What This Video Game and Tech Veteran Learned from Marketing a Kickstarter Board Game (Guest Post)

17 August 2020 | 7 Comments

Six years ago (2014), I wrote a post about my thoughts on campaign boosting services. At the time, if you launched a Kickstarter campaign, your KS inbox was almost instantly filled with messages from companies and people offering to share your project with thousands of people for a fee. That’s not my type of advertising, so I never used them.

However, I continue to see these companies posting about campaigns on Facebook and Instagram, and as a backer (not a creator), I must admit that sometimes I appreciate the ads. They’re highly targeted, and they feature projects I’m often curious about and may not otherwise have heard of.

So when creator and writer Dan Ackerman reached out to me with some fairly recent experiences with these services and other types of advertising, I invited him to share his thoughts and data in a guest post. He mostly focuses on paid advertising, not boosting, though this is the same data you’d want to dig into if you’re paying someone to advertise for you. Thanks Dan!

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As a reporter, I’m used to getting pitched. Press releases show up in my email inbox day and night. So I wasn’t surprised to find my email inbox similarly flooded when I launched my first board game project on Kickstarter last year.

Suddenly everyone was a marketing expert or crowdfunding guru, and they all had advice for me. For a price, of course. A small amount of that advice was useful, even insightful. Much of it was trying to convince me to buy into various crowdfunding promotional services, from contest farms to mailing lists of crowdfunding fans to influencer promos. Fortunately, it wasn’t all that. There were also a handful of invitations from podcasts and websites to interview me about my game.

Being new to this — despite being a New-York-Times-reviewed author, regular TV news talking head, and established tech and games journalist — I felt I needed to explore as many avenues to success as possible.

The good news: I kept an open mind, pivoted where I needed to, but also trusted my instincts and stuck to my guns where I needed to. I never forgot that my target audience was gamers, not influencers, other game designers, or Facebook page admins. My game–a small project in the big scheme of things–was successfully funded, brought in significant extra funds through its pledge manager, and just finished shipping to backers.

The bad news: As a seasoned journalist, creator and tech/video game insider, I saw things that would make your head spin. Marketers who couldn’t write a simple introductory email; rate cards that might as well have been scribbled on the back of a Five Guys napkin. Most distressingly, in many places I looked there was a complete lack of accountability and performance metrics.

At the end of the process, my takeaway was this: Even if your Kickstarter game successfully funds, if you don’t know what questions to ask, a lot of your project budget is in danger of going down a black hole — from which no information (like usable metrics) can ever escape. Here are a few things I learned throughout the process.

Display ads still rule — they just don’t work

Almost every tabletop website wants to help you promote your game. The problem is, most of them seem stuck in the past, aggressively pushing display ads as their main product.

There’s a reason nearly every digital content player in every industry is pivoting away from display ads (banners, boxes, etc) and towards branded content (promotional elements tightly integrated with editorial content) and affiliate commerce.

Display ads just don’t work like they used to. Any time I tried an old-fashioned banner display ad, the results were disappointing. Here’s why display/banner ads are on their way out:

  • Advertisers don’t want to buy them. And if they do, they want to buy them in bulk, at cut-rate prices from ad networks, not overpriced impressions directly from a single web publication.
  • Ad blockers routinely remove these ads, so your most savvy audience members will never see most of them. About one-third of websurfers use an ad blocker today, and that number is growing.
  • Even without ad blockers, online consumers have trained themselves to ignore display ads. Banners were big 10, 20 years ago. We spent time carefully crafting them for maximum impact. It was still a creative endeavor. Today it’s a race for the bottom, all about clickbait for car insurance.

Be clear on what marketing metric you’re buying

I lost count of how many editorial or semi-editorial gaming websites of FB groups offered me advertising packages where my banner or ad would be up for five days, one week, etc. Or sharing a top spot with X number of other ads, all for a flat fee.

But how many times would my message be seen in a scenario like that? No one could say. If they can’t define what you’re exactly buying, don’t buy it.

