New Audiences, New Chicken Coup, & New Pecking Order!

April 29, 2006

The readings from this week – John Banks' “Gamers as Co-creators: Enlisting the Virtual Audience, A Report from Net Face” – argues that the contemporary online gaming industry redefines roles played by the audience, products and manufacturers.

Traditionally, media audiences are perceived to be passive and susceptible to influence. The media manufacturers/developers produce the contents which are then delivered to the audiences for consumption. It is a one-way process and there are no active engagements between the two parties.

However, the new media technology such as internet has produced a “very different audience” nowadays and they “resists delivery”. The internet opened a convenient, instantaneous and effective communication channel for audiences to feedback to manufacturers. Virtual fan clubs, discussion forums and websites easily build up into a critical mass of audiences with similar interests/opinions. This critical mass warrants enough attention not to be ignored.

For the manufacturers, “the audience needs to be approached as a dynamic process”. This poses new challenges to companies when marketing to consumers. At the same time, it offers new opportunities for tapping the vast resources of these consumers.

From the late 1990s, support for multi-player online games was an emerging trend and a rich and active online fan culture build up around them. The gaming consumers, being tech-savvy, would build dedicated websites, which are “important and influential intermediaries”. They are actively participating by sharing information, using discussion forums, even building up teams to challenge others.

Game developers like Auran recognize that proper management of the virtual fan community (or fandom) is important, and set up their own interactive websites for collecting feedbacks, criticism and engage in email exchanges with fans. Compared to traditional media outlets like TV/print, this is an effective and relatively cheap marketing and public relations channel. Product information, upcoming events and sales pitches can be sent out to the online fan community, which can then be easily forwarded to others. Soft-selling works better than hard selling!

Every chicken coup has its pecking order, and so does an online community. When such information is passed on from one fan, especially the top dog (or chicken), to the others, it will be more credible than if such information comes directly from the manufacturers. The formal, corporatized advertising campaign is camouflaged and transformed into an informal, effective, even subliminal tool of persuasion. It becomes a form of viral marketing. Cunning, but smart, if I may say so!

However, like viral marketing, there are risks involved too. Companies have to recognize that they are giving up a certain level of control when such online marketing is involved. In the hands of the virtual community, it can take on a life of its own. The opinion leaders can play a crucial role in influencing the campaign either positively or negatively. The outcomes are more unpredictable and the online communities can simply have adverse reactions to the campaigns. Companies should keep a close watch on their campaigns in case it turns into a PR nightmare! More on viral marketing and nightmares in future! Maybe…



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