Originally published on LinkedIn in March 2015.
Or, What I Would Tell My 18-Year-Old Self
I often say I got into marketing serendipitously, but in reality it was more due to a fried graphics card.
At the age of 18, I joined my first startup, a ‘Games for Windows’ video game developer. At the time, I knew computer science was my calling. I taught myself the fundamentals of Java and Lua, and was overjoyed to get paid to do what I loved – programming.
The startup in question was Reverie World Studios, INC. It was rough, it was scrappy, and it was beautiful. I joined them in 2009 for what would become a two-year journey of bringing to market the company’s flagship title, Dawn of Fantasy (seen above in two very different stages of development).
Halfway through my first week, however, it became clear that my computer couldn’t handle the CPU-destroying pre-alpha product, and my graphics card fried to a toast. While out of commission, I found little ways to contribute elsewhere – setting up a Twitter, designing a newsletter, managing the forums, etc.
At the time, I didn’t know that what I was doing was marketing, and I certainly didn’t want to be a marketer. I even fought the CEO when he later proposed giving me the title of Marketing Director.
But lo and behold, I grew to love what I was doing. And by the time I had repaired my computer, I didn’t want to give any of it up. Sure, I did the occasional technical assignment, but my job became increasingly marketing and business development as I grew to head up the startup’s growth, PR, and community management programs.
I loved the challenge. But it was very much trial and error – with an emphasis on the latter. I led some campaigns I’m proud of to this day and made an equal number of decisions that still make me cringe (including betting that ogres and orcs would be of more interest than cupcakes and dresses on this strange new platform called Pinterest).
I often reflect back on this early stage of my career – now with a new appreciation for marketing, a college degree, and three other startups under my belt – and wonder how I would do things differently if I were to do it all again. In the process, I’ve come up with the following three nuggets of advice for my 18-year-old self:
1. Engineer With Growth In Mind.
Growth hacking doesn’t just live in the domain of marketing. Growth – real, viral, hockey stick growth – is only found at the intersection of marketing and engineering.
If you want growth, you need a product worthy of growth.
To this day, I believe that what we had was beautiful. It was a true attempt to revolutionize a dying genre and create a game for gamers, by gamers.
Four modes of play, 3 campaigns with 60+ hours of gameplay each, a complex socio-politico-economic framework, an encyclopedia of lore, and 3 radically different races to play as (whittled down from an original 7). We were building the mother of all games… but we were also biting off far more than we could chew.
In light of the waning popularity of strategy games, we were attempting to create something that could attract a much broader audience. What we ended up with was a hodgepodge of different genres: something we hoped would delight the strategists, the city-builders, the casual gamers, the socialites, and the role-players.
Yet, we were going at it wrong. We had a good game, but it wasn’t your classic strategy game. Nor was it your classic role-playing game or social game. Anyone who expected the game to be along the same lines of their favorite titles were, therefore, left disappointed and confused. We had built a game both for everyone and for no one in particular.
We delivered a lot. But we promised a lot more.
And we pissed a lot of people off in the process.
Fortunately, we were blessed to have some of the most loyal fans in the industry. People who would post daily in our forums two years before the game even came out, create and share fan fiction, and even sign up for volunteer positions as QA testers, moderators, or community evangelists.
And we did everything to keep them happy. So much so that we passed up the opportunity to get the game out a year earlier with half the proposed features, which would still have been a very ambitious project. Instead, we spent the first year after launch curating a fan wish list and putting out patch after patch to address each and every bug our fans spotted until we were the most patched game in gaming history. We ended up creating the perfect game for a small group of our most loyal fans – those who had watched development take flight for years and chipped in with suggestions every step of the way.
As noble as our intentions were, we weren’t designing for growth. We wanted something that would introduce younger gamers to a niche genre, but ended up with a product so complicated that only the hardcore gaming community understood its mechanics.
For the sake of virality, simpler is almost always better. New audiences didn’t come for the best graphics or for a global economic system more complicated than the U.S. economy. They came to be entertained with a casual, quick-paced, and social experience.
Had we designed for growth, we would have taken only the elements from each genre that were absolutely integral to attracting and retaining the largest possible market. And in doing so, we would have launched 6-12 months earlier, while coming in under budget and driving dramatically more adoptions and referrals.
