Promoting Your Game on a Zero-Dollar Budget

Promoting Your Game on a Zero-Dollar Budget

November 9, 2021
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Developing a game is a time-consuming and expensive effort, especially when you’re just starting out. Understandably, many indie studios look for ways to save money, preferably in areas with seemingly less priority, like marketing and PR. But how (and how well) can you promote your game on a zero or near-zero budget?

What does zero-dollar marketing mean?

When indie developers talk about promoting their games with zero budget, they usually mean taking care of the marketing and PR aspects of the business themselves. It means not relying on an external agency or publisher to help in the promotional efforts. 

While this can save you money, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can do everything for free. Even if you choose to genuinely not spend a single cent on anything marketing-related and only use free tools like social media, you will still have to invest your time, effort, and resources into promoting your game. 

You can hire one person to take care of this for your studio, but you have to pay them a salary or a contractor rate. If you don’t have a designated marketing employee on your team, your promotional strategy will take time away from you or the rest of your team. And we all know time is money.

Social media has, of course, made it much easier for developers of all sizes to promote their games to targeted audiences. Developers with only a small budget at their disposal usually rely on it. That’s why the major media types are an important aspect of every marketing campaign. Here's why it's important to differentiate between paid, owned, and earned media.

As mentioned, working with no budget usually means skipping paid media and primarily focusing on owned and earned media. Those two priorities need to make up for the missing portion of your digital marketing plan. You have complete control with your owned media, such as your blog, website, and/or social media channels. You decide what content you create and where you publish it. 

Your earned media is dependent on your output and your networking. Of course, you can’t control what other people say or write about your game unless you pay them, so you must ensure that your relationships with critics and creators provide the best possible outcome for your game.

Taking the limitations of zero or low-budget marketing into account, the most important thing for any small studio is building a strong community and growing it continuously over time. If your game resonates with its audience, having a loyal and engaged community can make or break your game. 

Determining whether you can succeed with zero-budget marketing

Promotion and PR, in general, are critical to a successful game launch and should never be underestimated. Your game can be amazing, but it won’t make any money if no one knows it exists. If you have some money saved up or have secured any funding, spend it. Hire a specialized professional or work with a PR agency. You're busy enough developing the best game possible. 

This is especially true for complete amateurs. If you are new to the industry and marketing games, you risk overexerting yourself or otherwise lacking the expertise to be effective.

This isn’t the case for everyone. Many Indie developers use social media to promote their games and reach fans, influencers, and media outlets. That said, be aware of the competition. If numerous, readily available free-to-play games like yours are already on the market, your game may have a hard time standing out.

Where to start?

So you’ve decided to take control of your promotional strategies and want to keep your expenses as low as possible. Now what? Here are a few essential steps that you should follow to get word of your game out there. 

Find your target audience

Before you start building any sort of online presence, you should have a clear vision of your game and its potential players. That means you should know what genre or niche your game fits. Is it a shooter, an adventure game, or more of a platformer? Is the story based on history, a sci-fi or fantasy adventure, or perhaps a coming-of-age tale? 

The clearer you are on the specifics of your game, the closer you can narrow down your potential audiences, which is crucial to deciding how and where you want to build your community. Find existing games similar to yours and look at how and where they successfully engage with their fans. There’s a lot to be learned from studying successful (and unsuccessful) examples.

Suppose your kind of game tends to be appreciated by players 30 years old or older. In that case, you may find success reaching your audience on Facebook, whereas a game meant for a younger audience may have more success on a youth-oriented platform like TikTok. Data researchers like Pew Research and Smart Insights can point you in the right direction. Use them to make an informed decision.

Build a multi-channel network

Once you know who might be interested in your game, build a space for your potential community to gather. Having a website or blog for your studio or your game is, of course, a given. You should also create studio and game logos so you can start building a brand. Prepare assets, screenshots, and a trailer, and publish them on easily-discoverable online locations to make it as easy as possible for journalists and bloggers to feature your game. 

Now it’s time to decide how you want to prioritize your social media efforts. It’s good for your game to be represented across all major platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and others, depending on your region). Still, it might be best to concentrate on just a few if you find yourself with little time. Twitter is perfect for regular updates or just engaging with your followers on a more personal level. If you are working on a very artistically ambitious game, Instagram might be the better choice, as you can publish artwork, concept art, and other visual material.

