The Game Wizard (Part 2)

Game Wizard 3.0I’ve recently gone on a spree revamping the Game Wizard once more.  The last time I touched it was in November when I wanted it a bit more up to date for the Christmas season, but we were still missing large chunks of new releases.  This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the backend processes, so if you haven’t read the previous post, you should.

Changing Goals

I’ve been thinking about the nature of the Game Wizard in comparison to a flowchart (which is what we initially based the Wizard off).  With a traditional flowchart, you really only want a few answers (mostly yes / no) since this allows people to track their path more easily. With the Wizard though, we can ask more open ended questions with multiple answers since we reload the page with the new question each time.    That leads to much ‘shorter’ paths while providing the same amount of information.

However, one danger we wanted to avoid was replicating what our filters already do on our category page.  We don’t want to ask questions like ‘how many players’ or ‘how long do you want to play’ even if we would ask those questions in real life, because those kind of questions are already best answered by our filter system.  A customer could go to the main category page and choose their options there, filtering by the various criteria to individual games.

Instead, what we want the Game Wizard to do is ask the sillier / more thematic or generic questions, the kinds you might ask a friend who is standing in front of your game library.  You don’t necessarily want to say ‘how many players’, but rather ‘are you looking for something more thematic or strategy’? You know already, to some extent the games you can offer, what you want to know is what would suit them best at that moment.

The Lucky Few

By the very nature of the Wizard, we are narrowing down our options of games significantly.  We host over 5,000 board games (okay, card games and miniatures too) on the site. There’s no point asking specific questions to differentiate each and every game.  Instead, you have to choose a few.  So how do we do that? The usual really. Personal taste, sales and critical acclaim.  While I might weigh a little more to games I personally enjoy occasionally, if there’s a bestseller out there, I”m going to do my best to ensure it gets added to the Wizard somewhere.

That creates a circle of course, of bestselling games getting more attention which generate more sales which generates more attention.  It’s why I let things like my personal taste and other critical reviews have a say once in a while.  It’s also one of the reasons why we prefer the wizard, there’s no physical ‘space’ constraints we have to worry and the ability to ask more open-ended questions means we can have more answers, which can highlight some great less well known games.

The Flowchart

Will we ever return to editing the flowchart we created? I don’t know. In some ways, the flowchart being a picture has been spread much further than our Game Wizard even though we feel it’s an inferior product.  There’s too many limitations to the form.  If we ever did, we’d have to hire a professional designer to redesign the infographic once again and that would mean editing the various Q&A’s we created.

The Ask

One thing we do want is some feedback on the Wizard. Are the Q&A’s doing their job.  Are you getting where you want to go? Are you learning anything new? Have you tried it with new gamers? Do they like it? What answers / branches could we add?

Marketing – Targeting Makes a Difference

Marketing is a strange thing where what might look like a highly successful marketing program is actually a poor campaign. At the end of the day, Marketing is meant to drive revenue for the vast majority of businesses.  Yet, some highly successful marketing campaigns like the Old Spice advertorial fail to generate increases in revenue.

On our side, we see the same thing with some of our marketing programs. The webpage with the highest number of visitors (not including our homepage) is our Top 10 Fantasy Games list.  Total number of sales that we have generated from that page – 0.

On the opposite end, we have our Game Buyer’s Guide Flowchart that we created a few years ago and later updated to our Game Wizard Application. We do not get as many visitors to each of those pages (about a quarter); yet we generate a consistent number of sales from visitors those pages.

Why the difference? It’s a matter of targetting and the right markets.  Individuals who find our guides actually are interested in purchasing, while those looking to read our Top 10 list are likely just browsing. Even the terminology used ‘Fantasy Games’ could evoke a wide range of fans – from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to actual boardgamers.

