Note: This interview was conducted before the Newtown shooting, which sparked renewed controversy around first person shooter video games.
The Halo video games are among the most popular in the world—according to Microsoft, which owned Halo game developer Bungie until 2007, the series as of October 2012 had sold 46 million units globally. As of 2004, total game play of the first person shooter series, according to Bungie, amounts to 253,182 years—and this was in April 2012, before the November release of the highly-anticipated Halo 4. To put that into perspective, early-generation homo sapiens began to pop up around 250,000 years ago. So basically, we’ve got an entire round of human evolution packed into six years of Halo gaming.
Unlike many popular video game series, the Halo games are exclusive to Microsoft’s Xbox console—which would seemingly cripple sales by cutting it off from audiences that use competing consoles, like Sony’s Playstation or Nintendo’s Wii. This is, or course, not the case. Halo is a consistent best seller and Halo 4, as of this writing two months after its release, is fourth on the list of global sales according to stats from VGChartz (thus far, it’s sold 6.44 million units globally).
Part of this likely has to do with the marketing around Halo—which is known for exciting an extremely loyal fanbase. The 2004 release of Halo 2 for instance saw the release of I Love Bees, an alternate reality game that tasked gamers to solve puzzles in the real world, guided by occasional clues sent through email and mobile. These clues enticed gamers to travel to meeting places, and ultimately they were invited to play the game prior to its release.
Halo 4’s marketing campaign, developed by Wunderman, also had a puzzle element. Online advocates were given clues; working together, the advocates compiled the clues to discover Halo 4 promotional art (see inset image), which went viral through social channels and gaming blogs.
But video games, and the community that plays them, have evolved. Gamers have gotten older—in fact, a 2011 survey from the Entertainment Software Association found that the average gamer is now 37-years-old. As the gamer lifestyle diversifies and becomes increasingly visible online—thanks to game networking services like Xbox Live and the Playstation Network, video game marketers have more data and more opportunities to segment their fans. Case in point: when Bungie published the number of accumulated years consumers have played the Halo series, it also revealed which weapons its players preferred, which awards they’d earned, and total number of kills players had achieved on a per-game basis.
The following is an email interview with Brian Coles, group manager at Microsoft (which still helps market Bungie’s games), and Bob Zammit, senior strategist at Wunderman.
Direct Marketing News: With Halo 4, you have data on an established and loyal fanbase. What specifically has this allowed you to do from a marketing standpoint that you are unable to do when launching campaigns around less known franchises?
Brian Coles: The richer our data, the more effective we can be at engaging with our customers in ways that resonate with them. The idea is to provide an exceptional communication experience that ultimately drives them to purchase. And really, I believe we do a great job targeting the appropriate message to the appropriate customer segment for all our title launches. In the case of Halo 4, you’re talking about a franchise that really grew up with the overall Xbox brand. So we have a great deal of historical data. We’ve been able to precisely target customer segments with the content and offers they care about, based on their usage history. We were able to create very relevant direct marketing communications that struck an emotional chord with our very loyal Halo customer base. We spent a great deal of time drilling into the gameplay history of the customer base, examining not only what games they play, but how they play them. Data is power in direct marketing, but only if you use the data in a meaningful way, in ways the customer cares about and finds interesting. Our results indicate we were successful in doing this in the case of Halo 4.
Bob Zammit: From the planning standpoint, franchises with such a rich history are ideal for great segmentation. Every gamer on the planet has a relationship of some kind with Halo, falling somewhere between basic awareness and total fanaticism. The wealth of data Brian mentions gives us the tools to match each audience group’s reality with an effective tone and message. Some of our recipients are on the outside looking for a way into the series; others are seasoned veterans just ticking days off their calendar; and still others need to be convinced that Halo is the game for them. “Lowest common denominator” is a lousy way to inspire great work, so the historical activity data harvested from Xbox LIVE is a direct marketer’s dream. The positive results Brian is talking about have a lot to do with clever initial targeting, specific audience insights, and creative executions that bring it all to life.
Social media has always played a prominent role in marketing video games. As the channel matures, how have your marketing strategies changed over the years?
