For this week’s blog post, I’ve decided to spotlight a brand that I think has done a keen job of targeting its consumer base not only by integrating the channels through which it communicates with its audience but by integrating its product with the touchpoints consumers use to access it. Sounds strange, right? What kind of product can literally be integrated with the touchpoints its brand uses to market it? The answer is software, and the software I’m specifically referring to is called Steam. For those unfamiliar with the developer Valve and its social gaming platform, here is Wikipedia’s breakdown:
Steam is an Internet-based digital distribution platform developed by Valve Corporation offering digital rights management (DRM), multiplayer, and social networking. Steam provides the user with installation and automatic updating of games on multiple computers, and community features such as friends lists and groups, cloud saving, and in-game voice and chat functionality. The software provides a freely available application programming interface (API) called Steamworks, which developers can use to integrate many of Steam’s functions into their products, including networking and matchmaking, in-game achievements, micro-transactions, and support for user-created content through Steam Workshop.
–Wikipedia.org (2015, September 8).
To summarize, Steam is a social platform for gamers, whether it be consumer or developer, and it’s positioned itself as the “everything platform” for gaming. You can buy games, play games, , chat in real-time or in forums; if you’re a developer you can sell your own game(s) through Steam and Steam will facilitate your game’s playability. Those with the know-how can even create “mods” for popular games and share them easily across the Steam Workshop–the capabilities of the software seem to grow more and more limitless each day. The best part, to many, is that new and popular games are much more affordable on Steam, sometimes as low as $20, $10, or even $5 during special holiday or seasonal sales. It’s a great deal, considering physical copies of most new games go for $60, and many take a long time to drop below $30.
Like any savvy brand, Steam is integrated with a number of other major social networking platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, where it has a whopping 3.9+ million and 3.2+ million followers respectively. As you’d expect, its social channels are well synchronized, informing followers of the latest daily and weekly deals, flash sales, software developments, and upcoming new releases. If you’re a Steam user with a Steam wishlist, you’ll even receive email notices when items specifically catered to your interest go on sale, when another Steam user wants to trade a community item to you, or when someone sends you a gift.
Though it’s a “bit like the whale of the social networking world”, huge but growing much more slowly than most other networks (Murphy), it has attracted new followings on two other social giants, Tumblr and Pinterest, as recently as 2014. But here’s why Steam’s slow rate of territorial expansion is negligible: it’s already deeply rooted where it needs to be. Steam lives where gamers live. The platform has its own client, the new SteamOS, but has already established itself as the preferred gaming platform on the majority of its competitors’ operating systems, including Windows, OS X, and Linux. In fact, according to a 2013 gaming survey by Big Fish, “53.5% of gamers play games on Windows via Steam.”
But Steam’s presence doesn’t end there. The gaming platform also sells its product in the stores of its brick-and-mortar retail competitors, including GameStop, BestBuy, Walmart, and Target. These stores sell Steam Gift Cards and Wallet Codes which make adding funds to users’ Steam Wallets or giving digital gifts to friends and family through Steam easier. These stores are also a great place for those who aren’t yet digitally inclined to meet and shake hands with Steam for the first time. This is crucial because a massive shift is already underway in favor of digital purchases and downloads, and to say this shift has adversely affected videogame sales in brick-and-mortar stores is an understatement. In fact, the “relative failure of [GameStop’s] push into online PC sales” has left it little choice but to allow Steam, a digital downloads giant, to set up shop within its own walls (Plunkett). Steam may have had little to no presence offline until just a few years ago, but as physical videogame sales plummet, Steam has positioned itself where its competitors used to shop and is actively offering a solution for their current and future consumption needs. A smart move, considering that as of 2014, “52 percent of games are sold via digital format,” according to the Entertainment Software Association (Labbe).