Once your assets are ready, build your press list. Find contact information for websites and other outlets that cover games like yours and send them personalized emails with links to your game's site and attached press releases. Don't depend on getting coverage from the most prominent outlets. Pitching Kotaku or Eurogamer might work with a bit of luck, but you need to cast a wide net. Find a range of outlets that cover your game's niche and serve your game's audience for a much better chance to get coverage and reach interested players.

If you receive press coverage, share links to their coverage on your social channels and tag them to thank them for getting the word out. Building healthy relationships with the press now can be valuable as you continue working in the industry.

Build a community 

Community is key. To make your game successful, you need to create passionate players loyal to you and your game. The only way to achieve this is by posting regular content over an extended period. But it’s not enough to just regularly post across your different social media accounts; you need to interact with your followers to make sure they stay interested in your game. 

Suppose you’re working with a low budget. In that case, a dedicated blog can serve as a linkable lifeline to your game's development updates as long as it includes engagement functionality like comments or forums. This can help your followers feel included in the process. The same goes for using Reddit, Steam, and Discord as engagement platforms. In these cases, your fans can connect with you and with each other, which is the foundation of any strong community.

You can also solicit your players for feedback early on by asking them for asset feedback or even surveying them to help you name characters or locations in your game. This kind of engagement will strengthen the bond between you and your players.

As you engage your community, it's crucial to segment your core fans and your casual fans. The core fans are the ones that will give you the most engagement and feedback as they follow everything you do. Through word of mouth, they can even help you promote your game. Make sure to keep them interested and make them feel appreciated. Offer rewards for their loyalty. That doesn’t mean you have to prepare high-quality merchandise — you can show them appreciation by naming characters, assets, or locations after them or simply listing them in your game's credits. Be creative with the resources you have at your disposal.

Work with content creators

Instead of looking at the most significant and most popular media outlets or influencers, find the ones that best fit your game, genre, and potential audience demographics. A smaller influencer who loves your game can be more impactful than a more prominent influencer who won't spend much time or energy promoting your work. In our game key distribution blog, you can learn more about working with the right influencers for your game.

When working with content creators, make sure to log interactions and results to help you drive optimal outcomes. PixelJam founder Miles Tilmann has used spreadsheets to document who he wanted to play his games, who he sent codes to, and who responded. Establish your process to track content creators and their feedback to determine which partnerships may work best for your game. Once you've worked with a content creator, examine their viewer feedback and collect criticism, praise, and any other valuable data.

Attend events

Many countries have local programs for developers to help them showcase their games at Gamescom or similar regional events. You owe it to your game to apply. If you're accepted, be sure to stand out.

Ensure your booth is always staffed so that you're always reachable and don't miss opportunities to connect with potentially interested parties. Many developers help attendees recognize them by wearing a uniform. Uniforms can be as simple as logo-emblazoned t-shirts, or simply everyone agreeing to wear a unique color. The key is to be recognizable. An excellent example is the Polish indie developer Robot Gentleman, whose staff members can always be recognized by their striking steampunk aesthetic.

The Robot Gentleman team always stands out in a crowd thanks to their Steampunk attire.
Сredit:
robotgentleman.com

Worthy investments

There are limits to what you can achieve on a zero-dollar budget. If you have no money to spare for a marketing campaign, it is still possible to achieve results, but success will require a lot of hard work and more than a bit of luck. That’s why, if possible, you should set aside a calculated budget amount for tools, professional insights, or events that can help you get the most out of your promotional efforts.

Tools

Social media channels aside, there are a few essential tools for successfully promoting your game. This is where the "zero" in marketing with a zero-dollar budget becomes a bit difficult. Most free tools have some restrictions, and you'll need every advantage you can get when it comes time to launch a campaign.

Before you begin promoting your game, consider your budget and goals. If you set up your entire company on free tools, there’s a chance you will have to change your complete setup once your business grows, which could be a bigger hassle than simply launching with the most capable tools from the beginning. Evaluate what you already have on hand and do your research before committing to spending money, with an outlook bias toward growth-based upgrades.