At the end of the day, traffic and word of mouth might seem nice; but if it doesn’t actually drive sales, it’s a waste of time and effort

The problem with attribution

I’m going to get a little technical here. I’m going to talk about online marketing and attribution. Firstly, as an online store, we are able to track a lot of the data from visitors who come to our site. There are 2 major ways this data is collected – logs & cookies. Log files tracking basically runs on the basis of tracking the requests a customer makes to our server. Every time you load a page, you request information from us to load it – we can track this data and theoretically assign it to individuals. With cookies, we drop a ‘cookie’; a piece of code into your browser which tells us what you are doing on our site. Cookies are also useful for minor things like keeping track of what you have in your cart, whether you are logged in and the like.

The big difference between cookies and log file tracking for the purpose of analytics is that customers can clear or refuse to take cookies at anytime. If you do that, we can’t track your data if we are just using cookies. For log files, because you have to call information from our site, we can track every visitor. The minus of course is that it’s very hard to track visitors over multiple sessions. And yes, I’m simplifying greatly. If you’re curious, Starlit Citadel do a bit of both.

As an online store, what we want to know / attribute is what kinds of marketing work for us. We want to know if advertising on Facebook makes a difference rather than say, Youtube advertising. I’ve discussed these kind of decisions before, but let’s talk about one of the biggest ‘plagues’ for us – attribution.

Traditionally, the only way to tell why a customer purchased was via their last clilck – the last place they came from. This meant that if a customer came to us straight from a bookmark and/or typed us in directly, we’d consider them a ‘direct’ sale and if they came from a Google search, we’d attribute the sale to Google. Of course, how many of you have read an article or thought of a store you wanted to visit, typed in their name in Google and gone to the store that way? I know I have, numerous times. Now, we’re attributing a sale from other forms of marketing (say a mailer sent to you) to Google because that was the ‘last click’.

In the past, we could filter some of these out by ignoring any searches that used our brand name. These days, Google has removed all that data, ‘stripping’ it in from the information that gets sent to us in the quest for privacy (really, just to make us pay more for advertising).

These days, more information is being added by tracking visitors when they leave the site. For example, Google now ‘tracks’ other interactions, keeping data and how you interacted with our other forms of media like Facebook, Twitter, etc. Again, there’s a lot of leeway here – you could see a Twitter post by Starlit but you don’t click on it, so it wouldn’t get tracked. Still, it does keep track of what you interact with, before you buy.

Now, let’s step outside of talking about our main tracking platform (Google Analytics) and talk about advertising networks. Most other advertising networks, for their own reasons, track conversions.  These conversions can vary depending on how they attribute the data and it can often not lineup with the data you get from other analytics you might have.

Advertising networks might be attributing conversions over a period of time (i.e. you clicked on an advertisement they served, so if you buy in X days, they’ll consider it a ‘win’ for them), based off impressions that you might have on the advertisements and the like.

At the end of the day, when you are looking at this information; you need to work out which data you trust, understand what the data that you are trusting is based on and then, most importantly, decide what your cut-off point is.  Are you willing to take an ROI of 3? 5? 10?

 

The Future of the Video Reviews

As some of you who view our video reviews might have noticed, we have turned on advertising for the video reviews. The reason for this is because we have realised that the reviews just aren’t doing what they are meant to – generate more customers for us. It’s rather obvious when you view where our customers are coming from compared to where viewers are on the videos. Even though we have more viewers than ever, our actual visitors to the site from the Youtube visitors have dropped.

A Marketing Vehicle

Basically, the effectiveness of the Youtube videos have disappeared.  There are numerous reasons for this, but at the end of the day, it looks like the audience for our videos are just not interested in supporting the production of the videos via buying from the site.

It was always a danger with an internet vehicle like this which was not / could not be targeted to a specific geographic region.  It’s always been somewhat tenuous as a line item, with its effectiveness hard to judge.  Still, we were willing to let it coast for a time when we saw an upward trend in visitors / sales / etc.  What that means is that as a marketing vehicle, the videos are being written off for 2015.

 

Advertising as a Stop Gap

Since the videos can no longer be counted as a valid marketing expense, the next step is to make them (at least) revenue neutral.  To do that, we need to generate direct income from the video reviews.  As such,we have turned on advertising on the video reviews in stages, with the latest update turning it on completely.

