to buying it. All you have to do is move somebody from the start to the bottom. The hard part is that there's a lot of steps in between."

Some social networks lend themselves more easily to each step of the funnel, and your job is to identify those and make sure people go from one platform to the other.

"There's so many social media platforms," Zukowski pointed out. "Understanding the funnel helps you rationalise this stuff. There are platforms that are very good at the top of the funnel, which is awareness -- Reddit, Twitter, Imgur, Twitch, or Facebook. All these are great for when somebody doesn't know you, just to be aware of you. That's where you can go viral. [But] all these platforms are actually pretty terrible at getting people to act.

"There's so many social media platforms -- understanding the funnel helps you rationalise this stuff"

"In the middle of the funnel, which is interest and desire, the good platforms are Discord, email marketing and sometimes Twitter. Those are platforms where you really get to build a community, people follow you, you follow them back, you can converse with them daily and there's a real back and forth. Those platforms are really good at making people fall in love with you.

"And then at the bottom of the funnel is just the storefront. It's wherever your game is -- it might be Steam, it could be Epic Game Store. That's where people take action. Not everybody's funnels are going to look the same. I like Imgur so I put that at the top of [my] funnel. My mid-funnel is email marketing, and my games are on Steam so that's my action-level of the funnel."

  • Have a call to action

Not everybody is going to make it to the bottom of your marketing funnel -- you need to point your audience in that direction, every step of the way. Essentially, you can't just wait for people to realise you have a Twitter account they could be following.

"500,000 people are going to view your Reddit post, but only 1,000 are actually going to go over and follow you on Twitter," Zukowski said. "And then a [lower] number of those people are going to follow you on Steam, and then even fewer are going to buy your game. Good copywriting is going to get people from one to the next.

Return to Adventure Mountain's portfolio

"A call to action is just a very clear bit of text that tells somebody exactly what to do next. It's that simple, but so many people forget to do it. 'Like and subscribe', 'Follow me on Twitter', are calls to action and you need to do them to move them off of Reddit and onto your next platform.

"[People being] excited about you is going to fade really fast and then you miss out on an opportunity to convert people from that excitement to actually following you. I know people say: 'Oh it's just visibility. This is good'. Visibility doesn't count. It's a real waste if you don't capture that energy."

Get your marketing message right

  • Understand your audience to improve your marketing message

Understanding who your audience is key when you're trying to build a relationship. One way to do that is to look at what the competition is doing.

"Observe the audience that is predisposed to like [your] game," Zukowski said. "[Players tend to] stick to maybe three or four [genres]. Identify your game's genre and look at the No.1 game that is similar to your genre. Go study that game and also identify maybe one that's not [as] famous. Just go in and read [Steam] reviews. If you read enough negative reviews you're going to see some recurring themes."

"Your copy is not about your product, it's about a feeling. What you're really doing is talking about the benefits"

You should also ask your audience directly about what they like and don't like about your game, and build a list of pros and cons. These recurring themes and issues are what you should focus on later down the line when it comes to your marketing copy.

"Your copy is not about your product, it's about a feeling. What you're really doing is talking about the benefits. You don't want to list features, like 'my game has 50 side quests'. Turn that around and think of how it's a benefit.

"A benefit is: 'Every character has a backstory, you choose which one to explore.' That's what people are going to respond to. Maybe your feature is dual-wielding. Turn that into a benefit and say: 'You get to improvise unique weapon combos to defeat enemies your way'."

  • Do email marketing right

During his talk, Zukowsi pointed out that everybody's got an email address -- and that's why you should have a newsletter and make the most out of it.

"Email marketing is the most effective mid-funnel channel -- nothing gets more clicks," he said. "[But] the typical email signup that I see on indie devs websites just basically says: 'Join my mailing list for news and updates.' That's boring. You can improve it [with] something called a lead magnet."

A lead magnet is essentially an incentive to subscribe, which can take the form of digital gifts.