Still, if you’re buying display ad space, the most basic information you need is the CPM of your ad. CPM is the cost per 1,000 impressions. Don’t tell me my display ad is going to own or share a space on a website for X days. Tell me how many impressions (views of the page with my message on it) I can expect and what the precise cost will be.

Credit to the popular BoardGameGeek website for selling CPM ads with up-front data and pricing (and for having one of the only professional-looking media kits and rate cards I encountered). That said, the site does so much pageview traffic that you really need to invest heavily to break through and have your ad appear often enough to make an impact. Even then, all the issues around traditional display ads remain.

BoardGameGeek Data

Impressions Clicks CPC/CPM CTR
467525 1139 $0.97 / $2.35 0.24%

Spoiler alert: Facebook got me a much lower cost-per-click with a better-tracked, more responsive audience.

BGG offered some decent reporting, but not in real time. And it couldn’t tell me, for example, the frequency of ads — which is how often the same unique visitor saw one of my ads. The classic marketing ‘rule of 7’ says you need at least seven brand interactions before a consumer will buy your product.

For my small project, I tried a small buy on BGG (too small, really). The click through ratio (CTR) was low for such a specialized site, but in the end, the real CPM I paid, and the cost-per-click (CPC) that worked out to, were reasonable in the big scheme of things.

For context, if I’m advertising high-end computer networking equipment on a well-known online publication for IT professionals, there’s a pretty clear case to be made that I’m putting my premium product in front of very likely purchasers. I might pay a $50 or more CPM for that. Run-of-the-mill ads on run-of-the-mill sites can have CPMs under $1. A specialized audience with a documented history of engagement will always cost more.

Facebook: Lean into algorithms

A huge part of the game community is on FB, and actively engaged. But more importantly, all those horror stories you hear about how effective Facebook is at tracking and targeting are true.

This isn’t new information, but the key is to target at your preferred age range and location, and include some combination of “board games” + “kickstarter” as your must-have terms, plus whatever else you want to experiment with. (Frankly, I picked up a lot of great targeting tips in other articles here on stonemaiergames.com) Also useful: target both by location and interest any trade shows or conventions you plan on attending — you know, when we have those again.

One of things that drives so many marketing dollars in this space towards Facebook is the deep metrics and reporting tools. Google Ads offers similar tools, but ad-blocking and competition for top terms have made that a less useful tool overall.

For Techlandia, I created multiple ads to try different approaches. There was traditional close-up game photography with gameplay details; a story-telling series of images to emphasize the writing and humor with some narrative hints; a large single-image, somewhat esoteric — I’d call this a branding teaser. Earlier, I had run a Facebook-recommended animated slideshow based on my own images.

Techlandia ads:

  CPC CPM CTR
Traditional component show-off/features $0.35 $4.53 1.29%
Humorous carousel/narrative $0.38 $6.38 1.67%
Bold single-image/branding $0.23 $7.56 3.27%
Animated slideshow $0.28 $6.17 2.18%

The raw CPM is on the high side, but all of these Facebook ads did decently, and anytime your clickthrough ratio is over 2%, you’ve doing ok. I’ll pay $0.35 per click all day long for semi-qualified leads — which is really the Facebook business model. Here’s a link to the image from the single-image ad that had over a 3% CTR. It’s more of a branding exercise than a call-to-action, so even though it performed the best in some metrics, it’s more of a long-term play.

And don’t get too attached to your ad ideas. Facebook will cut off false starts before they have a chance to overstay their welcome. If your ad is deemed to be low-quality by the Facebook ad algorithms or had a poor engagement rate, FB won’t aggressively serve it. After all, they’re not making money from it, you’re not getting what you need from it, and you’re wasting real estate on the site.

The algorithm is cold, uncaring and ruthlessly efficient. And it’s usually right. ;)

Dan Ackerman is Senior Managing Editor at CNET, author of the game history book The Tetris Effect, and designer of the Silicon-Valley-meets-Lovecraft game Techlandia, available at TechlandiaGame.com.

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I’d love to learn more about your experiences with advertising and campaign boosting services over the last year or so–feel free to share in the comments below!

