Demystifying earned media: how does indie game PR really work?

Public relations can seem like a strange and arcane art sometimes. This oft-misunderstood promotional field confuses even the most seasoned of marketing veterans with its nebulous nature and sometimes unpredictable results. Even the biggest brands often struggle to deploy public relations effectively – so how does indie game PR really work?

The three media: paid vs owned vs earned

In the media space, we often talk about ‘paid media’, ‘owned media’ and ‘earned media’. Understanding these three distinct areas is key to understanding the role, purpose and process of PR.

Paid media means content that is bought by advertisers. This could be anything from a billboard to a TV slot to a sponsored YouTube video. The key to paid media is that money is exchanged for some kind of guarantee – of a certain number of impressions or clicks, or simply a guarantee that the content will appear, often for a particular amount of time or in a given slot. Paid media is normally (but not always) controlled largely by the advertiser: a journalist may write a promotional feature in a magazine, but the advertiser will normally be shown the content before it is published and have the opportunity to request revisions to its satisfaction. Paid media in the digital space is often enhanced by performance-tracking tools, to help advertisers measure the success of their campaigns and accurately calculate their return on investment, allowing them make tweaks and changes and plan subsequent campaigns accordingly (this is known as ‘performance-based’ marketing).

Owned media refers to a media channel that is controlled by the brand doing the advertising. An obvious example of this would be the PlayStation Blog. (As an aside, social media platforms sit in a weird middle-ground between all three of paid, earned and owned, but probably most comfortably sit in this category.) Content on owned media channels costs nothing on a per-item basis but relies on that channel already having an active and engaged community that’s interested in your content: unless you use other promotional tactics to bring people to your channel, new potential consumers won’t stumble upon it.

Earned media refers to the use of other people’s owned media channels to get your message across. In essence, it’s all about convincing channel owners to publish your content of their own volition. As no money changes hands, this normally involves a negotiation of some kind, whereby the channel owner is shown the value of your content to their own audience and in some cases offered something in return (such as better access to other products, exclusivity arrangements, or simply specific content types tailored for their audience or platform).

It is largely in the earned media space that PR operates.

Earning your place

So if PR is all about earned media, how do you earn your place as an indie game developer?

There are plenty of guides on the web explaining to indie game studios how to put together a media kit, how to write a press release, and so on and so forth. Many of these guides are very good and I highly recommend the excellent Pixel Prospector for your indie PR prerequisites. The truth, however, is that in a space as crowded as indie games in 2017, it takes hard work and persistence to earn your place in magazines, on websites and on YouTube or Twitch channels.

The trick is to put yourself in the position of the channel owners you’re looking to impress. Think about the job they do, and what’s important to them. As we’ve already learned, owning a media channel is about engendering and retaining a meaningful audience. Most commercial websites are funded primarily by advertisers buying paid media content on their platforms, and that relies on their having a large and engaged audience to advertise to. Thus, all that really matters to the editor of a website is: “will this content help me to grow our readership, or retain the readership we already have?”

This isn’t as simple as “is this content clickbait?” of course: developing and retaining an audience is as much about voice, message and quality as it is about an attractive headline. There are many factors that go into the creation of valuable content. But the key thing to remember is that earned media is just that: earned, not owed. As an indie game developer, your main PR goal is to prove your worth.

Proving your worth

If you’re – say – Sony Computer Entertainment, this is a fairly easy process. Your worth is obvious. You’re already a leading player in the video game market. People flock to games websites expressly to find out more about what you’re doing. The worth of a PlayStation story is implicit, so simply issuing a press release is going to generate a buzz in and of itself. That’s why, if you’re Sony Computer Entertainment, much of your PR activity is going to be around controlling that message, and negotiating for bigger and better content, rather than simply content full-stop.

As an indie studio, your goal should never be to compete with Sony Computer Entertainment.

If you’re a first-time indie developer, here’s a harsh reality to face up to: unless you get exceptionally lucky, your first PR endeavours aren’t going to be very successful. This is to say nothing of the quality of your game: it’s just that it doesn’t have market value yet. No one is looking for your game, therefore it doesn’t have the inherent worth of a PlayStation story, or even a story about a better-known indie studio. Your job now is to slowly but surely prove to the media that your game can have value, and is worth an early investment of trust.

