Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Polishing The Iceberg

One of the hardest things to do in life is to think about what something you know well looks like to other people. First impressions - both the snap judgments and the longer initial exposure - matter a lot, and its worth taking the time to shift your perspective and consider how you and your project (whatever it is) looks to someone coming across it for the first time. Think of it like an inversion of the usual iceberg metaphor - rather than being all about the great depths hidden out of sight, it's more about figuring out which part sticks above the surface of the water and making sure that's eye-catching as possible.[1]

The hardest part to figure out with any project[2] is where people are going to be coming from the first time they find your work. Will they find it by Googling the title? Picking it up off a shelf to peruse? A review? A discussion on a forum? Downloading a preview? There's no way to know, and that leads to the first and most important rule: Every point of contact is somebody's first point of contact.

The bad news is this means more work for you. You can't just pick one thing, like the perfect back cover blurb or the ideal website and trust that it'll do the job. Yes, if you find a perfect pitch you can tilt attention in that direction (Such as reposting the blurb in other places, or making sure you always have a link to the website on hand) but that's still going to require a fair amount of work.

There are about a zillion specific things you can do to polish each of these facets, more than I could possibly go into in a single post, so let's step back to a high level and focus on the three big ones: you need to be clear, you need to be easy and you need to be human.

To understand what being clear means, ask yourself what you think when a friend suggests a book, movie or a game without any context. What are the things you want to know about it to be able to decide if it's for you? Obviously, you want to know as much as possible as quickly as possible, but you don't want to know too much. Movies are great for this - you go and catch a trailer online, and in the span of 3 minutes, you have a decent amount of data. For books, this is the back cover blurb. For games it's....well, we don't have anything like this for games[3], and that's kind of a problem. But whatever the form, that idea of something that can be quickly digested to give enough information to create interest, that's powerful.

But it doesn't always work. Some trailers are terrible. Some book blurbs are almost nonsensical in their desire to be prose stylings rather than merely informative. Like some reviewers, many blurb-writers make the mistake of trying to show how cool they are rather than helping or informing the reader. Don't do that. Be clear in the information you provide.

Easy is a corrolary of clear - you don't want to make a potential fan work to find what they need to know. Forums are great. Ornate websites are great. But if your answer to a potential question requires that someone visit a forum or navigate some whack-ass flash interface, that's a bad answer. "It's on the wiki" is not acceptable if you have any interest in turning a querant into a fan.

This one may be the most work, because everything you make easier for others is a little harder for you, and the reality is no matter how well you create the faq or how clearly you write things out, there are going to be questions that you haven't prepared for. When they come up, remind yourself that no matter how many questions you've fielded, this is the first one from this person's perspective, and how you answer it is how your company acts.

And that comes into the last one: be human. Make sure the face on your interactions is a human one rather than some sort of abstraction. This means a lot of predictable things, like being civil, but it also means copping to things. You're not going to be perfect, but that's only a problem if you act like your farts are lemon-scented. If you have a problem, hang a lantern on it - call it out and be at the front of the discussion. Not only is that more responsible, it helps you direct the conversation towards something useful rather than towards something toxic.

Now, here's the big trick. Yes, I will ultimately suggest doing all three of these things because they are the right thing to do in their own right, but if you're feeling crazily cynical about human nature and are driven purely by the bottom line, then i say this: do them anyway. Not because good presentation nets sales (though it does) but because this is makes your life easier. See, by providing these answers in a clear, easy and human fashion, you have enabled every person who has ever gotten an answer to speak on your behalf, with confidence. You can't watch every forum and every blog, and when a question about your product comes up, the more people who are capable of answering the question, the more likely someone will answer it. If you've been clear, it will be the right answer. If you've made it easy, they can find it. If you've been human, they're more likely to want to help.

Now, I like to think of this as positive reinforcement: treat people well and they treat you well. But if it's necessary for your worldview to think of this as shameless manipulating the masses to serve your needs[4] then feel free to think of it that way. Either way, you know what to do.

1 - Implicit in this is the assumption that the rest of your iceberg is going to be worthwhile. Icebergs that are all up on top abound in advertising and marketing, but that's not what we're talking about today. This is not a cynical ploy to draw attention to something worthless, this is a cynical ploy to draw attention to something valuable and useful.

2 - Project in this case might be a book, a game, a movie or really anything with a creator that might be bought, sold or given.

3 - Except when we steal it. Some games have useful back cover blurbs, some don't.

4 - Mwahahahahaha


  1. I personally think "Clear" is harder than "Easy". Easy is something that throwing time on solves. Being clear is something that not all of us are good at to the same extent, and for some of us, throwing more time on it may not help things.

    As someone who posts on a big forum's company (Privateer Press), you definitely got it with the last item. Some questions show up 2-3 times a week, and while frustrating to answer for the bazillionth time, that's exactly why you need different people to answer it each time. And also because there's no way the company's employees and forum moderators will be able to handle it all.

    As for games, I guess it's in a weird situation. We've got "Elevator Pitches", but that begs the question: Is talking about a game a good preview for a game? Dowe have something better?
    There are the "Replays" popular in Japanese games and which also exist in many older games, where the first chapter has 2-3 pages of "AP".

    Finally, an amusing personal anecdote. The first book of the Illuminati Trilogy in Hebrew, and perhaps all three, has on its back-cover a fake book review from within the book, which completely lambasts a book. I, and I wonder how many others, thought it was a negative book review ABOUT the book I was holding, on its own back-cover, which stopped me from purchasing it for half a decade.

  2. *laughs* yeah, the fake blurb thing is too clever by half. It's reasonable to do things that will appeal solely to existing fans - heck, it's helpful even - but doing it on the back of the book seems like madness. Of course, I suppose once you're successful enough to stop caring, the sky's the limit.

  3. The Illuminati Trilogy is really not well-known in Israel, though most gamers know of "The Illuminati", and now there's been Dan Brown... I wonder how much effect that blurb had, cause... it was on something very few people have known.

    I picked the books extremely cheaply, though I haven't had the chance to read them yet.

  4. It's posts like this that make me hope that someday you're going to publish them either as ideas for a book or as a collection of the posts because you have some very worthwhile, useful and downright interesting things to say about publishing, the hobby, and how gaming can be more fun.
    Man that was a long sentence.

  5. Evidence that fake cover blurb is too clever by half: Passages.

    I think it's just swell. Graham thought it was a game about pooping.

  6. This actually dovetails nicely with Gareth's series on transmedia, as something to keep in mind as one works on the different portals.



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