Free or low-cost promotional tools:

For document creation: LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Google Workspace, or Microsoft Office

For visual asset creation: Adobe Photoshop

For surveys: Google Docs or SurveyMonkey (for surveys)

For digital ads: Google Keywords Planner

For internal and external communications: Discord

For social media management: Agorapulse

For sending review keys: Keymailer

For multi-channel marketing: Sendpulse or Mailchimp

For press release distribution: Games Press

For hiring content creators: Sullygnome

Industry events

Events are an opportunity-rich environment for presenting your game to new players, connecting with the broader video game industry, and meeting your community in person. Video games are such a deeply-interwoven industry that it's important to network and meet as many players and professionals as possible.

Attending a major event in a different country might be beyond your budget, but it’s a vital part of becoming a professional studio. There are easy ways to set up meetings with publishers that might be interested in your game or other developers that have been through similar experiences and can give you advice on how to move forward. Most video game conventions have specific indie areas that offer cost-effective solutions for showcasing your game, like the Indie Arena Booth at gamescom. 

That said, don’t just look at mainstream conventions. There are a lot of smaller conferences in different countries like Nordic Game, Game Industry Conference, Pocket Gamer Connects, or Ludicious, to name just a few, that can help you connect with industry professionals. These conferences also offer workshops, talks, or panels on useful promotional topics, including marketing, PR, and publishing. 

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, most conferences have gone digital. In some cases, digital events may be easier and more cost-effective for you to attend. You can save on travel and booth costs, which allows you to either save or reallocate those funds to other development or promotional activities — including as many digital conferences as you have the time and resources to attend. Consider the European Games BizDev Gathering, the Guerilla Collective, the International Festival of Independent Games Indiecade, and the PAX Online Indie Showcase. Look out for any smaller events in your country or area that offer pitching sessions, talks, or mentoring. You can attend these from home and still gain vital experience for yourself, your studio, and your game. 

Conclusion

There are many ways you can promote your game, even on a so-called zero-dollar budget. Building and growing your community on social media will require your time and resources. If possible, you should make sure to have some funding available for the marketing tools and event appearances that can take your game to the next level. Making calculated, budget-conscious decisions will help you make the most of your current opportunities and help you capitalize on new ones as your game grows.

If you're looking for funding or investors, take a look at Xsolla Funding. We have solutions for studios and developers of every size, from indie to AAA.

Developing a game is a time-consuming and expensive effort, especially when you’re just starting out. Understandably, many indie studios look for ways to save money, preferably in areas with seemingly less priority, like marketing and PR. But how (and how well) can you promote your game on a zero or near-zero budget?

What does zero-dollar marketing mean?

When indie developers talk about promoting their games with zero budget, they usually mean taking care of the marketing and PR aspects of the business themselves. It means not relying on an external agency or publisher to help in the promotional efforts. 

While this can save you money, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can do everything for free. Even if you choose to genuinely not spend a single cent on anything marketing-related and only use free tools like social media, you will still have to invest your time, effort, and resources into promoting your game. 

You can hire one person to take care of this for your studio, but you have to pay them a salary or a contractor rate. If you don’t have a designated marketing employee on your team, your promotional strategy will take time away from you or the rest of your team. And we all know time is money.

Social media has, of course, made it much easier for developers of all sizes to promote their games to targeted audiences. Developers with only a small budget at their disposal usually rely on it. That’s why the major media types are an important aspect of every marketing campaign. Here's why it's important to differentiate between paid, owned, and earned media.

As mentioned, working with no budget usually means skipping paid media and primarily focusing on owned and earned media. Those two priorities need to make up for the missing portion of your digital marketing plan. You have complete control with your owned media, such as your blog, website, and/or social media channels. You decide what content you create and where you publish it. 

Your earned media is dependent on your output and your networking. Of course, you can’t control what other people say or write about your game unless you pay them, so you must ensure that your relationships with critics and creators provide the best possible outcome for your game.

Taking the limitations of zero or low-budget marketing into account, the most important thing for any small studio is building a strong community and growing it continuously over time. If your game resonates with its audience, having a loyal and engaged community can make or break your game. 

Determining whether you can succeed with zero-budget marketing

Promotion and PR, in general, are critical to a successful game launch and should never be underestimated. Your game can be amazing, but it won’t make any money if no one knows it exists. If you have some money saved up or have secured any funding, spend it. Hire a specialized professional or work with a PR agency. You're busy enough developing the best game possible. 

