It is utterly tired and cliché to say at this point that social media is a powerful marketing tool, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Products can wither in obscurity if they don’t receive attention online, and they can just as easily explode with popularity if they do get it. A lot goes in to creating a social media marketing campaign, and successful ones rely on numerous factors, not the least of which is luck. What has become remarkably clear over recent weeks, however, is that video game companies aren’t just unlucky in their online marketing efforts, they are especially bad at them.

The Difference Is Passion

The irony at this point is that social media appears to be doing much more to convince potential consumers of how poorly they are being treated by developers and publishers than it is to actually promote video games. Companies like Konami have turned to cheesy tactics to achieve more Facebook “Likes” by locking content away until their pages grow in popularity. Take this page promoting NeverDead, for example, which is trying to lure you in with the promise that “Likes” will get you an undressed female character. Well, as of writing this, the page has only achieved 4,360 Likes and the game is just a few months away from release.

Compare this to fan-organized efforts like Operation Rainfall, which has blossomed into a fearsome community of Wii owners topping 7,000 “Likers” clamouring for Nintendo of America to sell them games currently only available in Japan and Europe (Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower). What might have been limited to complaints on message boards and blogs just a few years ago has led to a well organized campaign thanks to Facebook and Twitter. The boisterous Project Rainfall crowd has added to NoA’s workload with numerous emails, calls, and letters, not to mention the lingering stain of the bad PR caused by the debacle.

Perhaps even more impressive is this page for disgruntled Mega Man fans, unhappy with the cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3 for 3DS. At present, the page “100,000 Strong for Bringing Back Mega Man Legends 3” has received over 33,000 Likes, yet the game’s cancellation was only announced a couple of weeks ago.

It’s quite evident that up to this point, true “grassroots” campaigns like those made by fans possess a passion that game companies have been unable to replicate. Fans are fans for a reason though, they like video games, and they obviously don’t mind fighting for the games they want to play. The question arises: where were all these Mega Man Legends 3 fans before the game was cancelled?

How To Do It Right

I was struck recently by how well run the Facebook page for The Hobbit movies is, in deep contrast to what the typical video game company gets up to. It’s not just that you can go to it and check out production stills and videos from the movies (because similar media is offered up by game companies for their products), but the friendly, respectful, and open manner with which the people of the movies address the fans. Director Peter Jackson makes occasional video blogs (like this one) in which he addresses fans directly, hams it up for the camera, and seems genuinely interested in engaging with the people most closely following what he is working on.

I’m not suggesting game devs do exactly this, they are not, after all, movie people and are probably a lot less comfortable in front of a camera, but they could be much more open with fans. They could, for example, not explode with crazy excuses for game cancellations, like Capcom Europe’s Twitter account did after it was announced Mega Man Legends 3 was cancelled. In that situation, a seemingly unprepared or simply ignorant PR person or persons began sarcastically replying to angry fans, and even went so far as to imply a lack of fan interest was responsible for the cancelled game.

The point is to build hype, and the way in which Jackson does it is to get involved and talk directly to fans. It’s not just the “peak inside” that builds the excitement either, it’s the relationship built out of that communication. It’s obvious Jackson cares about the fans, he respects them, and he’s letting them feel involved. It’s also clear that he’s not teasing fans with something that might never come out. The movies are being made, and despite all the trouble they had getting started, no one doubts that they will get to see The Hobbit movies.

The lesson for video game companies is clear; they need to change the way they conceive of and interact with fans. Rather than insulting potential “Likers” with the promise of undressed video game characters, just let them inside a little bit. Give them a Facebook page they would want to follow. Even more importantly, trust and respect your fans. Make it clear that the games you say you’ll make, you’ll make, and you’ll release. Don’t threaten your fans with an implication that lack of interest will lead to a cancelled games, take risks and believe in your own products. Fans will reward you with free social media advertising, but they are savvy enough to know when they are being played.

The Obvious Power of Social Media as a Marketing Tool, and How Video Game Companies Are Doing it Wrong