We will see if this generates sufficient revenue to keep doing the video reviews.  The likelihood of that is quite slim due to the nature of the payouts for advertising.  Still, it is worth a shot since it is the least obtrusive way of generating revenue.

 

The Next Steps

What are the next steps if advertising doesn’t work? Well, the system that makes the most sense to us is Patreon.  Subscribers can pay directly for the creation of the video advertisements and only pay when we actually release a video.  It does require us to fund the videos first, but it does at least make it viable for us to continue the videos if enough people are willing to pay for it.  And considering we have over 18,000 subscribers, you would think that would be viable.

We’ll launch the Patreon subscriber drive in a month or so after we check the amount of revenue we’ve generated from advertising.

Attrition Rate: The Decline of Business

Just came from VCon, which as always was fun.  This year, while I don’t have the numbers of attendees it sounded like they had more or equal number of attendees this year than previous years.  However, our sales as Starlit were down significantly – along the lines of 40% from the year before.

Why? A number of reasons I think:

1) Inadequate staffing

2) Less Space

3) Fewer new returning customers

4) More competition

I’m going to tackle number 3 in this article, because it’s something that preys on my mind regularly.  VCon has over the years that we’ve been going to it stayed the same – same attendance, often the very same individuals and quite often the same vendors.  Few things have changed over the course of the 7 years we’ve been there with attendanc elevels seeming to hover around the 500 – 700 level each year.

What that means is that we’ve been selling to the same customers (for the most part) for 7 years.  And at a certain point customers just have enough games – they start slowing down, they become more selective in their purchases or just stop buying (or coming).  All customers do this, it’s a given.

So the trick in any business is to acquire more new customers – which VCon this year did.  However, if you don’t do it in a regular process, you face another major problem – sometimes, early customers don’t purchase as much.  For example, a lot of younger attendees this year, which was great to see and says a lot of good things for VCon’s on-going growth in the future; but these younger attendees are for the most part either do not have the interest or do not have the disposable income to purchase as much as former attendees.

So our average dollar value of purchases drops, and even if we do the same amount of sales we’re still below our previous year sales.  Now, if each year new customers were drawn in; they too would progress along their buying / life cycle and the total average value would be higher.

And so you can see how a business would decline if it doesn’t get new customers – the old customers leave or move on, no new customers are found or are found too late.  Total sales decline as customers don’t progress fast enough through their buying cycle.

It’s why marketing is a constant need in a business – you have to keep pushing customers in so that you have a constant series of replacements.  If you can push in more customers than you lose, you end up growing.  That simple really.

 

Emotional Appeals

I’ve recently been thinking about adjusting our advertising banners.  We currently use a very basic, almost factual banner.  There is no ‘kick’ to the banner – no tag-line, no appeal to it beyond the rational / affiliation appeal of ‘get more stuff’.  It’s slick, but I think we need to adjust the tag-line a bit more, to create a more compelling appeal.

Truthfully, when I was creating the advertisement I was thinking more in terms of design and buying cycle; not specific appeals within that advertisement.  It’s time for me to go back and work on that a bit more I think.

Of course, the question then is what kind of appeal I should go for.  Emotional appeals are inherently dangerous – by pulling on one lever in an individual, it abandons all others and can actually alienate.  On the other hand, lacking an appeal an advertisement does nothing but create awareness.

The Emotions

So what kind of appeals / emotions could I focus the advertisement on?

