How gaming taught me to run a company
What happens when you let a Marketing Art Director run an Online Gaming Community?
Many people see gaming as a hobby, or a simple form of entertainment that some people take too far. In reality, gaming is a new frontier for marketing. Gaming connects people around the world from different beliefs, ideals and backgrounds. Within it are small companies rising and falling like a 100 year time lapse of New York City. These companies go by many names: guilds, clans, units, and communities.
These gaming communities function much like a business. They start small and rely on word of mouth and effective advertising to grow. They have to maintain a quality product/service, and they hire active members to manage and lead as the community expands. They are the perfect sandbox for learning to run a company.
I’m an Art Director for a Dallas based marketing agency, but I’m also a gamer. On March 3rd of 2014, I founded one of the fastest growing gaming communities of it’s kind.
We called ourselves the Beer Warriors
I’m sure you’re imagining a bunch of neck bearded nerds wearing beer cases on their heads for helmets. You’re not far off.
The Beer Warriors were a small group founded by four friends. The community began within a game called Mechwarrior Online, which had an audience of less than 35,000 users worldwide. In a little over a year, the Beer Warriors recruited over 800 members. That’s pretty big and it happened a lot faster than we expected. On top of that, we had built enough brand loyalty and culture, that members begged for merchandise, some members moved in together, and the Beer Warriors became a household name within the MWO community.
So how did we do it?
The Beer Warriors began when a problem arose. In fact, two major issues reside within many online gaming communities, particularly MWO: exclusivity and power hungry hierarchies.
When joining a group, a new member is often required to go through a trial phase of some sort. They are usually pretty easy, but if they didn’t meet certain requirements they were rejected. Think Greek recruitment in college. If you don’t fit into the group, aren’t able to contribute a set amount of playtime, don’t have the skill level, or can’t pay the fee, you receive a cordial “Thank you for your interest”.
In the event that you do pass, you are held to a list of varying expectations. Most groups require that you represent them in some way via in-game representation, forum signatures, or clan tags. Many also require that you remain exclusive to their group only, and do not play with players of other units.
“You can’t be in both Clan Widowmaker, and Clan Wolf! We need loyal members.”
Most gaming clans use military rankings. These ranks are earned by activity and grant authority over lower members. However, the requirements can be rigorous and are often full of favoritism. This ultimately leads to segregation within some units.
When there is too much focus on rank, new members feel worthless and oddballs feel more excluded.
We removed all of that
Our tagline quickly became “Drink. Play. No bullshit.” Both of those problems fell under the umbrella of bullshit.
We operated with an open-door policy. Players could come and go as they pleased and weren’t required to represent the group in any way. We provided the ability to display our colors, but we were well aware that many clan leaders wouldn’t like their members hanging around another group. So, we told them we would be their “dirty little secret”.
This ended up being our genius. We were taking advantage of an unspoken truth and solving a problem at the same time.
We wanted the group to operate much like a pub. Members could come in, meet other players in a stress-free environment, and leave without any commitments.
Leadership was voluntary. We had no ranking and no assigned roles. If a member wanted to be the lead confetti manager, he/she was enabled to do so and it was up to them to fulfill that role.
Roll out the red carpet
Out of all of the marketing gurus in the world, Jon Taffer from Bar Rescue seems to understand this one the best. Newcomers shouldn’t be treated like any other customer, they should be treated like VIPs.
Visit one, you offer a free rib dinner. You sit them down, put a red napkin on the table, not a white one. Identify them as a first time customer, connect with them and work to get them back a second time and a third time. Everyone on your staff should know what’s going on. These are the inside tricks of the trade. Once they’re there the third time, you own them. — Jon T
New members need a visible banner that does two things: makes them feel special and lets everyone else know this is their first time.
We did this a few ways. When a new member joined a Beer Warrior server, the server automatically sent a welcome message to everyone and informed admins and moderators. Next, admins dropped everything and made a conscious effort to get to know them. Finally, they were awarded membership without even asking, given an official banner, and were met with the cheers of every other member. We made it tradition to cheer when a new member was given their colors.
Every aspect of our operations had a method for treating newcomers like VIPs. We never underestimated the importance of this: regardless of how big the group got, we needed to treat every first time “customer” like a super star. Then we celebrated seeing them again.
