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Guerilla and Viral Advertising Tactics

Started by J Tolson, November 28, 2007, 11:04:57 PM

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J Tolson

Though it will probably be years before my game is actually finished and I need to start thinking about advertising, I noticed that there wasn't much discussion (okay, none that I could find) here on new forms of advertising, like guerilla or viral tactics.

To give a few examples: The Dionae House is a website that is really a screenplay test thing, the R. Tam Sessions were short videos distributed over the internet to promote Serenity (the movie, not the abstract concept), and the author of Elephants on Acid (a book on various hoaxes) sent people free copies if they promised to leave them in a public area (after reading it, of course).

I could easily imagine these tactics being used to promote indie rpgs as well. Want to get some people interested in your game? Print out a few copies of it and "happen" to forget it at a gaming table at your local hobby shop or slip it into a copy of DnD at your local library. Or make a youtube video of people playing your game and having a lot of fun. Or make a cryptic website (like the infamous that might get people interested in trying to figure out a mystery that involves your game. You could even take a different approach and create a website that works under the assumption that your gaming world is actually real (sort of like the Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency website,

There are of course ethical considerations inherent in such things. Don't place a game called "Bomb" in a public place and then tell the police that there is a bomb in the park/library/whatever, don't post fake news stories to news sites, and don't create a lot of dummy accounts to make it looks like there is a lot of interest in something, for examples.

Would these sorts of things be viable for indie game advertising? Are there drawbacks or other ethical considerations? Etc.

Just a thought.


Ron Edwards

Hi Joel,

We did discuss viral tactics 'way back in the first year of the Forge; it should be easy to find by looking at thread titles if you click on the oldest pages of this forum. Here are some of my conclusions from those discussions.

First, what are called viral techniques today seem to me like the primary techniques of promotion. Effectively, letting quality speak for itself via word of mouth, and making sure that your stuff is in the hands of people who are culturally active. So to think of them as new or alternative strikes me as backwards; what's "new," really, are the distributor-controlled, advertiser-controlled venues like magazines and TV. But those are what we think of as primary. When people started posting about viral marketing on the Forge, those of us who'd pioneered independent game promotion looked at each other and said, "Why bother with the stupid term? That's marketing, period; we've been doing that for years."

Arguably, almost all the marketing and promotion techniques that are practiced by publishers who spend a lot of time here are viral. But my argument is that's because they operate directly and fundamentally across a cottage industry, in which everyone is a customer, and creators/publishers are simply more community members.

Second, guerrilla techniques are best understood as defiant, undercutting, and arguably revolutionary practices within a system which is already exploitative, or all wrapped up by a few hegemons. In the music industry, promotion is so under the thumb of the money-guys that there really is no way for an artist to break into success simply by being good. In such circumstances, guerrilla techniques can be expected to proliferate; people pretty much have no choice.

In the current gaming market, there really isn't any such situation any more. There was; it effectively died in the middle or late 1990s, and then its staggering corpse finally stopped moving about three or four years ago. There isn't anything to be guerrilla against - I think I can speak with some authority on that score, as I was a primary guerrilla fighter. That's what the original Forge booth at GenCon was, for instance; now, it's a valued feature, given the collapse of what I was fighting against, and given that GenCon is under very different management now and the Forge/indie scene is recognized by them as major contributor, both financially and culturally.

Kevin Allen Jr. did some guerrilla promotion for his game Sweet Agatha at the last GenCon. I'd be curious to know what he thinks about whether it really functioned in the guerrilla way, or whether it was just more promotion period, or whether it worked at all.

Best, Ron

Paul Czege

My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans

J Tolson

Thanks for the info Ron, I am looking over some of those old threads now (Guerilla Publishing, The New Distribution, Channel Conflict with Distribution-Retailers-Manufacturers, The Joys of Publicizing Your Game, and Viral Marketing so far).

Though, given the discussion then, the changes in technology, and similar factors, it might not be a bad idea to discuss such things again. Even if we ignore the debatable validity of the term "viral marketing" and the underlining concepts that implies, new technology and social structures means that there are new marketing opportunities (regardless of it these opportunities are Viral, Guerilla, or Advertising-Classic) that just weren't around when all'yall old pioneers were trekking across the painted desert (so to speak).

From the past discussion, it appears that there were basically two interpretations on how individuals might promote their product: through basic brand recognition and through word of mouth. From these, it appears that you preferring the latter.