Steam seems to have its communications and marketing all figured out, but, until recently, the social gaming giant hasn’t been without one particular and grievous flaw. Its customer service history is riddled with complaints and, sometimes, even utter failure. Steam users historically love the platform’s features almost as much as they hate its customer service respond time and problem solving rate:
“Not too long ago, I stumbled across a curious fact: Valve, maker of the world’s biggest PC gaming service, was given an F by the Better Business Bureau. Othermajorgamingcompanies largely have A’s. The culprit? Poor customer service[…]According to the BBB’s page on Valve, people have filed 717 complaints about Valve and Valve-related products (Steam, games, etc), 502 of which they’ve failed to respond to. The majority of complaints stem from ‘problems with a product/service.’ More tellingly, the BBB says Valve has ‘has failed to resolve underlying cause(s) of a pattern of complaints.'”
–Nathan Grayson (2015, March 13)
An interesting controversy reared its head recently while Valve publicly mulled over the idea of paid mods on Steam, with a particular emphasis on the wildly popular, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Basically, a price tag would be placed on users’ homemade mods, regardless of whether they had been free in the past, and the revenue from purchases would then be split between the modder, Valve, and the developer of the game being modded. The response from the Steam community was overwhelmingly negative. Most felt, in the words of Hayden Dingman (PCWorld), that “the 25 percent to modders/30 percent Valve/45 percent Bethesda [revenue] split Skyrim featured was exploitative and gross”, and that paying for mods acted greedily against the spirit of hobbyist modding.
Thankfully, and perhaps to the surprise of many, Valve actually listened, pulling the plug on the idea altogether. Following the uproar, Valve Corporation founder Gabe Newell even participated in a reddit AMA in order to address and quell consumer alarm publicly (LaBella). The controversy came with plenty of flack, and generated talk among users of the merits of Steam’s historically less-popular online competitors such as GOG (formerly Good Old Games), but Valve’s willingness to listen and subsequent efforts to improve customer service appear to mark a change for the better as far as Steam’s customer service goes. Despite some major issues, the platform is clearly doing something very well.
One last thing worth mentioning is what I believe is Steam’s most positive touchpoint. Steam is integrated with a number of other digital sellers / distributors such as Green Man Gaming, Uplay, and Origin, but most important (in my own opinion) is its connection with Humble Bundle. Formerly “Humble Indie Bundles”, Humble Bundle is a unique site that bundles digital copies of videogames and sells them at a price determined by the purchaser. The proceeds are then split however the purchaser wishes between Humble Bundle, the game developer(s), and a charity, such as Child’s Play, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Charity: Water, the American Red Cross, and many more (Wikipedia). Vouchers for games playable on Steam are available through Humble Bundle and other such sites. This not only allows Steam to integrate with other digital distributors’ consumer communities, but also provides expanded outlets for Steam to network and communicate with consumers who are interested in charities and other philanthropic causes or organizations.
Dingman, Hayden. (2015, April 28). Pcworld.com – “Steam kills off controversial paid mods feature for Skyrim”
Galarneau, Lisa. (2014, August 1) Bigfishgames.com – “2013 Gamers Survey Results: Demographics, Platforms and Smartphone Use”
Grayson, Nathan. (2015, March 13). Steamed.kotaku.com – “Valve Is Not Psyched They Got an ‘F’ in Customer Service”
LaBella, Anthony. (2015, April 27). Gamerevolution.com – “Gabe Newell Discusses Paid Mods in Reddit AMA”
Labbe, Mark. (2015, April 15). Playstationlifestyle.net – “ESA Report Shows Digital Games Being Purchased More Than Physical Ones”
Murphy, David. (2014, November 27). Pcmag.com – “Watch Out Facebook: Tumblr, Pinterest Pick Up Steam”
Plunkett, Luke. (2012, May 10). Kotaku.com – “GameStop Admits Defeat, Starts Selling Steam Vouchers”
Wikipedia. (2015, August 20). “Humble Bundle” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humble_Bundle
Wikipedia. (2015, September 8). “Steam (software)” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steam_(software)
Humble Bundle logo: http://www.jimmyv.org/partners/corporatepartners/humble-bundle/