  • Need for affiliation – claims of largest / most sought-after / etc. play into this.  Not sure we can call ourselves largest for obvious reasons, though we could claim a specific number of customers served like McDonalds…
  • Need for guidance we do have the videos, so we could market ourselves as a place to go for the videos.  However, we’ve got a limited number of videos so this might be tough.  Also, advertising in BGG, guidance is taken care off there…
  • Need to achieve– this might be more viable since we do have quite a few used games including some out of prints.  However, the target market of people who are interested in this might be quite low in Canada
  • Need for prominence – pitching our Free Shipping threshold to people who want the biggest collection might work…
  • Need for attention –  again, collection sizes, the ‘hottest new game’ focus.  We do a bit with our advertising pictures; though we don’t edit the files often enough
  • Need to escape –  perhaps one of the most common reasons people play games.  However, this appeal would not work in BGG I think – after all, we’re all there as gamers; so we don’t have to convince you to escape.  We just need you to buy from us…
  • Psychological needs – safety, hunger, fear; none seem to really fit here.  Perhaps safety; by appealing to the size and satisfied customers…

On top of having to work out the best appeal, I also need to work out the best appeal that will fit in a banner advertisement.  What are your thoughts? What kind of pitch would bring you to us?

 

SEO in the New Age

So.  I launched Starlit Citadel in 2007.  At that time, I was fairly confident I could take on and beat most of the (existing) game store webstores out there at the SEO game.  It looked like that most of the other store owners did not have a background or knowledge to do it properly and as such were not taking full advantage of the gifts afforded to them as existing businesses.

I was right for the most part – we rank quite well for many of the search terms I targeted and we continue to do well.   That was 2007.

Here & Now

So when I say that things have changed significantly, you can understand that I speak from a place of knowledge.  I’m trying to replicate much of what I did in 2007 for Fortress Geek and finding it much more difficult to do so.  Many of what was considered ‘good’ tactics or at least, vaguely viable are no longer considered ‘correct’.  In fact, Google can and will penalise you for taking may of the shortcuts that I took back in 2007 today.

Link building which is still one of the major forms of gaining authority has become significantly harder.  Blog owners, especially those with decent websites all know better than to give out links willy nilly.  You can’t purchase links anymore, not with any level of confidence that they won’t be found and penalised by Google.  And even press-releases are considered ‘Spam’ by Google these days and discounted.

Not having to create a website from scratch; I hadn’t realised how hard things had actually gotten.  With Starlit Citadel, we’ve already got a good base and some great customers who are happy to help promote us.  The things we do now just add-on to a great base, a cycle of virtue.  If you’re starting new though, you have nothing to work from and have to build it all up…

What’s A Boy To Do?

The big change in the last 6 years has got to be social media.  Oh, it was around in 2007 but it wasn’t as important.  In the last 3 / 4 years though the importance of social media as both a start-up boost and as a major form of marketing has increased significantly.  With Google making it harder and harder for new sites to showcase themselves, you have to get around them and work on secondary ‘signals’ on importance.  Things like Facebook Business Pages, Yelp listings (if you’re a physical store), Google+ pages, Twitter followers, etc.

It’s all a slow grind to get these customers, followers, etc. but at least there’s a new way to do so.  It’s not perfect, and building up your search engine presence now takes even longer than before and is even harder than it was before.

Option 2

Of course, there’s a cheat option and one were using a bit.  If you have an existing property of some form, one with a decent amount of authority as it stands, you can ‘borrow’ some of that authority and pass it along to your new property.  This is something that is helping a lot of existing brands to dominate in niches that they newly moved into (see Amazon) over and above their existing advantages of a large bankroll.

If you don’t have an existing property, there is a possibility of contracting with a SEO professional who does.  Many of these professionals have created a wide slew of websites for just such an eventuality and can ‘push’ some of their authority to you.  And even if they don’t, they can proceed to create websites with authority quicker than you can because that their job – while you have to handle a slew of other things.

The Silver Lining

If it’s hard for me, guess how hard it is for everyone else? Just as hard…. so if you have an existing business, Google is helping protect it.  Sort of.

 

Customer Survey 2013

Did we mention that our Annual Customer Survey is up and running? We run a survey every year, giving up a significant portion of our margin for a month for some business intelligence.  Is it worth it?

Depends on who you ask I guess.  We obviously think so, but it’s still a significant amount of money to ‘give up’.  If you intend to run a customer survey, there’s a few things to keep in mind.