Social media has absolutely become more prevalent in the video game space. And Halo 4 is no exception. In fact, it’s no coincidence that the most dedicated Halo players are also among the most active users in our social channels. Xbox has a large, highly engaged direct marketing customer base and a massive following across all its social channels. Since there is a lot of overlap between those two audiences, we have had to adjust our direct marketing and social media strategies to complement each other. At the most basic level, this can be accomplished by driving customers to engage across our separate channels through simple calls-to-action or messaging reinforcement. Delivering tandem incentives through social and direct channels also has proven highly effective in both driving incremental sales and creating influencers among our community. However, for a massive campaign like Halo 4, it is important to align across all digital and direct channels in more sophisticated ways. This can take a lot of powerful forms, from message and offer alignment to highly integrated viral and guerilla marketing tactics that work in tandem across all multiple channels. At the end of the day, you need to approach these cross-channel campaigns from the point of view of the customer. All the separate communications the customer sees need to make sense as they are absorbed at various points over the course of the campaign. If you are unable to tell your story in a consistent way, the customer will face a confusing experience. While coordinating these communications across channels can be challenging, when it’s done properly, the effect can be very powerful.
Zammit: It’s important for marketers and their agencies to never forget that our audience expects Xbox as a brand to speak with a voice as unified as any of their friends. If I personally sent you both an email invitation and a Facebook event to attend my birthday party, you’d expect the two touch points to hold together and to feel like they were written by the same guy with the same spirit and intentions. At the same time, we always want to play to each channel’s strengths (targeting in direct channels and sharing in social, for example). This kind of constructive unity is not automatic when different functional teams are involved, but as Brian details above, Xbox manages this far better than most. For a game like Halo, Wunderman is constantly working across agency lines to make the customer experience as smooth as possible.
It almost seems as if the popularity of games like Halo 4 would allow the game to sell itself. Are there any painpoints Microsoft needs to be aware of from a marketing standpoint?
Coles: Sometimes to establish a baseline we ask ourselves, “How many games would we sell if we did nothing?” Obviously, we cannot know that answer with complete certainty until the games launch themselves and we see the sales figures, including those attributed to our direct marketing campaigns specifically. But in the case of Halo 4, we knew it would be an immensely popular game of the highest quality. Along these lines, it is critical to understand how best to tell our story to customers without it just becoming “noise” to an audience that is already so deeply invested in the content. This was particularly difficult with Halo 4, since Master Chief re-emerges as the protagonist and so many of the most loyal Halo players have such a deep emotional connection to him. It meant we had to balance the importance of our hero with the new adversaries he would be facing in this epic story, along with extraordinary Halo 4 gameplay itself. Basically, we were presented with the classic problem of having many great choices. At the end of the day, we realized we needed to talk about all of them: the Master Chief, the ancient evil foe that is awakening to fight him, and the superior multiplayer experience of Halo 4. To do this, we had to employ a consistent strategic direction across all our marketing. The marketing channel owners had to align on how and when to romance the reemergence of the hero, when to transition the story to his antagonists, and how to weave the gameplay into the fiction. This cross-channel coordination always poses challenges, but given the strength of the product we had to work with, we benefited from a great starting place.
Zammit: As Brian said, it’s something we ask ourselves at the beginning of nearly every campaign. From our standpoint, we’re fixated on making the sale outside of this strong base of near-certain prospects. The loyal Halo Nation has our deepest respect and appreciation, but we’ll spend more time thinking about how we can empower them to convert their friends and how we can approach those outsiders directly. We celebrate lift vs. control more than raw numbers which, as you point out, can be somewhat predetermined.
As fans of the Halo games age, are you noticing any diverse segments within the Halo fanbase? If so, how and to what extent do you target those segments?