This is especially true for complete amateurs. If you are new to the industry and marketing games, you risk overexerting yourself or otherwise lacking the expertise to be effective.

This isn’t the case for everyone. Many Indie developers use social media to promote their games and reach fans, influencers, and media outlets. That said, be aware of the competition. If numerous, readily available free-to-play games like yours are already on the market, your game may have a hard time standing out.

Where to start?

So you’ve decided to take control of your promotional strategies and want to keep your expenses as low as possible. Now what? Here are a few essential steps that you should follow to get word of your game out there. 

Find your target audience

Before you start building any sort of online presence, you should have a clear vision of your game and its potential players. That means you should know what genre or niche your game fits. Is it a shooter, an adventure game, or more of a platformer? Is the story based on history, a sci-fi or fantasy adventure, or perhaps a coming-of-age tale? 

The clearer you are on the specifics of your game, the closer you can narrow down your potential audiences, which is crucial to deciding how and where you want to build your community. Find existing games similar to yours and look at how and where they successfully engage with their fans. There’s a lot to be learned from studying successful (and unsuccessful) examples.

Suppose your kind of game tends to be appreciated by players 30 years old or older. In that case, you may find success reaching your audience on Facebook, whereas a game meant for a younger audience may have more success on a youth-oriented platform like TikTok. Data researchers like Pew Research and Smart Insights can point you in the right direction. Use them to make an informed decision.

Build a multi-channel network

Once you know who might be interested in your game, build a space for your potential community to gather. Having a website or blog for your studio or your game is, of course, a given. You should also create studio and game logos so you can start building a brand. Prepare assets, screenshots, and a trailer, and publish them on easily-discoverable online locations to make it as easy as possible for journalists and bloggers to feature your game. 

Now it’s time to decide how you want to prioritize your social media efforts. It’s good for your game to be represented across all major platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and others, depending on your region). Still, it might be best to concentrate on just a few if you find yourself with little time. Twitter is perfect for regular updates or just engaging with your followers on a more personal level. If you are working on a very artistically ambitious game, Instagram might be the better choice, as you can publish artwork, concept art, and other visual material.

Once your assets are ready, build your press list. Find contact information for websites and other outlets that cover games like yours and send them personalized emails with links to your game's site and attached press releases. Don't depend on getting coverage from the most prominent outlets. Pitching Kotaku or Eurogamer might work with a bit of luck, but you need to cast a wide net. Find a range of outlets that cover your game's niche and serve your game's audience for a much better chance to get coverage and reach interested players.

If you receive press coverage, share links to their coverage on your social channels and tag them to thank them for getting the word out. Building healthy relationships with the press now can be valuable as you continue working in the industry.

Build a community 

Community is key. To make your game successful, you need to create passionate players loyal to you and your game. The only way to achieve this is by posting regular content over an extended period. But it’s not enough to just regularly post across your different social media accounts; you need to interact with your followers to make sure they stay interested in your game. 

Suppose you’re working with a low budget. In that case, a dedicated blog can serve as a linkable lifeline to your game's development updates as long as it includes engagement functionality like comments or forums. This can help your followers feel included in the process. The same goes for using Reddit, Steam, and Discord as engagement platforms. In these cases, your fans can connect with you and with each other, which is the foundation of any strong community.

You can also solicit your players for feedback early on by asking them for asset feedback or even surveying them to help you name characters or locations in your game. This kind of engagement will strengthen the bond between you and your players.

As you engage your community, it's crucial to segment your core fans and your casual fans. The core fans are the ones that will give you the most engagement and feedback as they follow everything you do. Through word of mouth, they can even help you promote your game. Make sure to keep them interested and make them feel appreciated. Offer rewards for their loyalty. That doesn’t mean you have to prepare high-quality merchandise — you can show them appreciation by naming characters, assets, or locations after them or simply listing them in your game's credits. Be creative with the resources you have at your disposal.

Work with content creators

Instead of looking at the most significant and most popular media outlets or influencers, find the ones that best fit your game, genre, and potential audience demographics. A smaller influencer who loves your game can be more impactful than a more prominent influencer who won't spend much time or energy promoting your work. In our game key distribution blog, you can learn more about working with the right influencers for your game.

