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If you want to build an audience – have something to say

In building an audience for their brands, many miss a key aspect: They lack a core message and unique idea to build their audience around. Why is this so important and how can you tap into this idea to elevate your audience-building to the next level?

This is a guest post by Samuel from Imaginary Sword Studios. Samuel works in business innovation, helping companies find new ways to create value, navigate changing times and fierce competition. He blogs about the board games industry from an innovation and business perspective at

Since marketing and marketing strategy is something I have been doing for many years now as part of my day job, I of course tend to think and read a lot about how marketing is done in the board games industry.

A recurring theme in the advice given for indie designers and publishers is to “build an audience”, especially if they intend to crowdfund (but I would say building an audience is crucial even when doing only traditional publishing). This headline is often coupled with tactical advice on how to build said audience, that is: The tips and tricks to gain followers who like and subscribe in all manner of forms. (Joe has previously delved into this topic in several posts, such as “Top 3 things you can do to build an audience”; those posts work great as companions to this article.)

Make no mistake: This tactical work is super important. Clever strategy – which is more what I’m going to delve into here – can not make up for not doing the job and building that audience, follower by follower.

All of the above being said, I often feel that there is a part of the discussion missing, a part that I have found to be crucial when it comes to efficiently building an audience. To get the most bang for the buck when you are doing all that this type of tactical advice suggests, I would also ask you to consider some larger questions of a more strategic nature that should precede these tactical choices. I’m going to focus on two of them:

  • Why would someone want to become your audience?
  • How do you build an audience of the highest quality? (as to what I mean by quality of the audience, we’ll get to that below)

Sure, you will be able to gain likes and subscribes without delving into this, you might have already. But at the very least, considering these questions will give you the upper hand when it comes to building an audience and pave the way for your tactical actions to be more effective. You can build an audience that finds more value in what you do and that is thus more valuable to you, and you can make the building of that audience easier.

From commercials to “content” – marketing in the digital era

Let’s start with a short background. Today, building an audience is the primary way that brands in many if not most industries market themselves. Instead of relying on classical push-style advertising once it is time to sell a new product or launch a service, brands in the digital era have started to build audiences with people that they can reach at any time with new offers. The goal has become not to have customers, but fans. In the board games space this has become especially important for publishers who want to crowdfund and have those fans ready on day 1 to back their campaign and get momentum going.

To build an audience that wants to stay subscribed, that wants to keep on listening to what you have to say, the style of content that is put out by brands in all categories has shifted from a focus on traditional commercial messages, to focus on content which in and of itself is more valuable to the audience. This was specifically branded as “content marketing” when the idea came onto the scene in the early 2010s, but of course building audiences in this way is not a new idea. Magazines and newspapers have always sold valuable content and, in return, you as the buyer accept to be targeted by the ads in the paper. The shift that took place with content marketing, I would say, was that most every brand now has become an editor of its own content channel(s).

There are downsides to this, and “content” has become a derided word. But overall this is a development for the better for us as consumers. Brands now tend to compete for your attention primarily by trying to produce relevant content that you actually find valuable, instead of spending that same money toward classic advertising.

This new landscape comes with challenges, of course.

No one wants to be in your audience

Say it out loud: No one really wants to be in my audience.

Ouch. Is that true? Well, go to yourself for answers: Do you want all the brands you come in touch with – online stores, brick-and-mortars, services you are signed up for and so on – to include you in their audience and push content to you? If you are anything like me (and most people are, data shows) you don’t give up your email address willy-nilly, tick every “please send me newsletters”-box or subscribe to every Youtube channel you come across. Consumers are overrun with content, information and notifications; we want less things vying for our attention, not more. A handful of brands asking for your attention every now and then might be fine, especially when you really have a great fondness for their offerings, but any more than that? As consumers we aren’t keen on being in the so called audience for brands just to be nice. We want to be in the audience when we are actual fans.

For anyone looking to build an audience, this situation is crucial to keep in mind. No one really wants to be in your audience – you have to provide true value. Consulting for many different businesses throughout my career, this is one of the most important shifts in thinking that I have helped my clients make. From an attitude of self-importance to one of humility. Or, expressed in another way, a shift from this:

“We are super important and our product is awesome and people will surely be interested in it”

to something more like this:

“We are not that important, our product might be awesome for a small number of people but in the grand scheme of things almost no one will be interested in it”.

This attitude needs to be adopted even by great brands with hundreds of thousands of fans; they need to earn their place in people’s lives every day. That is unfortunately the situation, even if we as brand builders would like it to be different. The humble attitude will put you in the right state of mind to start to communicate with your would-be audience, and it will lead you to the questions that can really elevate your audience-building:

Why would someone want to be in my audience? How can I create true fans of my content?

Why would anyone actually want to be in your audience?

The standard answer to this question from a game publisher would probably be: “Because they are interested in our game(s)”.

This is not necessarily a bad answer, and it is how I perceive most publishers to be working today (I naturally do not have insight into the strategy of every board game publisher so this is judging from my spectator’s view). You know the drill: You are out there talking about your products at conventions, in podcasts and social media feeds, and some people who take a look become interested enough to sign up for a newsletter or hit follow etc. The promise? “More information on the game and other upcoming games of ours” if they stay in the audience.