Yet if I might address just straight up potential customer interest for a minute, in order to help illustrate why new technology and structures might merit reviving this topic. Consider how many people now have WiFi capable laptops; also consider how networks can essentially be named anything you want and are accessible to anyone in a given area. If you're not worried about draining your bandwidth, you could set up your wireless network to display the name of your web address. Every time someone wants to use your internet for free, they see the name of your web page. Better yet, see if you can "rent" the network name at your local game shop or the next convention. People will see your products name, see the product itself, and might pick it up out of gratitude for the internet hookup. Heck, see if you can convince fans of your product to do the same. People that they never even meet will be seeing your web address and a few of those will be bored enough to check it out.

Websites like MySpace and FaceBook didn't exist back in 2002 (and both are part of the infamously annoyingly named Web 2.0 movement). Why not MyCharacterSpace/GameBook, a website for characters from various RPGs? People playing your game would then have a central location to network with players possibly halfway across the country. Potential players then see a centralized community and get to hear the word of mouth that is promoting your game.

Guerilla marketing is defined by the utilization of creativity to trump limited assets; not only are their new possibilities (compared to the state of things during the first year of the Forge) for marketing creativity to be applied to, there are also new people around who can offer new creative insights.

I would also maintain that there is a fundamental difference between viral marketing and word-of-mouth promotion (the latter is the former but the former isn't always the latter) and that guerilla tactics have nothing to do with being defiant, undercutting, or even revolutionary (and everything to do with using time, energy, and creativity to supplant the need for significant financial investment), but I am not sure how relevant such distinctions and definitions truly are to the underlining issues of "new" marketing avenues.

Anywho, just a thought.

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Boy, it is tempting to enter into a discussion of the terms ... but probably not a good idea. Let's reserve it for beer time some day. Suffice to say that whatever label is involved, what you're describing is a worthy topic. And yes, you are right, it deserves a modern re-visiting. I definitely don't want to shut the topic down by referring to the older discussions.

Here's my chief concern with marketing of all kinds: efficacy. Let's take the example of the laptop thing. so that people who utilize your wireless will see your logo. That is clever for sure, and it also amuses me in a kind of social justice way. The question is, does it work? Do people who use my wireless in public spaces also constitute any sort of audience for my game? If they do, then is my interjection of my stuff in that way and in that time attractive to them, or annoying?

Here's a related point which is not intended to translate directly to role-playing, but rather to illustrate the basic question I'm after.

I know some guys in traditional advertising, who make up commercials and ad campaigns, and I've spoken with them at length. Here's the things they said that knocked me out.

1. When I asked, "Granted, advertisements can establish name-recognition, and they can put a brand name into common parlance, and they can even become a big part of pop culture references - but what data shows that more popular and better-placed advertisements make a product sell better than it would without them?" ... they admitted that there were in fact no data. Apparently if you put a big billboard up on the highway advertising something, then yes, more people will respond in polls that they recognize the name or that they saw the billboard. But given that the product is already being sold, and that retail outlets or whatever are already re-ordering them from you on the basis of sales ... the assumed link between putting up that billboard and seeing increased demand seems to be unverified.

2. When I asked, "What's the difference between products that are advertised in mass-market fashion and those that aren't?" ... they said they didn't know, and that it wasn't a question anyone in the business spent time considering. (Example: athletic shoes are advertised on TV. Trumpets and clarinets are not. Why? Cars are advertised on TV. Bicycles are not. Why?) I was pretty disappointed, because I'd hoped to learn more about whether role-playing was a candidate for this sort of advertising, and if not, why not.

3. There seems to be a difference between advertising that's assumed to create or to pump up demand, and advertising which is best understood as merely an announcement. If someone opens a martial arts studio, their big ad in the phone book and the commercial spot they buy for TV may be better understood as an announcement, guaranteed to be of interest to anyone already involved or about to be involved in that subculture. It's necessary because a lot of the people who are interested won't otherwise know about it at all. But apparently that's way different from advertising a beer in a TV commercial, and again, understanding that distinction doesn't get a whole lot of discussion among the people who do it. It's more a matter of personal intuition and institutional approaches.

I don't mean to shift the thread topic by talking about these conversations. The only thing I want to pull from them now is the observation that apparently, showing something around publicly is not actually the same thing as advertising. Contrary to what the infomercial people say, eyeballs aren't enough. Showing your thing to a bezillion people may be a total waste of time unless (a) the thing itself is suitable for being shown/sold that way, and (b) they're the right people, or at least include them. And how can we establish (a) and (b)? To use Goofy's word, "Gorsh"-  we don't know!

So I don't want to give the impression that I disfavor any or all of the tactics you're talking about on any grounds besides this one. On the contrary, if the tactic works, then holy shit, use it, and by all means, creative and (what do we call it?) lateral tactics are probably all around us, waiting to happen. What I'm saying is that advertising and marketing are effort - they take time and energy to make happen. I'm sort of a surgical striker when it comes to advertising for my games, and that's because I'm picky about exerting effort - I'd like to have a pretty clear idea of (a) and (b) at some level before I go that way.

