Given my recent gripe about RPG companies’ Web sites, I thought I’d do the community a public service by talking a little about the ‘standard’ concept of a sales and marketing funnel and what you need to do to attract customers.
Now, even if you’re giving your game away for free, you have customers. You may or may not be less motivated to do work to get them, but if you have something that you’d like other people to get, for whatever reason, you’re looking at sales and marketing.
And though people can make it complicated, it’s not. Use the analogy of a store in the mall that wants to sell items to people in the mall. You need to help people move through a pretty simple sequence of steps. Attention, interest, desire, action, and satisfaction. Skipping any of these steps causes people to get derailed.
You don’t really need to worry about the technical terms here, unless you want to Google for more. But for the record, you want to get “leads,” “qualify” them into “prospects,” and then “convert” them down each step in the “funnel” until you “close” the “sale” and get “moolah.” Often they break up the process into “marketing,” which is the process of attracting and initially informing the customer, and “sales,” which focuses more on taking a prospect through to closing, but that’s for megacorps not your one-man thing.
Let me file the serial numbers of a certain billion-dollar company’s funnel as an example.
It should go without saying. But unfortunately sometimes it goes without doing as well. You need a product, ideally a quality, compelling product. You don’t have to wait till you have one to start generating interest, but you need one. Sure, we’ve all seen people that get some success by combining extensive sophistry and marketing with a crap product or vaporware, but a) those are bad people and b) it’s not sustainable, unless being a scam artist is your stock in trade. The better the products, and if you have complementary products/product lines, the better. Even good-hearted people get into this one with lighting up the marketing machine (or even taking preorders) before the product is done, and they aren’t so good with the deadlines.
2. Awareness and Interest
How do people find out about you and your product? There are a couple things that go into this, from traditional advertising to social networks to search engine optimization to reputation development. People often hear about and interact with you/your company/your game/your previous games a good bit before they decide to buy, so reputation development is key. What’s your plan here? Talking it up on forums? Pushing it at cons? Getting it sold on a lot of download sites and hoping that people will just run across it and decide to shell out $30 sight unseen? Signing on to a license to slap a logo on it? People cold searching on “I want to buy a Wild West RPG today?” An open beta? A free demo download? Trying to get comped reviews on rpg.net or similar? Paying for standups at gaming stores across America? There are better and worse plans here, but having a plan besides “Uhhhhhh…” is the key.
The “blogosphere” and forums are a powerful tool, but people rely on them too much nowadays, despite seeing how that kind of buzz doesn’t necessarily convert to sales (e.g. Snakes in a Plane, Ron Paul). It’s very low effort to use all of these channels just a little. Think of it like magic items in D&D – it costs a lot to get +5 armor, but not all that much to get +1 armor, a +1 shield, +1 amulet of natural armor, +2 Dex enhance to gloves, and +1 ring of protection.
3. Demand and Knowledge
How do you create demand for your product? Lots of ways, but the core here, especially for a RPG, is giving people information about the game. With a Web site, a lot of that is about content and navigation. You want to give people what they need to self-convert from a Web site visitor into a lead. Now, this can be complicated nowadays because often you’ll be tying into existing storefront channels like DrivethruRPG, but you can’t rely on them to sell your product for you. At best they provide a network effect so that if you start getting sales you pop up in “popular” lists which can generate more demand, but without initial demand that’s not helpful. There’s just too many products. If I go to Drivethrurpg and look for a superhero game, there’s 488 items. Yours isn’t going to float to the top by itself, regardless of its quality. Quality that is hidden in a box generates no sales.
RPGs are generally not an “impulse buy,” unless it’s someone totally bought into your game line already; they represent a decent amount of conceptual investment by a customer. So it’s more important than many products to provide detailed information about your product and why someone might like it. Differentiate yourself. “A new game! It has nice rules! You can play a character and experience adventure!” is a bad sales pitch because there’s 3000 other games out there which can be described in that way. Why *you*?
There may be loads of neat info hidden on your blog and forums, but it’s usually impossible to search. You need to present your case. A lawyer doesn’t just dump a stack of briefs on the judge’s desk and say “I’m sure you can figure it out.” You organize and present. It’s great to have a forum for those occasional people that want some hand holding or really extensive info before committing, but it’s definitely an optional addon and not a primary strategy here.
4. Sales Optimization
You’d think RPGs would be a simple product. Well, compared to shopping computers on dell.com I guess they are, but they can be complex. You can make a two-product line that’s confusing, and more so for a company with multiple lines, related sub-lines, “lite” versions, lines with common branding but other differentiations, etc. Also, there are a lot more purchasing models than “buy it now” – subscription, ransom, patron… For God’s sake, once someone reads enough about your game to say “I think I’d like to buy that!” you need to make it the quickest easiest possible transaction for them to give you their money. Otherwise you’re throwing it all away. Frankly this is the “don’t fuck it up” stage in the pipeline. All you need to do is close the sale, take the money (if there is any) and deliver the product. The sad thing is that most RPG companies fuck this up. If once they learn about your product, it takes them more than three clicks form that point to procure – you’re losing sales. That’s black-letter Web marketing law and you’re not special enough to be an exception.
You also have to think about your channels. PDF and/or print. “I sell it myself?” “POD from lulu or similar?” “Drivethrurpg?” “Amazon?” “Gaming stores?” “Major bookstores?” “All of the above?” The more channels, the more sales, but also more hassle (especially once you hit print products and distributors/returns/etc). I know I am personally a lot more likely to buy something if it’s through Amazon or I can browse it in my local shop. I very rarely buy PDFs and then only if there’s a sample or something so I can clearly see what I’m getting into, as the barrier to entry for PDF publishing is much lower than print, and there’s some real stinkburgers in print.
5. Loyalty and Support
“Take the money and run” isn’t really a good long term plan. Facilitating a community of people who enjoy your game and supporting your game and the gamers is. Forums on your site are a shitty way of initiating the Demand & Knowledge pipeline stage but great for supporting the product and building happy customers who want to buy your next game or supplement.
If, on the other hand, you have a forum but it’s dead – it takes someone repeated tries to get their registration approved and no one’s posting – that’s bad, and disincentivizes people from investing further in you (I’m looking at you Jared Sorenson).
And remember you get a reputation from both your products and how you sell them. Even though Mongoose is making good stuff now, people still say “Oh, aren’t they the shovelware company?” Or the WEG preorder fiasco – no one with the sense God gave the common groundhog would ever send a dollar to Eric Gibson, whether it was all “his fault” or not. It may not be your fault or your intent, but it is your responsibility, and people will hold you responsible for your product quality/business practices/etc.
Your funnel is specific to you. But you need one, and you need to understand that people don’t automatically convert down it – you have to help them make each step.
This year, I was frankly shocked at how many ENnie nominees I had never heard of. Or seen in my fairly well-stocked FLGS. And I’m someone who spends a lot of my free time trying to keep up on the RPG market. This means you’re not doing it right. Everyone likes to mock the PR fiasco that was D&D 4e, but frankly most of you aren’t doing better, you’re just pissing away less money because you’re lower profile.
I’ll note that this entire funnel applies for free games too. Yes, that’s right. There’s many free games I’ve never heard of, or decided I don’t care about enough to download, or went to download and the process pissed me off and I bailed. Maybe your goal isn’t to get your work into as many other people’s hands as possible. But assuming it is, this is how you do it – free, pay, PDF, print, or whatever.