Is this Statistically Relevant

Okay, we could probably run the survey and not give up the 5%.  However, we start running in the problem of statistically relevant datasets.  We generally have that problem anyway with specific categories of our customers who answer the survey (example, women customers – last year we had 16 respondents).  The more responses you can get, the better in general.  There’s an actual formula (of course) to figure out the number of respondents you want or need.

If you have a customer base of a 1000, you’d want (for a 5% confidence level 278 customers sampled).   The total numbers continue to go up as the number of customers you have increases, so for all intents and purposes in an in-house; non-professioanlly run test; you’ll want as many answers as you can.

If you can’t get statistical relevance on your data, you have to be careful about making decisions from the information.  Sometimes though, the little additional data garnered can coincide with your gut feelings; which can be enough to base some major business decisions on.

Why are you asking me this?

All too often, I’ve seen surveys (and yes, including ours) where questions are asked that have no real point to them.   Questions on the survey should do one of two things:

a) Categorise your respondents (example – have you purchased from us before differentiates customers and browsers)

b) Will provide data you can take with (in previous years, we asked where people found us via so that we could stream our advertising / marketing a bit further and evalutate our marketing spend).

In both cases, you are gathering data so that you can use.  Asking someone whether they are right or left-handed, while amusing; is not very useful.

Don’t Lead

Work on keeping a neutral tone to your questions.   The questions should be phrased so as not to lead the answers ‘Starlit Citadel is the best game store because…’ is not a good question. Especially if it precedes the question ‘Which is the best game store of the following’.

I’m not sure if active or passive voice matters, but I generally go with passive just because it’s less likely to have non-neutral terms in it.

Keep it Short(ish)

On one side of the equation, you want as much data as possible; especially actionable data.  On the other, if you keep the survey running too long; you’ll lose respondents.  Generally I find that surveys in the 10 – 15 minute range is about the maximum for online surveys.  Again – you can go longer if you provide an incentive (our coupon code here); while no incentive surveys mean you got to keep it short.

Just remember to test both the maximum length as well as minimum length (i.e. if someone answers ‘no’ to all your questions, what data are you getting and how fast is he going through the questionnaire) to get an idea of your survey ‘length’.

Don’t Forget to Compare

The answers we get this year is going to be a lot more useful for us than it was in  year 1.  Not only because we have made the questions better (yeah, we did) but also because we will have 2 years of previous questionnaire data to compare it to.  This can provide you some interesting results that you can track as your company / marketing changes.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to test

Lastly, make sure to test your survey.  We’ve managed to make mistakes even after testing the survey a few times, I’m sure this year there will be mistakes too or missing components.  The more testing you can do, the better

So that’s the quick and dirty for surveys.

PPS: When creating the questions, don’t forget to ask yourself the question ‘can I get this data better somewhere else?’.  I could ask people if my stock levels for products are good; but I get much better data by just keeping track of out-of-stocks, sales velocity and turn rates (i.e. actual sales data).  When you can, it’s better to track what people do rather than what they say they do.

 

Multiple Notes : Marketing Thoughts

Marketing has always seemed a bit of an art form to me.  Or perhaps a skill set – there’s definitely things that are a ‘must-do’ and there’s a process (or should be) for discerning what you should / should not be doing.  In fact, I know of a lot of tools that are available out there that can make many of the decisions fact-based.  Of course, most of those tools cost a lot of money and aren’t worth the time / resources spent unless you’re a large multi-national.  Nonetheless, they are out there.

Making Music

When making music, you generally want to have multiple notes playing to create a symphony.  Sure, you could draw an audience if you just played a single note but more often than not, you want a full composition- not a single note.  If you think of the composition as your marketing program, then each tactic is a note.  You want a variety of notes, each played at different periods for different lengths of time to generate the symphony.  A long note might be an passive marketing tactic, a short note an active marketing tactic.

