Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Popularity Immaculate Conception (Tradecraft)

A friend sent me this article called How Do Board Games Go Viral?

How indeed.

The article isn't bad, it's just one sided. It basically gives board game popularity credit to online sources like Boardgamegeek, Kickstarter and discussion forums like Reddit, powered by online reviews. Meanwhile, the author quotes (our questionable, highly subjective) industry sales data showing hobby game sales have grown rapidly, I suppose because of the above mentioned sources? This jump from nobody knowing what board games are are to viral levels of adoption is what I refer to as Popularity Immaculate Conception. There are steps missing in how this board game boom was conceived.

The missing link is the game trade itself, of course. As a retailer, a big part of my job is finding out what's popular. This is when I put on my "buyer" hat, one of a dozen or so hats I wear each day. Being a buyer involves going to trade shows, listening to designers, taking calls and daily emails from sales reps attempting to pitch me The Next Big Thing, and talking to retailer experts more plugged into their various game niches than myself.  It also involves listening to customers, who are often the best sources of information on the things they love, something true in every trade. 

As for trade shows, spending thousands of dollars to attend them is still an important part of the learning process. The GAMA Trade Show in Las Vegas has always paid for itself just based on discovery of hits. Origins is crucial for many retailers. For certain stores with a more mainstream clientele, New York Toy Fair is invaluable. We also have at least four private industry Facebook groups where we discuss this stuff endlessly, if you're taking a year off from shows. 

I will admit I ride on the coat tails of many retailers who do a lot of the leg work. They go to more trade shows, play the games, compare notes with like minded individuals and buy deep on what they think are hits. Despite the Internet, it's actually possible to be a taste maker in the game trade, with demo games and hand selling that can increase sales and interest in a game, orders of magnitude greater than the shelve it and forget it method. In fact, creating demand and not just supplying it is quickly becoming the key to modern retail. Sitting back and stocking The Hotness list from Boardgamegeek will not do. Plus the secret to board game sales growth is new people, not veterans. 

When we teach a game, our goal is not to just get the sale, but to create hobbyists. We take people who know nothing about board games and introduce them to the hobby. They go back home and teach their friends and families, and suddenly there's a community of like minded board game hobbyists, playing games we introduced them to. Creating hobbyists is how game stores sell board games, including supporting them with board game nights, Tabletop Game Day and various events to keep customers engaged, and hopefully buying new games. We spend over $1,000 a month on Facebook, mostly marketing new products to hobbyists. If I sold you a board game like a car salesman, as a one time purchase, I would quickly go out of business. 

If you don't happen to have a pro-active store in your area, doing the hard work, you may be forgiven in believing in Popularity Immaculate Conception, that the retailer simply reads the same reviews you do, from reviewers that somehow get clued in magically about what's good. By the way, those reviewers are often plugged into the same sources as us, rather than us plugged into them. To sum this up, the missing middle step in Popularity Immaculate Conception is a vibrant game trade sharing information across its tiers. 

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