(If anyone is curious about what exactly growth-first approach would have looked like, I’m proud to say my buddies at Reverie took these lessons to heart when developing their newest game, which launched into beta earlier today.)
2. Never Pass Up An Opportunity To Share Your Story.
For all my time spent chasing relationships with key influencers in the U.S. and Canada markets, I wrangled up maybe half a dozen interviews and a handful of previews and reviews. Our real success, instead, came from bloggers and reporters who scouted us out and asked for the interview.
For reasons I’m still unsure of, this press often came from foreign markets. From German YouTube personalities to one of the most visited websites in Italy, I was approached to do interviews or offer up exclusive media for markets I had never considered going after.
At the time, each such request felt like a grueling task. It got to the point where the majority of my interviews were in a language other than English, and I struggled to see the opportunity associated with them. Yet, I did them anyway. I leveraged personal connections to be translators, combined with a certain reliance on Google Translate, and got the job done.
The results weren’t immediate, but over time, I saw an influx of non-English-speaking fans sign up for our forum. My Google Alerts revealed mentions of our game in obscure Dutch blogs, and before I knew it, we had fan sites catering to the Spanish and French markets. And ultimately we signed a multinational publisher, localized the game in five languages, and placed it on store shelves across three continents. It turns out businesses these days, whether they mean for it or not, are global.
Don’t be too keen to judge an opportunity or rule out a market. You may just be pleasantly surprised.
3. Leverage The Power Of Language.
Growth hacking is optimizing every point of the consumer’s journey, before, during, and after the sale to get customers through the sales funnel as quickly as possible and then referring their friends.
And it starts with the first impression you make.
We had a fun game. Those who tried the demo or beta test typically converted. The challenge, instead, was motivating consumer adoption at the point of sale, the first touchpoint, for those who did not get to craft their own impression of the product with a free trial.
The boilerplate description I wrote for the back cover of the game’s box (the very first impression many potential players had of our product) reads as follows:
Dawn of Fantasy is the first 3D MMORTS title with real-time combat. Take your chance to write your glory in the persistent massively multiplayer online world of Mythador. Explore this wild world, from the high mountain peaks of Southmount in the human realm of Teria to the swamps of Erthee l’Bala of the Wood Elves. Complete dozens of story-driven quests, interact with thousands of other players through trading, forging alliances, and waging war in both PvP and PvE battles. Build up villages into towns and then empires, cast mighty magic upon enemies with over two dozen unique spells, and lay siege to enemies with great trebuchets, the brute strength of the walking woods, ogres, and dragon mercenaries to reign supreme.
Putting aside the sheer number of adjectives and adverbs I watered down my writing with five years ago, I think it’s safe to say this description is hard to unpack. It says a lot… without really saying anything. I was trying to cover as many features and points of interest as possible in the hopes that there would be something there for everyone.
Even worse, I confused our consumer with our customer. These words might resonate with our consumer, the average 14-year-old male gamer that comprised much of our player base. But do they have the same effect on the customer – the mom, dad, or older sibling going into the store, evaluating our product based only on the box, and making the purchase? Probably not.
23-year-old me would do things a little differently:
With hints of two of the best selling franchises in gaming history – Age of Empires and World of Warcraft – Dawn of Fantasy puts the destiny of a war-torn world into your hands. Battle it out for supremacy or unite the three kingdoms of Mythador. The choice is yours.
Instead of trying to introduce a completely new concept, this new description references titles that just about everyone in our target market was familiar with. And in the event that they weren’t, there’s the social proof factor of calling them out as enormously successful (read: fun) franchises. This new description also shifts the focus from our many features and the complicated lore of the game world to the only thing that really matters: the player.
Same message. More meaning.
Many tech startups spend all their time and energy on the product. But when it comes to actually going to market, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that “if you build it, they will come.” A good product will retain and delight customers, but it’s good language that will acquire them.
Words are our most powerful weapon as growth hackers.
Make them work to your advantage.
Five and a half years ago, I stumbled into growth marketing after frying my graphics card as a programmer. But even after all the cringeworthy mistakes I’ve made, I have come to love every minute of my journey into marketing and look forward to the lessons I’ll learn over the next five years.
What growth tips do you have for a younger you? Please share them in the comments below – I’d love to hear!