Playing in Tune

If you think of the symphony though, it is always played in a specific key.  The composer sets the key beforehand, deciding how the tune should sound.  You could transpose the symphony a scale or two either way, and it’d be recognizable but it wouldn’t be the same.  It might even sound horrible…

Worst though than transposing the tune is if a note doesn’t ‘fit’.  You can tell almost immediately when someone plays a note wrong in a song, so what makes you think that you can’t recognise a wrong marketing tactic?

Examples

So, let’s say we start with a simple example.  Starlit Citadel’s ‘symphony’ is played in strains of ‘geek professional’.  Sure, we have a little fun and we pass on cool ‘geek’ related information (see geek), but all our communication is (or should be) in the ‘professional’ format.  We don’t curse, swear or otherwise step outside of the professional form of communication.  Nor do we use advertising methods that would be considered ‘unprofessional’ in tone or form – e.g. spam or overtly sexual advertising.

On the other hand, take a look at GoDaddy’s advertising.  They’ve chosen their risque advertising format, and so a professional, dry boring press release (say, try reading a bank’s press release) would seem not only odd, but probably off-putting for most of their customers.

So what’s your business tone?

Public and Private Personas

At first, I was going to write a post about the entire Geek Girl issue, but I’ve never gotten an angle on it that I felt comfortable writing about.  Frankly, I think the topic is something Kaja is better of writing rather than me.  Instead, I think I’ll talk about public / private personas especially when dealing with marketing the store.

Being Public

Both Kaja and myself to a lesser extent have a ‘public’ persona.  Kaja’s much more obvious with her being the main employee face in our video reviews.  I, on the other hand mostly post on the twitter account and the blog.  As these are ‘corporate’ personas, they are in some ways different from our private personalities.  As a simple example – both Kaja and I swear a lot less when posting / reviewing for the company.   There’s a certain level of professionalism that is both expected and required when we ‘work’.  While Starlit Citadel allows us to be more ‘us’ than a job in say, a bank; it still requires a level of professionalism.

The problem with having a public persona, especially one online; is that you open up to a lot more comments & discussions than any other job does.  It surely is something that you invite, but due to the nature of how we interact online, it removes some of the perceived barriers between the public and private.

This isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen in other jobs, it’s just that we are in a way both inviting more comments.  There’s a difference between the salesperson you see in the store and the salesperson who invites you back to his house for a BBQ.

The Medium is the Message

Alright, this isn’t exactly right since the medium is the Internet. However, there’s a difference between say a blog post with a video review with a twitter message with a FB post.  Some are perceived inherently to be more permanent (blog posts, video messages) than others (a twitter message).  The same comment posted as a blog post would be taken differently than one on Twitter.

The Private Line

In a way, as public personas we dictate the line that is drawn by what we speak about / discuss publicly.  For example, by never posting about personal events on a public account, we don’t invite comments about our personal lives.  That’s a line that we draw.  I post about the business, so I expect to get questions about the business – but I stay away from actual sales numbers, which is why I’ve never received a question about ‘what’s your sales’.  Again, we set the expectation.

The issue is, while we perceive this line to be set not everyone gets the memo.  Sometimes, its just a matter of lack of clarity – there’s no actual document out there saying do not say X or comment on Y.  Sometimes, it’s because we actually cross the lines accidentally, or just haven’t ‘set’ the lines as tightly in our own minds.   After all, there’s nothing wrong with interacting socially with customers right? Mostly….

Resetting those lines though requires a touch of finesse.  A great example is comments on Kaja’s & Joanna’s appearances on the videos.  Sure, they are pretty and complimenting them on this is fine… but at a certain point, these comments stop being compliments and just become creepy.  However, because it’s a ‘corporate’ account, we have to be careful of exactly how we reset those lines.

That public / private line issue is much more apparent for Kaja than me.  Part of that of course is the medium, part of that is what we discuss (I’m boring with my business posts) and partly, it’s the gender thing.  For some reason, being female in some minds means that the line gets reset back a lot further than if you were male.

Balancing where and how we talk about these things is a constant issue, and frankly; one that is both intriguing in an academic sense and frustrating sometimes on a personal level.