Does that make any sense? I grant you, and in fact quite enthusiastically, that what you're talking about will bring the product or logo in front of lots of eyeballs. What sort of (a) and (b) is involved, if any? What are your thoughts on that?

Best, Ron

Eero Tuovinen

What Ron's talking is a very big thing for me as well. The mechanics of making sales, that's what a salesman should be concerned about. There is this incidious tendency in our modern culture for magical thinking in many things, advertising among others. It comes, as I understand it, from a need to do something to control your own destiny, even when you don't have a believable model for your actions. The end-result is activity that is not modeled to achieve anything at all in any sensible and verifiable manner.

(Another example of this is in education; I participated in a seminar last Monday where I mostly just raved like a maniac about idiots who concern themselves with creating "experiences" for students without clear goals or any theory of learning to prove that they're actually doing anything useful. The magical thinking is the same, people acting just to appease their inner need for action.)

I work quite a bit with different kinds of advertising efforts, especially the generic ones shooting for brand recognition. (As opposed to specific product campaigns.) I would never suggest that it's a good idea for a car salesman or internet operator to print up hundreds of decks of cards with their logo as a promotional tool, but if they want to do it, I might as well make sure that the cards look good. I can't say that I've ever encountered convincing evidence for these projects actually having caused anything except enjoyment for the businessmen involved, for whom it is a matter of ego to have something of their company to give away to other businessmen as gifts.

That being said, my own roleplaying advertising work is always a matter of value received: instead of an advertisement I write an article and instead of flyers I distribute demonstrations. This is, as much as anything else, because I find advertising distasteful. I don't appreciate it myself when my cognitive space is assaulted by memetic professionals, so I do not work like that myself. Mere exposure interests me not.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.

J Tolson

Efficacy is a terribly important guiding concept for advertising, doubly so for small-time entrepreneurs like someone trying to promote their game. But might I propose that efficacy shouldn't be alone in one's considerations? Efficacy should be weighed against the cost of a particular action. Even if the efficacy of that action is low, a low cost to that action might then make the action recommendable.

To use the example of the wireless network advertising thing (which wasn't really meant as a serious means of advertising, but rather a "new" possibility), the cost of changing a wireless networks name should be weighed against the potential benefit. In this case, the potential benefit is incredibly small; it is unknown if marketing aimed at making your product recognizable will increase sales, it is unknown if the medium will even reach a potential market, and even if the medium reaches the potential market there is no indication that the market will recognize the product as valid. At the end of the day, this medium will probably net you absolutely no benefit, but there is the chance that it will.

The cost, on the other hand, is also terribly small. I could change my wireless network's name in about a minute and a half. Thus, is the vague possibility of the benefit worth the miniscule amount of resources that need to be devoted to it? If random people are already logging onto your wireless network, I'd say so. If not, probably not.

This is just to say, if the cost of advertising is low enough, even if the probability of benefit is also incredibly low, then efficacy be darned!

Remember, no data on the efficacy of marketing is not the same as negative data. It may or may not work; it is a gamble. But that gamble might be worth it.

One of the advantages of "lateral" tactics using the most modern innovations (it feels slightly silly to say that, compared to 2001, 2007 is "modern") is that the very market these tactics are geared towards is a market that unusually likely to try new things (if they weren't unusually likely to try new things, they probably wouldn't be exposed to the tactics in the first place). Pirating wireless networks might not be too innovative nowadays, but what about "toothing" (to steal the term and process, but not the use, from a 2004 hoax)? If the person knows what Bluetooth even is, they are already displaying a willingness to try new things. Granted, this would probably piss more people off than it would get interested in your game, but it is an example.

In contrast, if you only adopt advertising methods once they have become standardized and proven, then you will also only be advertising to the normal population and its normal levels of trying new things. This isn't a bad thing, not in the least, but you are missing out on potential.

These are, of course, just random ideas for "mere exposure" that I happened to pull off the top of my head; new technology can still be geared towards creating substantive promotions. Instead of having a "development blog" why not a development vlog? If you're going to playtest your game, why not capture it on a webcam and put it online (particularly useful for new players who want to see HOW your game is played)? At a convention trying to promote your game? Why not include a link to your FaceBook account (and encourage consumers of your product to do the same)? Need to take a break from thinking about promoting your game or designing it but still want to be productive in regards to it? Create an alternate reality site (or even "fanfiction"). Like to doodle but you realize you aren't good enough to draw the art for your game? Post comics to your website that concern the game.

