I just spent the last three days pounding the carpet of Boston Comic Con in costume as a newsie, complete with sandwich board. It was long and greuling, but it was a success beyond my expectations. I got 519 people to sign up for the official announcement of the Moriarty’s Machinations kickstarter on September 5th. How did I do it? Planning and Polish.

I was looking for events to fill in the inevitable middle slump of the kickstarter, and I found out that NY Comic Con (October 9-12) is right around when I was planning to finish up. I looked around for tickets, but they were sold out. Going to stubhub.com, 4 day tickets were selling for $230+. I didn’t want to risk paying that much money for such an uncertain outcome, so I decided to test it out. I looked for other comic cons around, and lo and behold Boston Comic Con was just a week away! I quickly secured a 3 day pass and got to work.

First off, what do you (as a designer/publisher) want to get out of a convention? Find people to buy your game of course! But not just anyone. You want people who are actually _likely_ to buy your game. For that, you need to target them. The low effort approach is to just hand out flyers to every passerby in the hopes that the shotgun approach will get you mucho money. I hate that. Yeah you’ll get some people who might be interested, but you’re missing the first rule of marketing: sell something your customer actually wants.

You can’t force someone to buy something they don’t want (in the entertainment industry), so there are two ways to do it: either find people who want your game who don’t know it yet, or make people want your game. I’m going with the first one because I don’t feel comfortable tricking people into buying something they’ll end up hating. It’s a losing strategy in the long run, and I aim to please.

Anyway, the other thing you miss by just handing out tons of flyers blindly is the personal connection with your potential customers. When they read that email or flyer from you, you want them to remember you fondly. If they do, they’ll actually read it and want to take action. The whole point of this colossal expenditure of time and treasure is to get them to take action! So this is what I resolved to do. I would talk to every single potential customer personally and tell them about my game. I would get them to put their email on a list so I could remind them about our conversation when the game came out on kickstarter. Here’s what I did.

I headed down to a local clothing trift shop called the garment district in Cambridge, MA and got myself a whole newsie outfit for $30 (except the hat, which I still had from a musical I did way back in high school). The newsie outfit was perfect because it was 1. game related (late 1800’s, when Sir Conan Doyle was writing Sherlock Holmes), 2. on topic (spreading the news), 3. setting appropriate (a comic convention where lots of people were in cosplay), and 4. eye catching (a male cosplayer looking daper and talking about Sherlock Holmes). It helped tremendously that I had a well known cultural icon to work with (having recently been judged out of copywrite protection).

In order to spread the word properly, I needed some news print. I looked online and found this template. I spent an evening adding content and images about the game, and transformed it into a pdf ready to print on a sandwichboard. I also did a version that was for an 11x17 inch saddle stitch paper for the sign up sheet. I go to Fedex Office any time I have a complex printing job (like for a prototype or marketing materials), and usually it’s a huge hassle to get the guy/gal there to help me with it. I was not prepared to be blown away by how much effort and attention Rob (@thejaakal) went into getting everything together. He made everything not just good, but perfect. Polish is what makes the difference, and he made it happen. I added some grommets and elastic shoulder straps to the board (which btw, don’t do elastic. The stretchiness is NOT a benefit) and was ready to go!

The importance of an “elevator speach” is often touted, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Some people say you need to have a single sentence that sums up your game because your audience has a short attention span. That is total nonsense. The reason your audience has such a short attention span is because your sentence sucks and is boring compared to all the other exciting things out there. What you REALLY need to do is be the most interesting thing going on at that moment. It sounds tough, especially at a crowded convention, and it is. It has to be done though, and here’s how I did it:

I held up my paper nice and high like a good newsie to grab the attention of people far away as they meandered closer. I made sure that I was near a traffic lane, but with at least 10 feet around me relatively clear to allow for a good visual on the sandwich board. I listened for people saying “Sherlock Murdered?” because that was the headline of my poster (sensational, yet on topic and appropriate). I also vigilantly scanned the crowd to see if people’s eyes were trying to scan the board to see what it had to say. If they quickly averted their gaze to something else I knew that I shouldn’t even bother. I might get them the next time around. However, if they looked like they were actually trying to read it beyond the headline, I knew I had them and I asked the following:

“Do you like card games? Party games?” I made sure to make eye contact as I said it so they knew exectly who I was talking to. If more people showed up as I talked, I made sure to lock eyes at least briefly with each potential customer. This sentence is also CRITICAL for qualifying the potential customer. You don’t want to spend time on someone who won’t have any interest in your game, no matter how cute she is or how little clothing she’s wearing.

