9 tricks to ensure your mobile game gets the best PR
As with pretty much everything in life, success comes from a combination of thinking about what outcomes you want, longterm planning, hard work and having a great game to present.
Still, that doesn't mean there aren't some tricks that are well worth knowing.
Indeed, more than just improving your PR, reading and implementing this article might even make your game better.
1. Brass tacks
I know the temptation is to immediately start sending out press releases, but before getting on to any of that tomfoolery, you need to think about what PR actually is, and why you're looking to do it.
Obviously, it stands for Public Relations, and it's sensible to understand the limitation of this term.
PR - at least for the purpose of this article - is your communications with journalists. It's related to wider activities such as community relations, marketing and user acquisition, but it's not the same thing.
At its best, PR will get a lot of people quickly reading and talking about your game (and your company), but when you're starting out - especially if you are a small indie developer - it's likely you'll find it difficult to get (m)any journalists to read your emails, let alone write about your game.
This isn't anything personal. Journalists receive upwards of a hundred emails a day from companies big and small who are trying to interest them in new games and mobile services etc.
It's very hard to get your views heard. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try, only that you have to take the process seriously.
Of course, you could decide that talking to journalists isn't the most important thing you can do with your time and your money. The rise of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc mean it might make more sense for you to focus your resources on building a community and not worrying specifically about journalists.
Certainly, your money might be better spent in other ways than PR campaigns, but to my way of thinking, good PR doesn't need to be expensive, and it will provide a solid intellectual framework in terms of how you present your game to the wider playing audience.
After all, journalists are gamers too. If you can get them excited about your game, you'll be able to get anyone excited about your game.
2. When to start PR (part 1)
My view is it's never too early to start thinking about PR.
Obviously, the spark of inspiration for your game can come in many different ways and forms, but once you've decided you're going to make a game, that's the point you should be thinking about PR. (You should also start thinking about marketing and community building at that point.)
Note, I said 'thinking about PR'.
You're not 'doing PR' at this stage. We'll come onto the formal PR campaign later, but by the time you've come up with a setting, characters, genre, prototype etc, you should be thinking about how you're going to introduce your game to journalists.
For example, does it have a unique gameplay mechanic? Is the main character notable in some way? Will the game have the biggest selection of tanks/planes/clowns ever seen in a game? Why are you making this game?
These are all points that have the potential to get someone who plays a lot of games interested in your game. If, however, you're struggling to come with any such points, you may want to rethink your game concept.
Try writing a test press release and consider whether it's exciting or not?
"Our new game is like Angry Birds, but with cats," is unlikely to catch the attention of many journalists, or many gamers.
"Our new game was made by one of the artists who worked on Angry Birds," won't interest gamers, but it might interest journalists.
"Our new game has knocked Angry Birds off the Finnish top grossing chart," will interest everyone.
(Incidentally, all three examples are press releases I've received.)
3. Do you do it yourself?
The question I get asked most frequently is 'Can you recommend a PR agency?'
It's a question I dread; not because there aren't some agencies or individuals I'm happy to recommend. There are a few. But I'm not the average journalist and those PR agencies and people I get on with, might be not the sort of people other journalists get on with.
Indeed, in several cases over the years, my taste in PR people has proved to be the exact opposite of the rest of industry.
So, perhaps the more important question is, should you use an external PR agency or have an internal PR person?
This is a nuanced question. The biggest publishers will do both, with internal PR managers dealing with key journalists but leaving the majority of the work to agencies. This is particularly the case when you're dealing with global campaigns.
Ideally, Europe, North America and Asia (and key territories within those markets) should be dealt with by specialists in those countries. Few companies - if any - have this level of inhouse capability.
The good news for indies, however, is handling PR internally gives you the biggest bang for your buck. No one will be as enthusiastic about your game as you will be (hopefully), and the thing journalists are looking for above all else is enthusiasm and passion.
The other advantage with handling PR internally is you'll keep the contacts you make within your company and that makes longterm relationships with journalists easier to build.
Still, handling PR internally is not a simple thing. If you're also the lead programmer or running the company finances, you probably won't have the time to devote two months full-time to doing PR during your game's launch. And that's why people pay for external agencies.
Of course, for most companies, a dual approach is best.
As developers, you should be reaching out to journalists and nurturing those relationships on a weekly basis. Let agencies deal with the bulk of the work, but make sure you have your contacts at the key sites - Pocket Gamer, TouchArcade, 148Apps, Slide To Play, Gamezebo, IGN, Eurogamer, GameSpot, etc.
Also, don't forget there are specialist online resources - some paid, some free - that will let you distribute press releases, screenshots and videos. They're not agencies actively promoting your game, but they will get your information out to a wide number of journalists. Examples include Games Press, Appromoter, PRNewswire, MarketWire.
4. When to start PR (part 2)
The bottomline is you should be 'doing PR' all the time, in terms of using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc throughout your game's development. You should also be reading and commenting on the key sites you want to get your games covered on.
You want journalists to be part of your community, so become part of theirs.
In terms of a formal press campaign - which I will assume is based around the launch of your game - my view is you have a 6-8 week window.
Working backwards, you'll ideally want to have reviews running as close to the day of release as possible. This means you need to be working one to two weeks prior to inform review editors that your game is coming out and providing them with access to the game, whether that be through promo codes, Test Flight builds, APKs etc.