Will any of these ideas work? Darned if I know, but some of them look appealing to me, from a potential cost/benefit perspective (and I came up with all of them as I typed). Take one of these ideas, or come up with your own, and go perform an experiment. If it works or doesn't, let us know (I'll do the same, when I reach a point were promotion is a consideration). You might come up empty but you might hit gold.

Ron Edwards


I certainly don't disagree with your final point at all. I say, go for it, try it, and all of that. I don't agree with your point about effort, but that is such a personal call that my preference should not be considered any kind of recommendation. Effort is a personal thing.

So please, don't read anything of what I'm posting as a statement of disapproval. Everyone should be trying stuff. The issue of efficacy is, I think, important for people to consider individually, which is why I posted about it.

I'd also like to clarify that I'm not advocating traditional advertising, of which banner-clicking is a modern version. You probably saw that in the older threads. This discussion isn't about Ron the traditionalist vs. the new viralist. My position is best described as abandoning the philosophy of advertising in the first place, sticking to the announcement philosophy, and even that is considered a reinforcement of a more fundamental approach - that of communicating among fellow members of the community about stuff which can't be faked. It feels like going under advertising to the more straightforward and less flashy actual interactions that compose the hobby.

In line with that point, regarding the idea of filming play sessions, I and several others are already there. I think it's vitally important, in fact.

Best, Ron

J Tolson

Thank you for all your wonderful feedback.

I certainly agree that efficacy is an important issue; after all, most of us don't have excess resources to waste.

I would, however, disagree and say that you are advocating traditional advertising. Not that new-fangled banner gibberish or ads in magazines, rather good ol' word of mouth; passionate fans telling others about your product (or am I misunderstanding you?). Word of mouth was, of course, the first form of advertising. Such "advertising" is only valuable if the individuals are willing to trust each other's judgment (thus, "communicating among fellow members of the community").

Perhaps I should just stop using the word "advertising" as it has a rather dissatisfying taste about itself.

Anywho. This form of traditional advertising is fundamental, it is necessary. Everything else, every fancy or creative way of taking advantage of technology, is rather worthless if there isn't word of mouth to reinforce it.

Unfortunately, word of mouth has its limitations. Giving the matter more thought, taking into considerations your various points, "new" forms of advertising should really only serve to overcome those limitations, not to replace word of mouth altogether.

What are those limitations? Geography, for one. A passionate fan of your work can only effectively tell other people about you game if he knows them. Once he tells everyone he knows, what then? Does he have to become an inert agent of word-of-mouth advertising?

Technology (the internet specifically) offers a way to make a fan a more potent force in word-of-mouth advertising, as it can easily surpass these geographical limitations. Give a fan an online community to join (I'm not talking about just a forum on your company's webpage either) and he can become of a member of a pangeographical group of people being passionate about your game. Potential fans can easily wander the internet and thus can easily interact with this community of fans. This potential fan might not know any member of that community personally, but he can see their passion and can be reassured by their 1) presence and 2) numbers. He might think to himself "I don't know these people, but they seem to be having a lot of fun and it doesn't look to be just a fluke." As a game creator you can help spark this age-old process on a new medium by simply planting a seed (say, creating a FaceBook account).

To be fair, at its heart that is the "philosophy of advertising"; passing along a recommendation by word of mouth (the "mouth" just takes on different forms). Ads are really just the company itself telling people "Hey, we think you'd like this product." The real difference, it seems, is the scale; ads are impersonal and often not true (they aren't a surgical strike, rather more of a shotgun effect). There is no quantitative difference between a company buying space on a billboard to tell you that they think you should buy Crab Juice Cola and you telling a friend that you think he would really like your game; there is a qualitative difference, however. Trust.

Any "advertising," then, should then be aimed at that. When you don't know the person directly, that means you have to earn their trust (hence, a valid argument for why they should believe you). When you aren't in the same geographic location, that is when "new" technologies can come in to help. A video of people having fun with your game on YouTube is an argument (by example) of why your game is fun (and thus, if the individual is looking for fun, why they might want to consider it). A cluster of fans on FaceBook is an argument (particularly potent in democracies) that "hey, we all like this, chances are good then that you might too."

This is advertising, but this is also fairly straight foreword word-of-mouth; the "technology" is just there to bring the community (and potential community) "face to face."

Anywho, thanks again for all your wonderful comments.


Ron Edwards

We are in agreement on that point. The issue is the word "traditional," which I was using to indicate Madison Avenue, television, and other forms of mass-market saturation that are strongly associated with twentieth-century America, and also tightly connected to specific companies and locations. Your use of "traditional" in that post matches my use of "primary" in an earlier post.

Not much more to say except, again, I agree with you on that point.

Best, Ron