Digital Conference

How Marketers Can Reach Young Guys Who Don't Watch Much TV, According to EA

'Titanfall' Maker Strives for Long-Term Relationship With Bleeding-Edge Customers

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EA's high-stakes new game 'Titanfall'
EA's high-stakes new game 'Titanfall'
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It's disconcerting for major marketers to cede control to consumers, especially hard-to-reach and quick-to-complain young men. But some companies don't have a lot of choice -- like gaming marketer EA, currently in the midst of a huge push for new release "Titanfall."

"I've spent over a decade trying to get inside the heads of these guys," said Carolyn Feinstein, senior VP-global consumer marketing, EA, during the second day of the Ad Age Digital Conference on Wednesday. "And I can tell you it can be very scary in there but I have learned a lot."

In gaming in particular, everybody that plays adds to the experience. Games are owned by the people who play them. EA makes "Battlefield" and "The Sims," but they are taken over by the people who have experiences and create communities inside them, Ms. Feinstein said.

"As a result gamers kind of by definition absorb stories very different from non-gamers," she told the audience. EA products live or die based on the connection our consumers have with them. That means proving every day that the company deserves the right to participate in the category, and listening when gamers talk.

"It can't just be about the transactional moments that exist between you," Ms. Feinstein said.

These consumers are also at the absolute bleeding edge, Ms. Feinstein added. They're the first on any platform, on any new gadget and to tell their friends what they think. "We've had to kind of dive in and try to figure some things out for ourselves in an attempt to move and change as quickly as our consumers expectations have."

The company believes there is nothing it can say that equals the voice its consumers care about most: their friends. So it has tried to give them tools to communicate with each other, such as its Ronku platform.

"The stories that they tell and the opinions that they share are theirs alone," Ms. Feinstein said. "And that can be really scary …. But the result is this really efficient truly authentic layer to a campaign."

(Even when giving up control, however, a marketer can still encourage certain messages. Reports earlier this year said the company has offered compensation to some people who use Ronku to show their experiences in games -- just not glitches.)

Marketers in this space have to take a hard look at their organizations to make sure they can do data-driven, long-term, persistent work with the consumers they need, Ms. Feinstein said. "If you had told me in 2010 that I would have engineers on my marketing team I would not have believed you," she said. "But the truth is that I do."

It just takes a different mix of skills and talent, she added. It's no longer about finding someone who's done what you need at your company, at another company, for the last five years. It's about finding the best and brightest people who might be able to do what you need next. But people on your team can also transform themselves if you give them the opportunity.

Ms. Feinstein said her team comprises two areas: The what, responsible for stories and content, and the how, responsible for creating the distribution pipes through which we tell those stories. The uniting characteristic and the essential element, she said, is voracious intellectual curiosity.

EA uses its massive troves of data to tell stories that are more compelling, to identify what they love and to bring it to them more efficiently. The company has brought into the team capabilities that it once outsourced, like buying and optimizing programmatic media.

Taking that same consumer understanding and data directly to partners like Facebook and Twitter allows EA to move very quickly, she said.

This all requires partners, too, that are up for experimentation. But it also creates real disruption, both inside your teams and with your partners.

"The big learning for me has been all of this is messy but the messiness is OK," Ms. Feinstein said. "It's part of the process."

The major "Titanfall" campaign underway now has included a partnership with Atari to drop the game's giant Titan robots into classic 8-bit video games, an ad that's gone viral and a "Drop a Titan on It" GIF generator.