The selling-in process: How we pitch games to the media

One of the questions people sometimes ask us is: how exactly does PR work? How do we go from this conversation, to our games appearing in the press? What do you do to make that happen?

Some people imagine that we send out press releases and journalists pick their favourites to write about. Others assume we have a certain ‘sway’ with the media, or that we can ‘call in favours’ to get coverage. Others still wonder if an exchange of money is involved. In fact, the truth is a little more complex. So I figured: why not give you folks a walkthrough?

Making friends

Often people talk about ‘courting the press’ but, in my experience, our relationships with the media are much more organic and less cynical than that makes it sound. When you work in and around the same field, you meet people you get on with. Because of the nature of the work we do, often these people are journalists. Some of them were journalists back in the day, when I was doing the same job. Others are new to the field but we’ve ended up meeting at an event. I went to lunch with an editor at a major publication the other day – not because I was pitching something or trying to get ‘in’ with the right people, but because they’re a mate, and we hadn’t seen each other in ages.

So, because we’re friends, they’ll do me favours and get our clients’ games in their publication, right? Well, no, because they’re a professional: no journalist or editor worth their salt will favour their friends’ projects over the needs of their readership. And in fact, we barely talked about games all afternoon.

Rather, because we have a meaningful relationship, I have a good sense of what they like and dislike; they might sometimes tell me how work is going, their current challenges and obstacles, or what they’re really hoping to do more of. So when I next think about which reporters a particular game might be well suited to, I’ll have a good idea of how it might fit into that particular editor’s plans.

Also, crucially, we trust each other. They trust me not to bombard them with crap they won’t care about, because I know what they’re into and what their audience responds to. And I trust them to be honest, to take a look at something if I do say “look, you’re really going to like this,” and to be fair and impartial in any coverage they do provide.

When people ask me if I have a “network of press contacts,” I’m always tempted to say: “no, but I’m friends with quite a few.”

The four Ws

Journalists are taught to report on the four Ws: who, what, where, and why? In truth, a good PR professional will live by the same words when starting to put together a campaign.

In establishing the best way to get your game into the press, we often like to talk with our clients about:

  • What do you want to talk about? What story are you hoping to tell?
  • Where would you like to be seen? What publications are the best fit for your game or studio?
  • Who at these publications will be the best fit to tell your story?
  • Why will they care?

If we don’t have a strong answer to all of the above, then the chances are, the story will fall flat. It’s vital to pair compelling storytelling with targeted pitching, to give you the best chance of cutting through the noise and adding value to the publications you want to reach.

…plus an H

With this out of the way, another important question we have to ask is: how. By what method are we going to make the right people aware of this story?

The old gold standard of public relations was the press release. We still use them, but largely because they’re a good conduit of information, whereby if someone is looking for information or news about a game, being able to head to GamesPress and browse some press releases is a handy thing to be able to do. They’re also a great way for us to focus on what it is we’re trying to communicate. In reality, though, we don’t find them especially useful for actually getting stories into the press.

Why? Because eight hundred thousand of the bloody things are emailed out each day. These days, reporters tell me it’s not uncommon for them to receive several hundred in a single day. Most of them never get read. This tallies with our own data, which suggests the average press release we sent out is read by around 20% of the people we send it to.

Clearly, however, we have not gone out of business. So what do we do to get games into the media?

Well, in the most part, we combine one-to-one discussions with personalised mass-mail outreach. First, we pick the – say – 20 people we really think are the best fit for the story, and we get in touch. “We’ve got a story we’d like to discuss,” we tell them. “We think it’s a great fit for you, for these reasons. We’ll be sending this out next week, on Tuesday. What do you reckon? How can we make this work?”

Now, perhaps only five of these 20 pitches end up being picked up – but we often find that this route is the best way to generate really interesting story opportunities, that go beyond ‘a quick news post’. We often end up having follow-up conversations, about things that might work in the future; or we find out they aren’t interested right now, but that the game would make a great fit for a feature they’re running next month, and so on. We learn a lot from these discussions too, and even a failed pitch can often result in gaining great insight and feedback from the journalist in question.

And then, for a slightly wider reach, we send a mass mail. I’m really proud of our mail system. I’m gonna go ahead and call it a trade secret, beyond telling you that it selects around 100 journalists that should be a good fit for the game, and lets us email them in a fashion that feels personal and tailored. It works well enough that one editor personally replies to these emails every single time, even though I’ve told him repeatedly that we use mail-merge. When we started using this system, our engagement rate went up by almost 50%.

And finally… sometimes, it’s true, we pay for content. Some gamers would have you believe that most content in the mainstream games media is paid-for. It isn’t, and you’ll always know the content that’s paid for because it’ll be marked with the word ‘promotional’ or ‘advertisement’ or similar, because it has to be, by law. But sometimes, these placements can be useful – partly to guarantee that a story gets in front of the right people, and partly because we can often get an insight from advertisement features into the audience that reads them, helping us to tailor future content. (In case you were wondering, these features tend to start from a few hundred pounds, and go up to several thousand, depending on the publication and the feature type.)

And that’s about it

That, in a nutshell (or, more precisely, in 1230 words), is how we go about getting your game into the press. You’ll see that it’s an inexact science, which is why we always make a point of reminding developers that, in the world of PR, there are no guarantees. It’s also why PR campaigns often take time, and it might not be until the third or fourth conversation with a journalist that an opportunity for coverage finally appears – if indeed it ever does at all.

In any case, what I like to think about the way we work is this: we always learn something. Whether it’s over lunch with an editor, or in response to an email we send out, or by analysing the click-rate on a press release, with each outreach campaign we gain additional insight into how your game is resonating with different people in the media, and how the stories we’re telling about it are being received. As with many disciplines, PR is a world in which you build up knowledge and skills over time which transfer between campaigns – but each project always comes with its own nuance, which needs to be learned on the job.

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