While this answer is not bad, I do find it slightly… lazy, let’s say. And a huge missed opportunity. It might be enough of an answer for some brands. When Apple, Disney or Playstation announce a keynote with info on new products, millions tune in. I mean no disrespect but I think most people reading this do not own brands of that caliber!

For all us mortals, the “subscribe for more info on our products” does not cut it. Think of all the stores that want you to become a member by “just” giving up your email address so that they can send you offers and product news. In a world where we want less things clawing at our eyeballs for attention – not more – that is a weak offer. No thanks, I do not want to “just” give you my contact info just to be spammed with the regular stuff.

Sure, you will get sign-ups with this lazy approach – apparently it works for many stores – but this leads into the next core question: How do you build an audience of the highest quality? Yes, you can lower the bar, almost trick people into signing up or actually buying them outright (”Sign up now and you will have 10 % off your next purchase!”) – but that will give you a large audience, not necessarily a qualitative one.

Instead of a situation where you have an attitude of “please be in my audience”, you should think along the lines of how to make it a can’t-miss opportunity. And here’s a kicker: Can you make the reason not related to the purchasing of your products? That is, do not answer “because they will get great offers”, “they will get discounts”, “they will be the first to pre-order/back on crowdfunding” and so on. These types of incentives are another one of those “not necessarily bad but lazy” strategies. And business-wise it is a slippery slope to build your audience around discounts and freebies. It eats into the already thin margins for all board game publishers. And build a strong relationship with your audience, it does not.

What do you have to say?

Instead of building your audience purely around your products and offers connected to them, you need to think about the following: What do you have to say that really earns you the attention you are competing for in the lives of your audience? How can you craft different types of experiences and content around that for your audience, to make their time spent with you truly valuable? I noted that the digital era and the rise of content marketing have led to many brands becoming content publishers who have to think editorially. So here’s another way to frame it that might trigger something: If your brand published a magazine – what would it be about? Again, don’t say “about our game(s)” but rather, think about the topics that interest your brand and could connect with your potential fans.

This is the fundamental thing you have to think about if you want to stand apart among all the brands that want attention from your potential customer. If they follow others, they get product news and offers. If they follow you, they get more. They get something that truly engages them, that they value, that they look forward to!

How can this look in practice? Look no further than many of the board gaming podcasts you might already listen to – a ton of them are made by people who also design games or run a publisher and are trying to get their name out there. So they start a podcast, make it interesting for a specific audience that they have in mind, and then when they have something to release themselves, they talk about it or at least plug it on the podcast and voilá – they have a sizable audience ready to listen to their sales pitch. This is a smart strategy and as a listener I 100 % approve, so don’t get me wrong here. It does not work if the podcast in question isn’t any good, if I don’t feel that I get actual value out of it as a listener. If I do, then it is a win-win.

If you are making games about history, maybe you can build an audience around that? If you are doing a mythological theme, there could be tons of stuff to dig into and create content around that can excite your audience. The same goes for sports, or politics or any other theme.

All of this is true even if you are not just building an audience for a single game which you intend to crowdfund/release into stores. Building an audience for your company as a whole is more often the stronger bet. Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games is probably one of the best examples of how this can be done if we look within the confines of the board games industry (check out his blog or Youtube channel, for example). He has consistently for years now put out tons of content which really doesn’t have an overarching theme other than he is the one putting it out, whether he ranks his top games in a genre or blogs about a movie he saw (he did initially focus a lot on giving Kickstarter advice, but has broadened his scope). He has built an audience around himself and when he has something to say connected to his products, he does so and has a lot of people listening. Because remember: He still does it for business reasons. I mean, he probably enjoys it too and enjoys that people find value in it (otherwise he would never be able to keep that pace), but there has to be a business reason for it as well. Again: It is a win-win.

I will note that Jamey is very productive. Do not look at his output and feel dissuaded if you can’t match it. I’ve seen content strategies work with relatively little content because that content was the right content for the right audience and it was good.

Who do you want to build a relationship with and what do you have to say to them?

Building a more valuable audience – and building one easier.

Whether you go the ambitious Jamey-route or do something on a more focused, smaller scale, work needs to be put in, definitely.

Is it worth it? Yes.

An audience that comes to you for true value, that wants to listen to what you have to say for reasons other than they want a great deal on your next release, is a more valuable audience. They will be truly engaged and more likely to share your content. They will open emails at higher rates, they will act on your calls-to-action to a greater extent. A big audience built on the “please subscribe to my email list for product updates and discounts”-mantra, simply will not have these qualities.

You will also have an easier time building the audience. If you recruit your first followers and they like what they get, they will help you out by sharing it with others. And in the marketplace of tons of publishers who want gamers to follow them, you will stand out among the crowd with your particular point of view.

I hope this post has given you some inspiration on how to provide more value to your audience. If you are at a complete loss as to what you should or want to do, don’t worry – try stuff! Explore! Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis thinking about what you can or cannot do – start somewhere and let your audience building and content evolve from there.

Good luck, and thanks for reading!

Thanks so much, Samuel, for this amazing article!

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