Coles: Absolutely. Understanding and adjusting to these different behaviors is fundamental to our success for all game launches. Halo is a phenomenally successful franchise, but people engage with the different games in different ways. One size does not fit all for any gaming audience, including Halo. The typical Halo customer is very savvy, so we knew we needed to do our homework in order to craft the right message for each audience segment. What Halo games do they like? Do they prefer multiplayer or singleplayer gaming in general? If they do like multiplayer, how often do they play online with friends? We created several distinct segments among our universe of Halo players based on what their behavior indicated. Those individual segments received communications that were unique to them throughout each step of the campaign. And since we contacted each segment multiple times leading up to and beyond the launch of Halo 4, we really focused our energy on making sure that each touch point made sense as a series of communications being read by the same individual customer over time. Finally, what we said in direct marketing needed to make sense in the context of what was happening through other marketing channels at a given point in time. Telling that story required maintaining a high level of data discipline so we could keep each of those segments pristine throughout the campaign. This is what drives the greatest incremental conversion for our campaigns.
Zammit: I’ll add that your question about the graying of Halo fans could be fairly applied to gamer culture in general. Any outdated ideas some may harbor about gamers being exclusively young dudes are simply irrelevant today. That said, we’re far more interested in psychographics than demographics. In some ways, an 18 year old boy and a 45 year old woman that both choose Halo have more in common than that 18 year old has with classmates who are crazy about Madden or who are 200 hours into a role playing fantasy game like Skyrim. We target each person’s gamer persona to understand what manner of thrills, release, or escape they’re after at the end of a long day and that, more than anything, guides our hand.
It stands to reason that Halo fans would be interested in sci-fi or action games. However, have you been able to link Halo fans to other Microsoft or Xbox products/games that aren’t necessarily obvious connections?
Coles: Sure. Gamers, like all people, are highly individual. And people engage with different content in different ways. A Halo enthusiast may very well also enjoy other gaming genres. In fact, that is absolutely the case. And naturally, customer tastes do not end with gaming; on the contrary, customers also enjoy other forms of entertainment that Xbox provides, like streaming movies, listening to music or watching sports. So we certainly can use some of this gameplay and usage data to understand how people engage with Xbox and, in turn, how we should be talking to them. Now, there are limits to what we can and should do, of course. It is paramount that we protect both our customer’s privacy and the intellectual property of the other studios that have released Xbox games and apps. Still, there are certainly ways for us to look at some of that data to understand who these customers are. For example, if a Halo player also loves the Fable franchise, which is fantasy-based role playing game, perhaps we should emphasize a bit more the epic storyline of Halo 4 for that specific customer. Conversely, if a customer simply loves online gaming with friends, regardless of the genre, we might want to more heavily emphasize the great multiplayer experience that Halo 4 offers for that individual. These types of insights can carry over to movie, TV and music genre, to a certain extent. And since we are talking about direct marketing, it is worth noting we always test our new targeting against our established, champion approach in our campaigns. From there we track our effectiveness and optimize based on the findings.
Zammit: It’s a beautiful arrangement – Xbox uncovers these correlations with in-house data analysis and Wunderman does our best to help them understand the emotional underpinnings that connect these sometimes wildly disparate experiences. Together I think we’ve made tremendous strides towards the understanding of what our audience loves at levels far deeper than media type or genre.
To what extent is customer attrition a risk for popular video game franchises and do you have strategies for dealing with that attrition or potential attrition?
Coles: While there are risks in every business, I would say the bigger shift in the ecosystem is simply the emergence of many new choices for all types of consumers. There are many new games with broad customer appeal that would be of interest to families, but that does not threaten all the great core games that Xbox offers. The same can be said about the great lineup of Xbox entertainment apps. Again, customers are highly individual so having different options available is a great thing and encourages breadth of usage of Xbox overall. By their nature the video game and entertainment technology sectors are very innovative. This constant innovation serves to keep customers highly engaged as great content is constantly always being introduced into the Xbox ecosystem.
Zammit: Thinking of a gaming franchise like Halo as an ongoing relationship with players is spot on, but the danger of thinking in terms like attrition is the underlying assumption that these customers were yours to lose in the first place. For us, the business of even a highly invested Halo fan needs to be earned at every installment. As we said above, for some folks this is nearly a foregone conclusion, but the purchase of Halo 3 does not commit anyone to Halo 4. That’s our job.