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7 Comments on “What This Video Game and Tech Veteran Learned from Marketing a Kickstarter Board Game (Guest Post)

  1. Thanks for the mention of the BGG ads! However, I do think it fell short of explaining the full exposure your package generated.

    Looking back at your campaign in its entirety, the final performance of the banners was 2,049 clicks at a cost of $1,100, so $.54 per click, which is far better than the CPC you mention.

    However, this is only counting the banner performance, and not the bonus coverage we give in our newsletter for any project that advertises with us. Looking back at our newsletters from August and September of 2019 when you were live, the newsletters generated another 2,544 clicks to the project.

    So, in total, the $1,100 advertising investment yielded a total of 4,593 clicks to the project, a cost per click of about $.24, which is about the same as your best-performing Facebook CPC.

    So, with BGG ads, it’s very important to consider the entire package, with all of the bonuses and add-ons we offer.

  2. Thanks for sharing Jamey and Dan! The longer I do this, the more I realize having a digital marketing expert on your team is very important. I’ve usually handled that for my previous campaigns but I’ve always felt dismally lost in it, leading to poor performance and wasted money. I’m going to put some serious time into learning more about it over the next 6 months and this article was a good start!

  3. Can totally agree. BoardGameGeek ads are no longer of much use, while FB are outstanding. At least comparitively.

    On our recent campaign that grossed over half a million in pledges, we had less than $1000 in tracked BGG ad sales. Conversely we had about $150,000 in tracked facebook ad sales. Yes, we spent more on facebook as a result of the trend, but the BGG ads didn’t, on paper, even pay for themselves. This is a HUGE change over BGG ads of 5 years ago that were the #1 place to advertise.

    Reason: BGG has a fundraiser each year, in which if you pledge enough they enable the ad-blocker for your site use. They bribe you to higher pledges with the incentive of blocking ads. ….so a large percentage of biggest spenders do.

    Go Facebook.

    Addendum:
    If you’re a first timer, you might need BGG more than a returning player. You need a good email list to target your Facebook Ads as well as you could. Too much to type all here, but the comparisons by status vary.

    1. Hey John,

      Looking at your campaign, between the banners and mailing list traffic, the campaign generated 4,567 clicks to your project, which is a CPC of $.35. Are you getting a much better CPC elsewhere? This seems really competitive. Or, was the issue that BGG’s traffic just wasn’t converting into sales for this product? I feel like your analysis may be only looking at the banner ad portion of your campaign, but not the entire picture of everything that’s included.

      Also, regarding the fundraiser, it’s true that we allow patrons to deactivate ads, but:

      1) A very low % of patrons, much less the entire userbase, actually use this feature since BGG’s advertising tends to be highly game-related. I’m not sure where you would have seen data that a large % are blocking ads, or if that was an assumption you made?

      2) For the small % that do choose to block ads, I would think this would actually increase ad effectiveness, by preventing your ads from being served to people who don’t want to see them, allowing your ads to be served to people who are receptive to ads.

  4. Hi Dan, given that Techlandia funded quite late in its campaign and didn’t overfund massively, can I ask roughly how much you actually spent on ads? I was under the impression that a BGG minimum spend is $500 for example, given that your final total was about $12k, that seems like a high percentage of your total budget for relatively little return.

    Also, since a very significant $1,752 of that total game from only 5 backers in one day thanks, as you said, to your appearance at a video games industry conference, do you think that advertising can come close to that sort of response from live conferences? In the current climate, how would you replace that sort of come back?

    1. Definitely not as much as I should have! And as a first-timer at this specific thing, I wish I had some of this data going in. I aimed very conservatively, spent that way and didn’t outperform — that’s life — but I was speaking at a conference the last week of the campaign, and picked up some great support there. If anything, the post-campaign sales (and now ongoing sales) have been both more satisfying and more data-driven, and that continues. -dan

      1. Great to hear! So you think that the reason that you didn’t over fund more significantly is that you didn’t spend more going in? Could you suggest what you’d now see as a minimum spend then, and what sort of return you’d expect based on that?

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