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Netflix changed marketing for TV — can video games follow?

In the streaming and subscriptions economy, video game marketing needs to focus on building brands, not just selling products.

When Stranger Things Season 3 dropped on Netflix this summer, it ripped up the record books again in terms of viewing figures. According to Netflix itself (usually reticent to provide numbers) some 40.7 million accounts had watched the show within four days of it streaming.

And just three months after that record-breaking season, Netflix released a trailer for Season 4. It’s a short clip that doesn’t give much away, as you’d expect. But it’s a placeholder, a starting point for the build of anticipation — and to keep viewers engaged in the story when there’s so much content elsewhere to distract them, from Netflix itself, Amazon Prime and others.

Full disclosure — I’ve worked on the social campaigns for Stranger Things, but the drive to engage with consumers in new and creative ways is driven by everything Netflix does when it comes to speaking to its audience. That’s because it’s not just selling new content – and subscriptions – to viewers; a huge part of its marketing efforts are focusing on retaining “customers.”

“Stand-out” is the biggest challenge for anyone providing content for TV and movie streaming/subscription services. Creating a great movie or TV series, recruiting top talent and getting it signed to Netflix or Amazon is just the start. Grabbing eyeballs and keeping them is what’s tough.

And with the demand and uptake of existing on-demand/subscription/streaming platforms within games, such as Steam (30 million+ active daily players) and Xbox Live (60 million+ users) growing, plus new players, such as Google Stadia and Apple Arcade, entering the market – the games industry as a whole can learn much from what Netflix, Amazon Prime and rivals are doing well.

Basically, that means switching from a model of selling A Product and instead building brands, engaging with audiences – and keeping them.

Video games are immersive — so why isn’t the marketing?

Millions of us devote hours of our daily lives interacting with video games. It is by far the most immersive form of media the world has to offer. But the majority of game marketing is still built around the old-fashioned trailer, which can often be a one hit, short window, blink and you’ll miss it affair. Disposable, even.

The streaming age requires different tactics, where acquisition and retention play equally important roles. The likes of Netflix, Amazon, and Spotify realized some time ago that by building brands that have a stronger relationship with audiences, they can harness their passion to drive wider reach; making their brands as part of the daily conversation to build both awareness and the sense of belonging to a wider community.

Their key messages are all about ease of access and encouraging a wider sense of brand and content advocacy, capitalizing on passionate audiences spreading the love. In fact, in the world of subscriptions and streamed content, audience retention, and decreasing customer churn is arguably even more important than user acquisition.

In short, we need to start thinking of games marketing primarily in terms of brand and audience building tactics; being immersive, emotionally engaging, culturally aware, reactive, always-on, and ensuring our campaigns have entertainment value in their own right – with less of a focus on “buy now” or price-led messaging.

Good news! We’re already doing it

The great news is that it is already happening in some parts of the business. The marketing campaign for Borderlands 3 is a fantastic example. Yes, TV ads were bought, but the Let’s Make Some Mayhem social and YouTube campaign was inspired, and helped drive a frenzy among fans of the brand who had been waiting for a new Borderlands game for seven years.

But Gearbox and 2K also tapped into that anticipation and nostalgia, whilst additionally driving new sales even before Borderlands 3 arrived. On announcing the new game, a Game of the Year Edition of the first Borderlands title was released on PS4 and Xbox, coming complete with all past expansions. In addition, a new HD texture pack for Borderlands: The Handsome Collection shipped for Xbox One X and PS4 Pro users.

Elsewhere, it goes without saying that what Epic Games is doing with Fortnite is pretty, well, epic. The game has essentially become a lifestyle brand. It even has its own community anthem. And in turn brands are still falling over themselves to be included within that world, two years after the game originally dropped.

Social responsibilities

But Fortnite and Borderlands 3 remain outliers. The exception rather than the rule. Luckily, looking to more established streaming and entertainment brands outside the world of games, we can draw plenty of inspiration – here are three simple techniques:

  • Gamify social — It’s almost too obvious to say that games should emulate their own mechanics on social media. Netflix has been at it for some time, most notably with its “re-watch” trailer and Instagram “choose your own adventure” game for Stranger Things almost two years ago.
  • Create immersive experiences — There’s a huge opportunity to build worlds on social media that are as well produced as a game itself. The objective here is to keep audiences ‘in-world’ and part of the action, bringing them closer to their favorite storylines and characters. Netflix actually released a RateMe “people rating” app that was the subject of a Black Mirror episode, allowing fans to see just how miserable their own existence was in real life.
  • Stay audience and emotion-led — Otherwise known as the ‘surprise and delight’ tactic. Sometimes we should let the product take a back seat in order to simply entertain your passionate fans. Bring your brand in to the real-world to create genuine emotional reactions.

Those are just a handful of examples of campaigns that placed selling a product to one side in favor of deeper audience engagement and, ultimately, retention.

The world of games has all the immersive heritage and natural fan behavior that make it perfect for adopting the same tactics — a prosperous, streamed, and fully-subscribed future depends on it.

Chris Hassell is a founder at Ralph, which works across TV, video games, movies and music, helping entertainment brands connect with audiences via social and live channels.


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