Know them by name
The admins and I worked hard to learn every member personally. If anyone was a stranger to us, it was up to us to change that.
“This is the first group that I can feel like I’m actually a member.” — Beer Warrior member
Think about this: you enter a steakhouse downtown. When you walk in, you catch eyes with the owner/head-chef and he says to you “Hey (your name), good to see you back! I got something I know you’ll love.”
You feel important, like you’re not just another customer.
It’s never about the one time sale, it’s always about the relationship and repeat business… — Jon T.
Empower passionate fans
The single greatest form of advertising is word of mouth. However, many marketers and business owners see it as an uncontrollable side effect of other efforts. I didn’t see it that way.
Our marketing efforts relied heavily on social media, specifically Reddit, Twitter and YouTube. We enabled members to submit their own content, and heavily featured it. Any videos we produced always featured our members.
Any time Beer Warrior content was posted anywhere, members rallied to upvote it. They loved the idea of Beer Warriors taking over. Reddit began to consider our members a drunken cult since Beer Warrior posts were always at the top of every related feed.
Culture starts with your employees
Too often, businesses hire employees, force them to watch a boring branded “We’re a family” video, then train them to do their job in a cubicle or behind a counter. But hey, the company dart board is available and post-its are always free!
So when your employees speak with customers or try to do their job, how can you expect them to be excited about the brand?
Your employees need to be fully immersed the brand culture. We did this by only allowing volunteers to be considered for leadership roles. Only those passionate about the company would be willing to volunteer. The direction and success of the group was dictated entirely by the work of volunteers.
Next, we gave our “employees” free giveaways that they could give away at will. We encouraged our leaders to think of fun ways to give them to unsuspecting visitors that would inspire group involvement. We gave them the power to make customers feel special.
Finally, the founders were the the greatest embodiment of what our culture was about. That was the primary job we placed on ourselves. Each of us were the Walt of Disney Land. Beer Warrior culture was expected to be wild, inviting and inclusive, so our founders were expected to be the same.
Think of an Ad Agency or Google. Their space usually has open tables, slides, ping pong, beer kegs, etc. When your employees are happy and free to express themselves while immersing themselves in your branding, they become the company’s backbone.
Branding is not a logo
Branding is arguably the single most important aspect in marketing. However, in the gaming community world, it’s nonexistent. Sure some clans have cool logos or fictional backstories, but do they have a brand? No. We wanted to change that.
Have a brand anthem
Our brand began with a question. “What do we stand for?”
It started as the “No Bullshit” tagline and we kept it like that for a while. But a tagline isn’t an anthem, it needs to be deeper than that. As time passed, we noticed a deeper value that began to show its face, and we embraced it. We had members of all walks of life joining in to play with us.
We had hardcore republicans playing alongside liberals, transsexuals playing without having their pronouns questioned, pro players hanging with the casuals without scolding them, adults taking orders from kids, the list goes on. Everyone, regardless of where they came from, was treated as equal. Every member was celebrated and included as part of the family without question.
Our anthem became: We celebrate inclusion, no strings attached. You’re part of the family the moment you walk in and we require nothing in return.
Craft beer culture encourages strangers from all walks of life to come together, set aside the things that separate them and raise a glass as a community.
We embraced that culture as a cornerstone of this community. — Beerwarriors.net
Have an actual brand
When you walk in the room, everyone should have an opinion. Your brand is more than just a logo.
All Beer Warrior messaging needed to have a consistent look, feel and attitude. All messaging laddered up to our brand identity and anthem. Our branding was edgy, bold, modern, and slightly tongue-in-cheek, so both the imagery and messaging needed to match that.
In order to do this, we experimented with ways to convey this look in every medium while maintaining a consistent and recognizable brand. Then, I created a complete brand guide free for everyone to use.
I can feel my friends in the advertising field gasping and holding their Moleskines close to their hearts, but I mean this. It isn’t the 20’s anymore. The game has changed. After years of being tricked and overstimulated with swarms of clever headlines, the public has gained the ability to see through your marketing bullshit.
