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May 24, 2005
Case Study

How to Build a Rabid Fan Community to Help Market a Product That Doesn't Exist (Yet)

SUMMARY: How can you build a fan base for an entertainment property that's still in production? A typical videogame marketing cycle starts at least nine months out from product launch date. You begin by contacting fans of your company's prior games and let them know a new one is coming. But what if you're a brand new company with no past games, no past track record, no past fans? Discover how the new studio behind Darkwatch turned an unknown game into one of the most-anticipated launches of 2005 by building a community online. Includes creative samples and fascinating results data reports....
Last summer, Sammy Studios' marketing team sat down to map out a launch campaign for their new cowboy/vampire videogame, Darkwatch.

Entertainment property launches -- whether they be movies, games, or albums -- tend to follow a fairly standard pattern. First you spend six to 12 months whomping up media and consumer interest with a series of prerelease campaigns featuring clips and enticing content.

Then on release day itself, hopefully you've primed the potential fan pump enough that hordes stream in to buy it. Next, word of mouth and reviews take over while everyone watches early grosses to see if it will be a hit.

Only problem -- Sammy wasn't an established studio. Darkwatch was their very first videogame.

They had no fans of past games to pull on. They had no box office stars to tout. Plus, there are no other games in the cowboy/vampire genre with fan bases to cross-promote to. And Sammy's marketing budget was in the high thousands, instead of the low millions.

But their goal was huge. "We want to do in the range of a million units sold, and be in the top 10-15 games of the year," explained Meelad Sudat, Director of PR.

Obviously the team planned on launching an official site that would have all the standard bells and whistles. But a standard dot com site is something that's overtly written from a company to the world. It's a formal messaging platform for marketing.

The team wanted to get potential fans involved, and a standard dot com site wouldn't cut it. So, they decided to launch a fan-community site at the same time -- called

Why dot org? Branding and ethics.

"Dot com is the first thing people will type in when looking for a site. We wanted the fan site to be a little more fan-driven and underground. Dot org is a little less formal."

While the dot org was upfront about being hosted by the marketers behind the game, "we're not putting a lot of marketing verbiage of hyping the game like a company would," explains Web producer Sandi McCleary Spier. "It's a community where everybody goes to participate, talk about the game, and make friends."

To bake in that personal one-to-one feeling a true fanclub site would have, the team hired an individual host for the site -- "Your fearless Darkwatch Leader, Andrew." The home page featured a personal introduction from Andrew, and he chatted on message boards, personally answered visitor emails, posted news notes, etc. featured three specific types of content:

Content Type #1. Ongoing flow of exclusive previews

"With action entertainment consumers, the more you tease them, the more they want to see the thing," says Spier. In other words, you sell more tickets, games or rentals by giving out as much content as free up-front. "We never worried about putting a playable demo out there available to anyone for free because when they play a slice of the game, they get more exposed. The more exposed they get, the more they'll want to see more of it."

So, the site's AV Room was loaded up with more than enough content to fascinate a would-be fan.

Fans want to feel special by getting access to details no one else has. So, every time the production or marketing team came up with new content, they leaked samples to the community site at least 24 hours prior to officially announcing it to the rest of the world.

Fans in New York were even invited to meet each other in person and play new segments of the game at a pizza party at an arcade in Manhattan this spring for one special night.

Content Type #2. Community features

The classics were all there -- message boards, polls, chat, etc. Plus, Andrew posted pictures that fan members sent in of themselves doing Darkwatch-related things.

As the community grew, Andrew tried to foster groups and new fan leaders who would drive much of the site's impetus. For example, he asked the community to nominate and vote for officers for their own union to build buzz about Darkwatch on the third party game info site GameSpot.

To get access to all features, you had to register to join the community, of course. The pitch for membership on the dot org home page didn't mention that registering was free. Free registration isn't all that compelling to the typical young adult male who's been asked to register at hundreds of sites over the past decade of his life.

Instead, the headline focused on benefits that fans really care about, in fan-club-style language:

"JOIN NOW!!! Become part of an online community of like-minded fans dedicated to spreading the word. Get on the inside and receive exclusive content, enter special contests and, most importantly... MAKE A DIFFERENCE!!!"

Content Type #3. Evangelism point reward program

Young adult male gamers are a competitive bunch. So Andrew posted a continual series of challenges (averaging two new challenges per week) that registered members could take on to rack up points. The highest scorers were listed on the top 10 members list on the dot org home page.

Challenges often involved helping out the Darkwatch marketing team with an evangelism program. For example, inviting friends who joined up too, adding a Darkwatch logo to your email SIG, making your own Darkwatch banners and posting them to your own site or blog, etc. Sometimes they involved market research, such as taking surveys or even participating in local Darkwatch focus groups. Or just taking part on the site -- for example, reading a special team message online. The average challenge was worth anywhere from 10-300 points. The top scorer in month nine had 33,834 points.

To kickstart the dot org site, the marketing team ran a launch banner ad campaign across a variety of third party gaming sites and email newsletters during September/October 2004 (nine months before the targeted game launch date of May 3, 2005).

As you'd imagine, the creative (link to samples below) was very dark with a few enigmatic words written in "blood" glowing on the screen. It's tough to make creative stand out on most gaming sites, which are rife with excitement, but these banners managed.

The team also sent email blast invites to a highly targeted permission list of young adult male Sega PS2 and Xbox owners. This creative also featured the dark image with brief bloody copy.

Then, as the community grew, the team sent regular monthly email messages to registered members to keep them coming back. (Link to sample below.)

Sadly, May 3rd came and went without a product launch due to one of those situations no marketing department can foresee. Sammy Studios' parent company was bought by Sega, who weren't interested in owning another studio and promptly cut the project loose.

Undaunted, the development team renamed themselves High Moon Studios, kept both Darkwatch sites actively live, and hit the industry show circuit seeking a new publisher/distributor.

"Absolutely one of the biggest things publishers noticed was the amount of buzz about the game that was out there," notes Sudat. "Interest in the game was so strong, that when we announced our independence just before the game developer's conference in March, the flood of interest was amazing."

Due in large part to the fan buzz built from the dot org site, High Moon Studios were able to cut a deal within 60 days for new distribution. Sudat notes that although this naturally seemed "like forever" to the team, it's actually an "amazingly short time to cut a deal."

The game is now scheduled for launch in late summer 2005. The initial banner ads to drive traffic to the site ranged in performance from clickthroughs of .55%--3.47%, with an average around 1.54%. It's worth noting even the lowest figure is well above average for banners.

The permission email campaign to the tightly targeted list had an open rate of 17.29% (roughly average for a great subject line to an outstanding, fresh list) and a clickthrough of 33.5% (far above average).

The New York event was an outstanding success; in fact, "other people at the venue wondered what was going on and came to look over their shoulders." Plus most attendees brought previously unexposed friends to the event. "Evangelism like that is definitely valuable."

So far more than 3,000 site visitors have registered as fans, 25% of whom are female and 89% of whom first learned about Darkwatch from another member.

"Several thousand hard-core fans can lead to sales of millions," explains Sadut. "The excitement has to extend several generations beyond them -- people who get exposed to it from fans. The more casual gamers lag behind hard-core gamers."

The High Moon team divulged loads more data for you to peruse, including traffic stats, challenge stats, and month-over-month site gains. You can see it all in a 11-page memo we've posted with the Creative Samples at the link directly below.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples and a detailed results data report:

FanPimp - the fanclub marketing agency behind the campaign (note: this is where "Andrew" works):

High Moon Studios (formerly Sammy Studios):

See Also:

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