Revisiting Steam: A Look At Push and Pull Marketing

Last week, I posted an article about Steam, the social gaming platform by Valve Corporation. In this week’s post, I’m going to delve a bit deeper into Steam’s website, its downloadable gaming platform, and mobile app, and talk about the push and pull tactics leveraged by these channels and others.

Steam home page ads
Steampowered.com’s homepage looks exactly the same whether you’re viewing it in-browser or on your desktop.

First, I should mention that Steam’s homepage and its desktop app’s homepage are identical twins. The website and its downloadable counterpart, the latter of which supports access to games in case the user is offline (or has no Internet connection), both feature the same headlining sales, deals, and updates. These notifications refresh daily and weekly, and are arranged into various categories–the big sales are centered on the page, the weekly or weekend deals are usually arranged in the top right corner, daily deals are normally just below those, and so on. In other words, there are a variety of easily-located sections right on the home page that are frequently updated, and on different (but regular) schedules.

Surprisingly, for a consumer who’s never heard of Steam, it’s probably not easy to find the service through a standard search engine query, and this means Steam isn’t generating a lot of pull via online searches. Results for “digital games”, “online gaming”, and other search terms tend to result in ads directed at GameStop, BestBuy, and other brick-and-mortar retailers. However, as I mentioned in last week’s post, Steam has found an interesting workaround, and I’ll get to that soon. Where Steam really begins to succeed in its pull strategy is within its own platform. It’s difficult to think of every feature that helps achieve this, so I’ll stick to the highlights.

Here are some of Steam’s best and most unique pull strategies:

  1. Customized home page and purchase recommendations. Once a customer begins buying games on Steam (which requires a quick and free membership sign-up) Steam begins tracking tags associated with
    Steam website recommendations
    Steam quickly learns what users like and changes its homepage to suit the user’s preferences once they’re signed in. It makes the user feel “at home”–a good pull technique.

    purchases, store browsing trends, and other user behavior. When that user is signed in, the homepage changes to display games and sales of interest to that particular user, and explains why it made those recommendations. Additionally, it tracks what a user’s friends are buying and playing, and makes suggestions based on other users’ recommendations and reviews. It goes even further still, letting a user know which of their friends has bought or also wants a game the user is viewing in the storefront. But that’s not all. Steam also recommends search tags you should use in the future, based on your interests. Steam’s homepage becomes your homepage. It greets you as if it’s the cliche bartender who has your drink ready before you even pull up a seat.

  2. Tradeable and sellable digital items. This one’s pretty interesting. Steam continually creates digital items that are collectible and available to users who frequently use the platform. The type I specifically want to mention are Steam Trading Cards. Players can earn digital trading cards by playing
    Steam Community Market
    The Community Market allows users to make spendable cash by selling items they earn just by playing the games they buy.

    games they own (if the game supports the feature). Complete sets of trading cards can be “exchanged” for special upgrades to a user’s account or profile, i.e. access to special characters in the chat window, special buttons or stickers to display on the user’s profile page, bragging-rights style achievements, and so on. It’s a decent pull strategy that reinforces engagement. However, what’s more enticing, in my opinion, is the option to put unwanted items up for sale in the Community Market. Some users don’t care about account upgrades, and can instead sell their collectibles for spendable cash that deposits straight into their Steam Wallet. This makes it possible for users who are active enough to get more games at an added discount or even free. Building up free funds promotes exclusively shopping with Steam and engaging more with the platform. This feature alone, as Nelson Xalavier at Gamasutra puts it, creates a kind of addicting game in and of itself, and “[if you] look into the depths of Steam Trading, [you’ll] find a brilliant ecosystem formed around the unique quirks of the Steam platform.”

  3. Visibility in competitors’ storefronts. I mentioned this in last week’s post, so I’ll keep this brief. Steam’s biggest competitors (BestBuy, Gamestop, Walmart, and Target) have struggled to keep up with a consumer shift in favor of the sale of digital games as opposed to physical. Consequently, they’ve attempted to boost sales by selling Steam Wallet Codes in their brick-and-mortar stores. So, although Steam isn’t winning the Google search race, it’s made itself discoverable within its competitors’ stores, and is ready to be seen by a consumer base that, more and more, is developing a preference for digital gaming, but may not know its options.