In my field I see the same naïve request far to often: convince the audience to “buy our Butter brand Butter because no one spreads it like we do”. No one wants to hear your sales pitch. Instead of advertising, try providing content worth consuming.
Take Tesla for example. They claim to spend nothing on advertising. They just make everything they do public and true to their brand. They do however make a stir with wild feats like putting a car in space…
Provide genuine relevant content
It goes a lot further than handing out flyers and buying ad space. We interacted with our audience and became a living entity.
Most clans simply advertise their group on recruitment forums or post videos. We took it further. We posted content relevant to what everyone was talking about. The Beer Warrior brand had a personality of its own.
Take Wendy’s Twitter for example. They talk smack and have turned their feed into a fun way to interact with the brand. Wendy’s Twitter has a very human personality, yet they don’t try to hide that it’s a marketing stunt. When the MWO game developers made questionable changes, there was always a Beer Warrior post about it. We were always in on the joke and found a way to twist it to fit our attitude.
Some clans host competitive gaming events to bring people together. This is great, but not good enough. We hosted competitions with ridiculous rules that forced players to take the game less seriously and play it “Beer Warrior style”.
We created in-game content and funny mods, we played pranks on devs and streamers and made cool artwork. When the game devs wanted to advertise exclusive MWO pint glasses they, came to us.
Anything we posted was genuine to who we were, relevant to the conversation, provided value to the users, and was profoundly self-aware. Everyone knows what you’re up to, so your content should relevant to your audience even if it has nothing to do with your product.
Transparency made us visible
We made everything we did public. So everyone paid attention to us.
Running a business is like being a parent, and when things go wrong do you hide the truth from your kids or do you give it to them straight? This is tough decision to make every day, but we decided early on the truth was always the best option.
When a popular player was banned, when a leader broke our rules and when we made mistakes we didn’t hide it. When we had to make a tough decision, we called the entire group together and listened to their concerns. We had monthly round tables for users to voice their opinions, good or bad.
Bad news doesn’t get better with time and hiding the truth doesn’t make you more likeable. Humans are not infallible, and the goal is to make your brand human. When you tell the truth, it’s a lot easier for your consumers to relate to your band.
If you do it for profit, quit
It’s no surprise that there isn’t much money in owning a gaming community. However, this is true in any field. As soon as you start doing it for profit, likes, or shares, you lose authenticity.
If I wrote blogs that catered towards the SEO meta, I’d get a lot of views but it wouldn’t be genuine writing. I’d have no real relationship with my audience or my work. I’d be just another robot writing shit for a nation of zombies. Then when the meta changed, I’d go out of business.
Your efforts should be out of sheer passion for the brand and those who consume it. If you make shit you know other people will love, you have a stronger foundation for your brand to fall back on.
Fire toxic employees, even if they make the most sales
This was my biggest flaw as a leader. I was too nice, and I put too much value on the results my leaders showed.
We had some leaders that were great at starting events, hosting servers and creating content. They made my life easier and they were passionate about the brand. But there was a problem I chose to ignore: they were assholes.
When you have an employee that is damaging the morale of other workers, the group suffers. Sure, that one guy may have huge results, but the results of other workers decreases and your customer satisfaction suffers for it.
Everyone says a good business functions like a machine with little cogs working together. However, too often that relates to everyone putting in the same amount of effort. I want to amend that interpretation. When your employees grind against each other, the whole company suffers.
Toxicity spreads like cancer
When that one toxic leader had his way, other players left. I didn’t notice because that leader was also bringing lots of players in. Our net growth wasn’t changing. However, he was bringing in more players like him: toxic assholes.
When that happened, our brand was effected. It seemed our clan was full of just a bunch of jerks and the admins did nothing about it. By the time I realized it, I had to ban a whole group of toxic players to solve the problem.
Beer Warriors Today
Today the Beer Warriors still exist as a small family of about 30 members. I have focused my efforts on building my own career and starting a company so I haven’t been active. It is a lot smaller than it once was, but every Wednesday the group meets up to catch up and relive the glory days.
Owning a gaming community doesn’t make me the next CEO, but it was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. I witnessed the birth of lifelong relationships, gained the wisdom to lead others in tough times, and made my mark on the digital world.
Once a Beer Warrior, always a Beer Warrior.
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