When working with content creators, make sure to log interactions and results to help you drive optimal outcomes. PixelJam founder Miles Tilmann has used spreadsheets to document who he wanted to play his games, who he sent codes to, and who responded. Establish your process to track content creators and their feedback to determine which partnerships may work best for your game. Once you've worked with a content creator, examine their viewer feedback and collect criticism, praise, and any other valuable data.

Attend events

Many countries have local programs for developers to help them showcase their games at Gamescom or similar regional events. You owe it to your game to apply. If you're accepted, be sure to stand out.

Ensure your booth is always staffed so that you're always reachable and don't miss opportunities to connect with potentially interested parties. Many developers help attendees recognize them by wearing a uniform. Uniforms can be as simple as logo-emblazoned t-shirts, or simply everyone agreeing to wear a unique color. The key is to be recognizable. An excellent example is the Polish indie developer Robot Gentleman, whose staff members can always be recognized by their striking steampunk aesthetic.

The Robot Gentleman team always stands out in a crowd thanks to their Steampunk attire.
Сredit:
robotgentleman.com

Worthy investments

There are limits to what you can achieve on a zero-dollar budget. If you have no money to spare for a marketing campaign, it is still possible to achieve results, but success will require a lot of hard work and more than a bit of luck. That’s why, if possible, you should set aside a calculated budget amount for tools, professional insights, or events that can help you get the most out of your promotional efforts.

Tools

Social media channels aside, there are a few essential tools for successfully promoting your game. This is where the "zero" in marketing with a zero-dollar budget becomes a bit difficult. Most free tools have some restrictions, and you'll need every advantage you can get when it comes time to launch a campaign.

Before you begin promoting your game, consider your budget and goals. If you set up your entire company on free tools, there’s a chance you will have to change your complete setup once your business grows, which could be a bigger hassle than simply launching with the most capable tools from the beginning. Evaluate what you already have on hand and do your research before committing to spending money, with an outlook bias toward growth-based upgrades.

Free or low-cost promotional tools:

For document creation: LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Google Workspace, or Microsoft Office

For visual asset creation: Adobe Photoshop

For surveys: Google Docs or SurveyMonkey (for surveys)

For digital ads: Google Keywords Planner

For internal and external communications: Discord

For social media management: Agorapulse

For sending review keys: Keymailer

For multi-channel marketing: Sendpulse or Mailchimp

For press release distribution: Games Press

For hiring content creators: Sullygnome

Industry events

Events are an opportunity-rich environment for presenting your game to new players, connecting with the broader video game industry, and meeting your community in person. Video games are such a deeply-interwoven industry that it's important to network and meet as many players and professionals as possible.

Attending a major event in a different country might be beyond your budget, but it’s a vital part of becoming a professional studio. There are easy ways to set up meetings with publishers that might be interested in your game or other developers that have been through similar experiences and can give you advice on how to move forward. Most video game conventions have specific indie areas that offer cost-effective solutions for showcasing your game, like the Indie Arena Booth at gamescom. 

That said, don’t just look at mainstream conventions. There are a lot of smaller conferences in different countries like Nordic Game, Game Industry Conference, Pocket Gamer Connects, or Ludicious, to name just a few, that can help you connect with industry professionals. These conferences also offer workshops, talks, or panels on useful promotional topics, including marketing, PR, and publishing. 

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, most conferences have gone digital. In some cases, digital events may be easier and more cost-effective for you to attend. You can save on travel and booth costs, which allows you to either save or reallocate those funds to other development or promotional activities — including as many digital conferences as you have the time and resources to attend. Consider the European Games BizDev Gathering, the Guerilla Collective, the International Festival of Independent Games Indiecade, and the PAX Online Indie Showcase. Look out for any smaller events in your country or area that offer pitching sessions, talks, or mentoring. You can attend these from home and still gain vital experience for yourself, your studio, and your game. 

Conclusion

There are many ways you can promote your game, even on a so-called zero-dollar budget. Building and growing your community on social media will require your time and resources. If possible, you should make sure to have some funding available for the marketing tools and event appearances that can take your game to the next level. Making calculated, budget-conscious decisions will help you make the most of your current opportunities and help you capitalize on new ones as your game grows.

If you're looking for funding or investors, take a look at Xsolla Funding. We have solutions for studios and developers of every size, from indie to AAA.

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