The responses fit into excitement, interest, hesitant, and not interested. As long as they were at least hesitant I went on with the next bit:

“Moriarty’s Machinations is a card game that I designed.” As I subtly pointed to the game name in big print on the sign. Telling them that I designed it is very important, because that disarms them of their trained negative reaction to all advertising, and trasforms it into a more personal conversation.

“You start the game with a card that says who YOU are.” Emphasis is extremely important.

“Throughout the game you are trying to figure out who everyone ELSE at the table is.” As I wave my hands outward to indicate imaginary players.

“By the end of the game [I start to open my eyes wide and speak quickly with excitement] Jack the Ripper is trying to MURDER SHERLOCK [usually a smile by this point] and Inspector Lestrade is trying to ARREST Professor Moriarty!” I pause for half a second here while they process this.

“Does that sound like something you might want to learn more about?” At this point I get my pen out of my breast pocket and decipher their response. If they seem at all interested still, I say: ”I’m doing a kickstarter on September 5th [as I point to where it says that on the sign] to get the game manufactured. I’m collecting emails so I can send an announcement out on the day of the kickstarter. [as I turn to the page in the newpaper where they can sign up] Would you like to be notified when the kickstarter comes out on September 5th?” as I hold out the pen for them to sign. The date is very important to say you aren’t trying to sell them something right that second, and they can look into it later when they aren’t so busy. If they were still at all skeptical or if there were people waiting in line to sign I would go on with more details about the game, the kickstarter process, saying they didn’t have to use their real name, etc. Some people still didn’t want to give their email, so I handed them my card for the website as a last ditch effort.

It is important to note that I asked for people to sign up using pen and paper, not a computer screen. This is a tip that I learned from others on reddit and there are several reasons for this that I will go into now:

  1. It’s faster. SOOOOOOO much faster. You want to get as many people to sign up, so don’t wait for them to figure out your custom interface.
  2. It’s reliable. No batteries, UX issues, computer glitches. All you have to worry about is a having a pen that works (and a backup).
  3. It’s personal. You’d be surprised how jarring a computer screen can be to your personal conversation with your potential customer, even with people who live and breathe computers.
  4. It’s more legible than you’d think. Yes there is some truely terrible handwriting, but remember, these people actually WANT you to email them. They DO take the extra couple seconds to make it legible. You might lose a handful due to illegibility, but this is a numbers game in the end.
  5. It’s cheap. No electronics that can break. You should put a little bit of time into making the signup process more interesting, but you don’t have to do that much with it.

More tips:

Get used to being shot down. Most people were interested in the game, but this was a comic convention, not a game convention so I got turned down a lot. Say thank you very politely, and move on to the next potential customer. Ater it happens several dozen times it doesn’t sting so much anymore. It really isn’t that bad; it just takes some getting used to.

Learn to qualify your potential customers as soon as you can. I did it in stages: Eye contact / audio cue, then asked is they liked games, then I explained the game briefly to see if they were still interested, and only THEN did I ask them to write their email down. Each potential customer takes only a little bit more time, but you don’t waste your time chatting up all the other people who won’t ever be interested. It also eases them into the process by getting them to commit a little bit at a time.

Be personable. Comment on their costume. Chat with them about related games. Look like you’re interested in THEM as a PERSON, not just as a customer, and even if you have no idea in what they are talking about. Look like you are and let them finish talking. Don’t let it go on indefinitely though, as very rarely you will get someone (usually a guy) who wants to tell you his life story or is just thrilled that someone picked him out of a crowd to talk to. After a while just hold up your paper again and start eyeing more potential customers.