PR People Aren’t Magicians: 5 Common Misconceptions About PR and Marketing
I may be biased but I fully believe that PR and marketing are absolutely vital for any product or game launch. A good marketing person will help you figure out how to best talk about your product in a way that will resonate and help it stand out as the beautiful and unique snowflake that it is. A good marketing plan will help you figure out what to showcase when, to whom, and all of the essential strategic elements that can really help make an impact.
But let’s get real for a minute or however long it takes you to read this post. Marketing people aren’t magicians (shocking, I know). I’ve heard a lot of strange misconceptions about what marketing and PR is or isn’t, and what it can or should be able to do for clients. The problem is that there are also some shady marketing folks out there perpetuating and furthering these weird misconceptions.
I thought it would be helpful to clear up some of the most common ones I’ve heard and talk about what a PR and marketing person simply can’t do. This post is most relevant to games, but is also applicable to other products and launches as well. So let’s get super honest here and clear some of these up.
A PR and marketing person cannot guarantee you press coverage.
Figured we’d jump in with the doozey, as this is the one I hear the most often and makes my face turn the brightest shade of red. Not to harp on my own profession but there are plenty of PR and marketing folks that will tell people exactly what they want to hear in this regard (e.g. “I can totally promise you a story in the NY Times or a video of your game on IGN”). I’ll let you in on a little secret… PR and marketing people simply can’t control this! The only way this is a sure thing and a guarantee is to pay for it (but that’s called advertising, not PR).
PR crafts the message and makes sure the message goes out to the right people at the right time in the right way. Yes, PR people have contacts and connections, but we can’t will those people into doing something they don’t want to do. The contacts we have often make it more likely that they’ll open an email or look at something we send, but it simply won’t force people into doing something they don’t want to do, or being interested in something they would otherwise find boring or unpolished just because they like us as people.
I’ve had plenty of new business calls where people ask for a guaranteed number of placements. What they’re looking for is a promise, and one that I (and most other qualified and good PR people) can’t and won’t make. It’s the equivalent of promising someone that their investments will increase by a certain number of dollars each year because you have some kind of guarantee on the stock market. You simply can’t predict that (unless you’re probably doing something illegal). You can set the odds in the favor for the best outcome, but that’s where the line is drawn. PR gives you a better chance of success but PR can’t ever promise you a placement or a certain number of them.
PR, even good PR, can’t make someone like your game.
PR can’t control if people like your game or product. My job is to do everything possible to get folks interested, and reach them in the right way with a compelling message. Once they download the game or try the product, there’s literally zero that a PR person can do to make them have a positive reaction to it. We can communicate the background information or the rationale behind decisions, but if the game simply isn’t good or has serious flaws, PR can’t fix that.
When I work with people, I try to point out things that folks might be likely to have a negative reaction to. These may include the price or the art style but ultimately, it’s the dev’s choice if they want to move forward with those decisions anyway.
Sometimes, people just don’t like things. It doesn’t feel great if you pour your heart into something and folks just don’t respond to it the way you’re hoping. I completely understand that. Ultimately though, it’s up to each individual to make their own choice on where they stand regarding the product or game they’ve received and PR has a limited control on that outcome.
PR people are people with feelings. Not just rolodexes of contacts.
I firmly believe that a relationship is much more beneficial and likely to be successful if we’re starting from a deeper place of understanding. This means that I get you, your game, and the deeper motivations behind it. That means you see me as a person, with feelings and not just a rolodex of contacts. I don’t believe that being utilized as only a media relations person or just conducting outreach on your behalf is the best use of your money, or my time.
This is something a lot of PR people will do, but I strongly believe that PR is SO much more than just contacts. If I work on something, believe in the premise, and fully understand it, I can do a much better job of communicating that to others. I also am much more likely to have success with the contacts I have and the outreach I conduct, if I really get you, and your game and we work together to set a strong plan.
Using PR for only the outreach component is one way to use PR, but in my opinion, a very weak one. By doing this and using PR for contacting media in isolation, you’re not using a PR person for the maximum potential or getting the most value out of the experience.
A PR person can’t replicate the success of another game launch.
I can’t even put into words how many times I’ve heard people say they believe they are the next Gone Home or Firewatch (to the point where I may even do another blog post on this at some point). Of course it makes sense that folks want to replicate the success these games. They are great, respected, well known, and award winning. But the truth is that you are your own beautiful and unique snowflake!
This is not to say that getting advice from other developers who have had success is a bad idea. In fact it can typically be very helpful and is often something I recommend to people. However, it’s important to remember that this is advice that worked for these developers, on their specific game, in the specific time they launched it. Which means their advice should be taken with a grain of salt and while they may have great insights, their advice may not be directly applicable to you. Following it blindly is often a terrible decision!
The same can be said about these games from a PR and marketing perspective. They had a lot going for them from the start like the talent and reputation of the teams who made them, and the innovation they presented for the time in which they launched. None of those things are repeatable ever again or by anyone else, even if we follow a similar strategy to them. Studying their success for lessons is good and important, but it’s even more important to note that it can’t be exactly replicated by anyone else.
When marketing your game, you should certainly look to other past successes as a guide, but make sure you’re thinking about your game as an individual product. What’s special about your game? (no it’s not special that the art reminds people of Firewatch, or that you’ve got a similar narrative to Gone Home). What’s actually unique about the thing you’re making? How is this element marketable? What can you do to capitalize on the specialness of this beautiful product you’ve created? Replicating something else simply isn’t the answer. No PR person can promise you the success of a past game on your current game because people are looking for something new, not a replica of a previously successful game!
PR can’t undo the mistakes you’ve already made.
By the time someone comes to me, they’ve often made a lot of decisions before marketing has even entered the picture. One of the reasons I stress the importance of involving a PR or marketing person early, is so we can cultivate a strategy and timeline together. I often get approached by folks who are determined to launch their game in a month from now, but haven’t told a single soul about it, have zero social media presence, and have never been to a convention. Or on the flip side, I get approached by folks who are launching far into the future but have already announced a launch date, which they’ve decided they need to move, and have showcased their launch trailer. PR, even good PR, can’t remove, fix, or somehow reverse these decisions you and your team have already made on your own.
Yes, PR can be good at helping you figure out the best way to handle these decisions, choices, and sometimes unpleasant changes you’ve previously made, but PR is great at helping you plan so you can avoid these types of problems in the first place.
So… After reading this list it might sound like what can PR actually do anyway? If you can’t get guaranteed placements or get people to for sure love your game, what is it that you’re paying for? This may be in the defense of my profession but in my opinion, you’re paying for so much for than that! I’ll do a longer post on the flip side of this post (aka what you can expect from a PR/marketing person), but you’re getting a myriad of things that are nearly impossible to have perspective on when you’ve been heads down working on a game for so long. Things like strategic advice, figuring out how to talk about your game in a way that will resonate, overall timing advice in terms of what to talk about when, how and to whom, contacting press on your behalf using the messaging and strategy that you created together, figuring out how to keep momentum going long term, being one step ahead of you in terms of planning, and someone to provide an honest outside perspective on what they think will work best for you.
I believe that PR and marketing works much better in collaboration and as a partnership when everyone has clear expectations of what marketing can and can’t do. Hope this helps clear up some of what I believe are the biggest misconceptions about PR and marketing (and no, your game still isn’t the next Firewatch!)