Once upon a time business was simple and you looked your customer in the eye, so you knew exactly who he was. Nowadays a single video game can sell millions of units all around the world and the physical item passes through several hands between the publisher and the end user. It is therefore rather easy for the publisher to have no idea whatsoever about his customers. So easy in fact that it is very common. And it shows.
Knowing your customers is a very, very good idea. It enables you to develop and tune your products better. It enables you to target them better with your marketing. It enables you to outperform your competitors when seeking their affection or their money. And it enables you to look after them better.
One mistake I have often seen is for industry professionals to assume that potential customers are just like themselves. So they make games for industry professionals. Who, quite obviously, are a very narrow market. Hence the obsession with producing gamer’s games instead of mass market entertainment. Another mistake is to assume that a bigger company knows what they are doing and then copying them. The blind leading the blind.
There are several companies that make a living out of analysing the game industry. Unfortunately they all got their predictions for this generation of consoles very, very wrong. In fact they predicted the reverse of what actually happened. As a result their pronouncements are now greeted with much derision on the forums. They have a long road back to credibility.
Focus groups are good. Every game should have one. They are great when you are developing a game because they stop developers making obvious mistakes. However they carry a couple of small problems. One is that they tend to tell you what you want to hear. The second is that the makeup of the focus group reflects your preconceptions of the customer demographic, and you can be very wrong.
My favourite is to find out for myself. I regularly walk into game retail here in the UK and everywhere I travel. I look at the retail displays and talk to the staff and sometimes to the customers. If you are actually listening and paying attention you can learn a lot this way. Certainly it is the first thing to do when visiting any new territory.
But the best, scientifically, is to ask a randomly chosen audience a series of questions. It helps to bring in experts to compose the questions and to compile the results in a meaningful way. You can get a research firm to do it by phone. Or you can do it yourself online. Perhaps with an incentive for co-operation.
Finally there are the members of your community liaison team. They spend their working lives liaising with your community. It is in their job titles. So they know far more about your customer base than anyone else in the building. Not that many in marketing realise this.
All this will give you knowledge. And remember that knowledge is power.