Trust and PR: a volatile partnership

Let’s take a brief moment to talk about trust in the context of PR, because I think it’s an oft-overlooked topic but one that’s super important. Trust is a vital concept in PR. Without a mutually trusting relationship between publicists and channel owners, the whole process breaks down.

As a PR consultancy, we trust the press to be honest and impartial in the content they create about our clients. We trust that they won’t favour one game over another because – say – one game’s publisher recently bought paid media on their website. We trust that they will assign a review of a game to someone who’s an expert in that genre, rather than someone who’s known to hate games of that ilk. We trust that they’ll write that an average game is average, even though a review that laughs at a game for being dreadful is more likely to get clicks than one that calmly analyses the strengths and weaknesses of a middling product. We trust that they’ll publish content when they’ve told us they’ll publish content, and that they’ll be honest with us as to the reasons why they’ve chosen to give a particular game a miss. We trust that they’ll refrain from publishing content until an embargo lifts, and that they’ll respect any exclusivity arrangements we have with other channel owners.

In exchange, a journalist needs to trust that the content we offer them is of value. They trust that news we send them is factually accurate. They trust that we won’t lie about a release date we know won’t be met. They trust that we won’t claim something is going to be the best indie game of the year when the reality is we know it’s likely to be a 6/10. Most importantly, they need to trust that when we send them a game, and we tell them it’s worthy of attention, we really mean that. They need to trust in the long-term value of what we have to offer. If that trust breaks down, on even a single project, why would they trust that the next game we send over is any different?

This idea is at the heart of all the work we do. It’s why we’re not afraid to say “sorry, we can’t help you” to a studio whose game is just unlikely to resonate with the press. And it’s why we like collaborating closely with clients to develop and refine everything about their offering – from the messaging, to the trailer and screenshots, and even the game itself – before we even start thinking about pitching to media figures.

The indie game PR process

So, 1,400 words later, it’s time to get to the heart of the matter. How does indie game PR work? What’s the process?

The truth is, it’s going to be different for every studio. It depends if they have other games on the market already. It depends on the current quality of their product. It depends how long it is until release. It depends on a multitude of factors.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re a first-time indie developer. You’ve never released a game before. You haven’t announced this one yet. How do you go from zero to hero? What steps should we take?

Step 1: Making the game known

The first step is to make the game known. This could be a big, extravagant announcement, or it could be a few social media posts. The important thing is that, unless people are aware of your game, they aren’t going to be producing any content about it.

The other trick here is to make the best possible first impression. Even if you only have a few work-in-progress in-development screenshots at this stage, you’ll want to think about how they’ll be perceived. Don’t release anything you’re not proud of, or that doesn’t have purpose.

You need to work on the assumption that no one cares. That’s the harsh reality. There are literally thousands of start-up game developers, and maybe five of them get media attention each day. You are nobody; this is your first step toward becoming somebody.

Step 2: Building momentum

From the perspective of an indie game PR consultancy, at this stage we’re actually thinking as much about the future as we are about the present. Yes, we’d like for people to cover your first announcement, but we have to start small and work upwards. If no one knows about your game yet, how can we prove its value?

We want to get a few media figures invested in the future of your game – to get them to buy into its worth from an early stage – and then use that as a stepping stone for future coverage. Very few indie games hit IGN’s front page on day one. But getting coverage on five smaller games websites with the first campaign, then ten on the next campaign, and 15 the campaign after that, will help us gradually increase the media value of what you have to offer.

This is why it’s vital to start early. It is such a shame when studios say they’re releasing their first game in two months and so are starting to think about PR. We might be able to gain a little bit of traction in that time, but really it’s too late. Ask almost any indie developer who’s been successful in PR, and they’ll tell you their best decision was to start talking about the game as soon as they had something to talk about.

Step 3: Planning your big hits

As you move toward release, you’ll want to start planning for the big hits. When you’re working toward a product launch, the three big hits you’ll probably want to think about are a major announcement, a preview campaign, and the launch itself.

With the initial momentum built with early coverage, even if it’s even on smaller sites, you now have more inherent value to offer at these crucial moments.

