Earlier this year, we posted about some of our first hand experiences with convention sponsorship. Since then, we’ve had many more cons reach out to us, several very good and one incredibly bad (to the point of needing legal intervention due to theft). One topic we didn’t get into with the previous article was how to select a con in the first place.
As indie game devs, you have limited resources. You want to get the most bang for the buck with your marketing resources. Proper con selection is a crucial element. Throwing thousands in marketing materials at a con that doesn’t do anything with them wastes time and money. It’s a risk roulette whose lever you need to pull. Here’s what we’ve seen as factors that contribute to whether a con will “payout.”
First, this is good behavior for you. Do your homework on a con before you send in your materials. Have they delivered? Are their vendors and sponsors happy? Who owns the con? Is this their main source of income or a hobby? What about the staff?
Look at who has sponsored them in the past and see if that changes a lot or if the same people keep coming back. Have they grown their sponsor base over time, stayed the same, or lost them? If they use crowd funding, are they meeting their goals? If they’ve ticked off their base, they’ll fail them or set them low. If they’re doing great, they’ll be hitting stretch goals.
1. Determined support levels
This seems obvious, but a convention that knows how to accept donations is more likely to use them well. Look for cons that have a published sponsorship packet. If they don’t, ask via email and clarify as much as possible. You want things in writing.
Big cons are attractive – lots of people, lots of eyeballs. But you’re a small dev. Big cons attract big devs, like Wizards of the Coast. You’ll run the risk of both being overshadowed and having to spend money to get the con to advertise you.
It’s much better to go after a small convention within your target demographic (at least starting out). They’ll be more grateful and might offer extras if you’re nice to work with. Plus, you’ll be more likely to be the only advertiser attendees see, ensuring they won’t confuse your game for a release by someone else.
3. Material Donations
Indie devs are big on creativity – and light on wallets. A lot of advertising options involve money. You’re going to spend a bit on promo materials, like it or not. The best advertising has you distributing materials to attendees directly. Tactile connection vastly supercedes a simple banner.
Even better is if you can make the materials being handed out the entirety of the donation. A con that will let you give them your handouts as payment for distribution is the best. You only have to pay once, not twice, for those materials.
4. Tabletop Schedule
Sponsoring a convention is great – and even better if you can demo and attend in person! For this, there needs to be a) tabletop space and b) a way to get a table for product demos. There are times when you can promote with a con lacking tabletop, but that does mean the folks there aren’t going to be as interested. Having dedicated space for gaming means some of the people there love gaming – and they’re your customers.
Assuming they have tabletop, what game stores do they work with? Does the game store help promote the con? We have one huge store locally that a few cons tap for their board game library – but they do very little to promote the events. Having a store that helps signal boost can help you in turn. This can also help you get a relationship with a FLGS, necessary when you want to launch and want people to carry the game.
1. Art as Sexual Harassment
A new trend with some conventions is to treat art – such as prints or in books – as a form of harassment. You can find this in the rules conventions post (and those that do this will post it). They’ll say that they reserve the right to ban art they feel depicts women badly.
What a con will say is that overly sexual art harasses female attendees. They try to make it a safety or diversity issue. The truth is the opposite.
In reality, conventions that have this rule use it to ban LGBT artwork and generally be sex negative. For example, we had prints of 2 of our main characters embracing. They were fully clothed and nothing was touching other than hands on arms. Yet a con ruled that this piece of SFW artwork depicting a same sex couple was “harassment.” It wasn’t because the art was sexual – it’s because the art positively represented a same-sex couple.
Do not promote or support any convention with this clause. It’s a huge red flag that it’s run by anti-expression sorts who want to police art to suppress what they personally dislike.
2. Prop weapon bans
We’re a steampunk game. So if a con bans prop weapons, like modified costume NERF guns, they’re telling every steampunk, “Don’t bother with our con.”
Apart from the direct relevance of making a convention a terrible for us in particular, this kind of ban – like the ban on depicting same-sex romance in art – indicates a bad kind of leadership culture. Prop weapons cannot hurt others (apart from being blunt instruments). Banning them does nothing for safety nor does it solve any issues. Yet it does make many feel unwelcome and increases instances of “gotcha” con attendees can have with security. A leadership that doesn’t care about the enjoyment of those who attend is one that isn’t building a healthy environment worth associating your brand with.
Note that we’re not referring to bans on actual guns or swords. Those are in place because of liability and insurance. Don’t fault a con for that.
3. Serial Con Running
This ties back to doing your homework about a con. Look at the folks running it. Have they been running the same con for a while? Or do they keep starting new ones and letting prior cons die out?
It’s okay for a convention to have new leadership. People move on and new people ascend. But if you have a group constantly jumping from one new con to another, they lack commitment. That can also mean they don’t have the skills to ensure a steady, loyal audience – something you need among those you promote with.
4. Potpourri Vending Hall
Ideally, you’ll be able to personally attend the cons you sponsor. If so, look at the vending room. Are the vendors there geek oriented, or do you see the odd presence of mundane stuff? For example, do you see mainly comic and anime retailers? Or are there people selling insurance or time shares?
This has become an issue in recent years as some cons – mainly comic cons – struggle to make ends meet so they allow anyone and everyone to vend, just so they can stay in business. This is a warning the con is circling the drain. If the con is doing well, they’ll attract enough vendors they can afford to be picky and turn down a car insurance company.
Don’t associate your brand with cons in trouble like this. You’ll risk being seen as irrelevant to attendee interests as the vendor trying to sign people up for a condo in Aruba.
To conclude: go after small cons that accept material donations and have defined sponsor levels, preferably with an established track record. Avoid cons of any size that ban “sexy” art, prop weapons, are one of many in a string of serial convention startups, and that will let just anyone vend.
Hopefully these tips help you. Ask us any questions that we might answer in a future post!