A free demo or desktop background are good incentives so players sign up for your newsletter

"A lead magnet is a little sweetener to have people join. You can give a soundtrack, beta access to your game, a demo, desktop background -- anything that's free and can be easily sent via a .zip or digitally. You don't want to send off physical patches or pins because those are cost prohibitive."

Zukowski also advised to have a page on your website just for signing up to your mailing list so people can share that link easily. You should also make the most of your autoresponder, he added.

"There are very few indies who actually use an autoresponder and it's a shame. It's one of the most important things you can do with email marketing. When somebody joins a list, you can set it up to automatically send an email on the next day. [You can] pre-write a bunch of marketing messages, so when they join your list they're receiving those pre-programmed messages.

"It's just an automation that really boosts your subscribers. If you don't email them, they're going to forget about you and lose track of who you are."

How to improve your marketing copy

  • Make sure your headlines are catchy

Marketing copy is how you're going to keep your audience interested, and headlines are key to a good copy. But they can be difficult to write and unfortunately you'll need a lot of these, whether that's in emails or Reddit posts.

"If you don't email them, they're going to forget about you and lose track of who you are"

"Look at the list you built, the pros and the cons that people have about your game, and turn those into headlines," Zukowski said. "So for instance, I'm making a Metroidvania game. Maps are a key aspect of a Metroidvania. When I read reviews, people are always complaining about the maps. So, I'm gonna write something that's relevant to what they care about and turned that into a headline: 'Five ways we made the Metroidvania map suck less'."

Don't be afraid to look for inspirations elsewhere and build what marketers call a swipe file.

"A swipe file is just a list of cool headlines that you've seen in the past," Zukowski continued. "Every good marketer has their own swipe file because sometimes you get writer's block and you need some inspiration for a headline."

  • Break things down in the body copy

For the copy, avoid writing a big block of text, and go for a combination of short paragraphs with subheads and bullet points.

"You got to break it up," he said. "People skim along the headlines. And then they go to the bottom because they look for the call to action, they want to see what it's in it for them. Then, once they get to the bottom, they bounce back up to the section that they actually like."

Chris Zukowski

To figure out what your subheads should be, once again refer back to the list of pros and cons you've put together for your game and turn them into subheads.

  • Be direct and confident

In terms of the phrasing to use, avoid apologetic talk and passive voice -- be direct, specific, confident and don't apologise for existing.

"A typical indie marketing call to action that I see sometimes is like: 'Sorry to bother you, I know you're busy, but my little tiny stupid game came out a few days ago, could you just take a look and review, please?' This is terrible. Don't do anything like this. Get rid of weak sauce apologies. Be very honest with your game and be confident about it."

Don't forget to provide a link to your store page or whatever your call to action is -- this may sound obvious but a lot of indies skip that part.

  • Be approachable

It is key that your audience feels like they're building a relationship with you, which is why you want to avoid appearing like a faceless corporation.

"I get these emails from indie studios and they just converted their press release to a newsletter," Zukowsky said. "Like: 'Leaping Lizard Studios is proud to announce the forthcoming edition of our next game.'"

First off, Zukowski advised to not call yourself a studio if you're a solo developer.

"Be honest with what you are. [If] you're just one dude, be that one dude, don't claim you're studio. It's more impressive if you're just one guy," he said. "Then you've got to think of emails as a personal communication between two people. So write it that way: 'Hey Chris, it's John from Leaping Lizard, do you want to see my new game?' It sounds like he's talking to me and that's how you should write your email. Don't say 'hey y'all' or 'hey, guys'. It's one-to-one. so write it that way."

  • Write about things your community cares about

Finally, while being personable is one thing, don't forget what these communications are really about: your game. Not you.

"One of the things I see all the time is [developers] write these stories that are focused on them as marketers," Zukowski said. "Don't write about how you visited PAX East. Talk about stuff that your community cares about. They actually care about your game more than they care about what you did to market your game."

Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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