Remember, for many of the larger sites, reviews will be handled by a specific person; probably not the news editor. For example, at PocketGamer we have the emails addresses firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com (which are filtered to a selection of the same and different writers).
Reviews are the most difficult articles to generate.
They take up more of a journalist's time - they have to play the game and write about it - and that means they cost more to commission (typically twice as much). Also, many more games are released weekly than even the big sites have the capacity to review. This doesn't mean you shouldn't try, only that you should be disappointed if your game isn't reviewed.
Of course, you're more likely to get your game reviewed if people have been writing about it prior to release.
My view is the perfect PR campaign for a game would see the first news articles about your game written two to four weeks before it's launched. If you've very lucky, you might get another news piece if you reveal some significant new feature about the game or maybe a hands-on preview if you've been able to provide a build or meet up with journalists at a conference such as GDC.
If your game is big, or interesting enough, you should also be looking to get news articles telling people when the game is released - for example, many sites will have round up articles detailing the week's releases.
Post-launch coverage is extremely difficult.
If your game has been very successful, you might be able to get news about significant updates or when you hit ten million downloads etc covered, but such articles are more likely to come about because journalists love your game and are contacting you, rather than because you're hassling them.
In conclusion, the rhythm of my perfect campaign is: news #1 (introduction), news #2 (more detail), preview/hands on, news #3 (release), and review (plus possible follow up).
5. Nuts and bolts
To-date, I've been talking abstractly about the press campaign for your game, but what are the practicalities?
Actually, I think this is the simplest part of the process.
A. Press release: This is a short written text that explains in clear terms what your game is about. My personal view is that unless the game is supposed to funny (or otherwise themed), don't get clever and try to make jokes or be very friendly with the journalist (unless you are actually friendly with them.).
Just detail the facts; explain why the game is interesting; talk about the gameplay; don't provide a detailed history of the development process unless it's interesting for some reason; don't tell me about the game's backstory unless it's vital to my understanding of the game; also give me facts - pricing, release date, platforms, the devices/OSes it will/won't work on.
Please note, your press release isn't the same thing as your app store description. An app store description is for people who might download or update your game. A press release is information you're sending to a journalist who likely hasn't heard about and/or doesn't much care about your game.
B. Assets: Every press release should be supported with screenshots and/or artwork that illustrates why your game is interesting. If your game is interesting because it's about trains, show me screenshots of the trains. Six screenshots is enough. Don't put marketing tags or other artwork over them. Just provide pure screenshots.
More important that screenshots are videos. The first thing any journalist will do if they open your email will be to click on the video link, so make sure you have something good to show in the first 10 seconds.
Note; teaser videos or videos just showing cutscenes can be useful when you're introducing your game, but journalists really want to see gameplay.
6. Exclusives and non disclosure agreements
Compared to console gaming, exclusives and NDAs play little part in the mobile industry.
That's likely to change as bigger companies and brands spend more money on mobile games, but in most cases, I think there's little point in exclusives - i.e. only giving your news to a single website.
In the case of say Rovio's Angry Birds Space deal with Yahoo, the brand and the site's audience were large enough to make it work, just.
In truth, all you're likely to do with an exclusive is limit your audience because all the websites you didn't give an exclusive to will now hate you.
NDAs or embargoed information are a more useful tool, allowing journalists to play games, access information and interview staff ahead of time; also ensuring you're in control of when the news is released.
Some websites - mainly in the US - get shirty about embargoes, in which case don't give them information under embargoes. Most other professional websites will be happy to operate under them. It makes journalists' and PR managers' lives easier
There is a big argument ongoing in UK games journalism presently about whether it's immoral to talk to PR people, to let them buy you a beer, or give you a free t-shirt.
My view is that this is rather silly, but as studies of the US pharmaceutical industry have demonstrated, buying doctors dinners, taking them on golfing holidays, and paying them as consultants does physiologically affect their behaviour when it comes to prescribing those company's drugs.
Indeed, that's why charities will include cheap biros in their appeal mail outs - human beings are easily manipulated.
When it comes to games, I think developers should be careful. Clearly, items of monetary value will be exchanged - maybe promo codes or in-game currency - as part of both sides doing their job.
Most people won't have a problem with the odd t-shirt or plush toy for their nephew, but once the monetary value of gifts is over $50, you make find yourself being accused of bribery or put the journalist in a difficult situation.
8. Keep it simple (journalists are stupid)
The games industry is young, and journalists tend to be the youngest and least well paid element.
Sadly, this means they're not always as professional as you'd like. Equally, most of them do not understand how games are made. For all they know, you have a sausage machine in your garage and every night you turn the handle and a game flies on onto the App Store.
Or - to put it another way - your game is the most important thing in the world to you.
But to a journalist, your game is most an inconvenience that's stopping them doing something they want to do, like go home early or play Halo 4.
Game journalists don't really understand what you do, they get a lot of email but they aren't very organised, and they spend all their time talking and playing games.
So ignore the bad bits and make the positives work for you.
Give journalists the information and access to be enthusiastic about your games. Journalists love games and love writing about games. The reason you should spend time doing PR is that some of them will write enthusiastically about your games.
9. Spell check
A final point. Would you accept a job application if it hasn't been spell checked?
A lot of journalists are exactly the same when it comes to press releases.
So, spell check your press releases, and if you're writing in a language that isn't your native language, get someone to check it for you.
You can see my slides from the presentation, with an added extra point.
This article was created as part of a presentation to companies involved in the GameFounders accelerator, in Tallinn, Estonia.