And the truth is that, while a news campaign six months ahead of release might not stick in anyone’s memory come release day, success in each of these campaigns is likely to improve your chances of success in each subsequent campaign.

Say for example your news campaign gets picked up by ten small games websites, but only one major outlet. That’s still a good step, because next time you have something of importance to say, you’ve already been endorsed by – say – Rock, Paper, Shotgun. The editors of PC Gamer read Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Even if they didn’t post about your news at the time, they’ll probably have seen it – so when your email lands in their inbox next time around, they’ll know that other outlets already consider it of value. And that communicates the potential value of a hands-on preview to them.

So another key aspect of our work is helping studios to plan a series of big hits to upgrade their status in the media ahead of launch. We look at a range of factors – the best people to reach, the best times to reach them, and the content types they’re looking to publish – before pitching those people in a way that’s meaningful to them.

The aim is to build a groundswell of awareness and excitement for your game over time, thus being in a position where its value is clearly understood at the most crucial time of all: your game’s release into the market.

Step 4: The big day

If you’ve done all this groundwork, then the big day is likely to be much more successful than it would be otherwise in terms of PR. Journalists and content creators already know your game exists, and should already understand what value it would add to their channel. Now, it’s about making sure they have everything they could possibly need should they want to publish some content about your game’s launch.

This means your launch campaign absolutely must start long in advance of your launch. Typically, we recommend having your launch trailer, other assets, Steam page, and finished game code ready at least one month before your game is due to go live.

Journalists and YouTubers and the like – they’re busy people. They are faced with a constant barrage of studios and publishers who are trying to earn their spot on these channels. And as an indie developer, you’re already at a distinct disadvantage. When you ask the media for launch coverage, you join a queue – and it’s a queue that the AAA industry gets to skip.

Your job – and ours collectively, if we work together – is to make your launch materials as superb as they possibly can be, and to get them into the hands of as many media figures as possible, as far in advance of launch as possible. It’s about communicating what you have to offer, when it’s going to be available, the sort of content you’re hoping they will publish and the time you’re hoping that they will publish it – and about making the job of creating that coverage as easy as it possibly can be.

Planning for the unexpected

Working with earned media can be infuriating. There are never any guarantees, and your fate is always going to be ultimately dictated by someone else – someone who owes you nothing. That means it’s rare for any campaign to go exactly as planned.

Maybe a journalist will miss the embargo note and run a review or story too early. Maybe your press release will land at the same time as a huge announcement from Microsoft, and get lost in a frenzied rush to publish the day’s hottest news. Maybe a major YouTuber will promise you a day-one video, only for something to come up in their personal life, and thus have to skip it after all. Maybe the reviews editor goes off sick, and never receives your email at all.

There are two final, vitally important components to effective indie game PR, and they are contingency planning, and lessons-logging.

Contingency planning is about knowing what you will do if something goes wrong. What if nobody cares about your announcement? What if the reviews don’t land? What’s your next-best strategy should things not work out the way you hope (which will happen, at least once, on every campaign)?

Lessons-logging is about constantly fishing for feedback, and constantly re-evaluating your strategy accordingly. No one covered your announcement? Find out why. Was it the game? The screenshots? The pitch? The timing? Write down that reason. Read it back the next time you’re planning a campaign, and figure out how you can mitigate the risk of it happening a second time.

Often this means being ruthless. If a YouTuber tells you the game was simply too slow-paced to make for compelling video content, you have a decision to make. Are you willing to compromise your creative vision to get your game in front of half a million extra pairs of eyes, or are you prepared to risk getting less exposure to keep that vision intact? These are decisions that need to be made by you and you alone – but you need to weigh up the potential opportunities and risks to your PR.

This was a very long blog post

So there you are! Almost 3,000 words later, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the process that goes into building a great indie game PR campaign – but hopefully this has given you a little more insight into the world of earned media, and the lengthy and arduous process that goes into making games a success.

And a hugely important thing to remember: those break-out hits? Those games that came out of nowhere and took everyone by surprise? Those indie titles that turned up overnight and took the world by storm?

Almost all of them, secretly, over an extended period of time, went through this process. You just didn’t know about it until the pay-off.

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