Now let’s examine some of Steam’s best push strategies:

  1. Direct notifications. Steam makes use of a popular, effective, and well known strategy–simply, sending email and mobile alerts that keep registered users up-to-date on the latest daily and weekly sales, news, holiday specials, and other announcements. Users also receive alerts when products they’ve followed, liked, or put on a wishlist go on sale or receive a price drop, and when their friends send them gifts or a request to trade special items.
  2. The Steam mobile app and desktop app. Steam not only has a website that caters to each individual’s needs and preferences, and provides a social platform for gamers, it duplicated that service and encourages users to install it on their mobile device and PC or laptop.
    Steam mobile notification
    This mobile notification actually came in as I was writing this post.

    Steam makes itself accessible no matter where the consumer is, and continues to
    actively alert and update the user. The
    desktop app even has its own special news update pop-up that appears when users first sign in to Steam from their desktop; it provides a slideshow of the top five updates of the day, typically the biggest sales or announcements of the most anticipated upcoming games (which Steam makes available for pre-order).

  3. Steam Greenlight. I saved the most interesting for last. In recent years, there has been a surge of new and independent videogame developers and studios. As in book publishing or the film industry, it can be difficult to get “indie” projects off the ground and into the hands of big distributors. Steam answered with its Greenlight feature. Greenlight hosts the works-in-progress of indie artists who want to garner support for their games from consumers and a distributor at the same time. Greenlight allows indie developers a cSteam Greenlighthance to showcase the work they’ve done and talk to the community about what their plans are for their projects. In that regard, it mimics crowdfunding (think Kickstarter or GoFundMe), but without the financial endorsement feature. If a project gets enough positive Steam community response and the devs “donate $100 to a charity” (Hendricks), Steam will distribute and sell the finished product. I consider this a unique push strategy rather than a pull, because Greenlight actively petitions for community participation in deciding which new indie games to bring to Steam. The imagery on Greenlight’s page works as a good call-to-action (“Vote!”) and aids the push. The game development process isn’t often something consumers get to participate in meaningfully, and it’s a free feature that encourages users to engage with the industry beyond purchasing its product or sharing reviews.
Steam share buttons
Steam does include share buttons, focusing on its cross-platform engagement (Facebook, Twitter, and reddit), but, like offsite SEO, these seem to take a backseat to Steam’s focus on in-app push-and-pull.

Steam’s website, desktop app, and mobile app are littered with features designed to keep customers coming back, and those same channels do a great job of keeping the push and pull cycle going. If the brand could improve anywhere, it’s in two distinct areas. One of these I spoke about in last week’s post. There does exit a Steam Support team (here’s their Twitter), but its track record is nothing to be proud of. Valve has recently begun to answer for this failing and is making changes to Steam’s services that will hopefully correct this, such as modifying their returns policy. For now, users have to wait and see how much effect these changes have. The second weakness is the lack of pull marketing outside of Steam’s own website and apps, and its borrowed space in its competitors’ stores. It’s not a bad way to pull offline, but that tactic needs some basic online reinforcement–some good SEO would be the best place to start.

Ref.

Hendricks, Dustin. (2015, August 26). Gamasutra.com – “Launching Steam Greenlight & KickStarter: One week in, top 25, and 50% funded”

Nelson, Xalavier. (2015, August 31). Gamasutra.com – “Endless Steam–How I Found Valve’s Greatest Game”

Brand Media Showcase: Steam, by Valve Corporation

Steam-logoFor 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).

Steam workshop
Some fan-made Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim mods in the Steam Workshop

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.

Steam facebook
Steam’s product page on Facebook has almost 4 million “likes”

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.”

ESA-Sales-Data-555x277
Digital sales are quickly overtaking physical sales (Labbe)

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)

Gabe Newell 3
Valve Corporation founder Gabe Newell

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.

humblebundleOne 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.


Ref.

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)

Images

Steam logo: http://tf2freakshow.wikia.com/wiki/File:Steam-logo.png

Gabe Newell: http://venturebeat.com/2013/02/07/valves-gabe-newell-argues-for-pc-gaming-in-the-living-room-but-apple-is-scary/

Humble Bundle logo: http://www.jimmyv.org/partners/corporatepartners/humble-bundle/