Getting noticed, the perpetual problem

2014-11-21

It's a truism in creative circles that getting noticed in this day and age is hard. It's a big Internet, a lot of people make stuff, and audiences have increasingly little attention to spare, not to mention money. Publishers overcome that problem by reserving large budgets for advertising, but indies often lack that option. It can be disheartening to spend weeks or months on some labor of love and see absolutely nothing in return.

And all too often, when I check, it turns out they didn't do anything to get noticed. Like, anything at all. They just posted some of their work online, and waited.

I'm afraid it doesn't work that way.

Let me tell you a story. Someone who just heard of my relative fame in the interactive fiction community (yeah, right) might be fooled into thinking I'm an established author or something. Far from it. My two lame attempts at authoring have earned scorn and indifference, respectively, both well-deserved. I did write a handful of reviews, about as many articles, couple of experimental tools, but nothing big. So what gives?

My secret is that all the little things I've done place me in the top 20% most active members of the community. Maybe higher. For over ten years now, I got people talking. Got them to try new things. Helped sub-communities connect. Made friends, and kept them.

And yes, I pestered people to come see my handiwork.

There's no shame in that, you see. If you really are making stuff, then you definitely have something to show. And I'd rather take a look at what my friends make than anything a complete stranger does, no matter how good it is. You're likely better than you think anyway: imposter syndrome may well be the most common affliction among creators.

Friends are your first and best bet. But even complete strangers will come and take a look if you only engage with them. I recently took part in the Procedural Generation Jam, and was saddened to see how few developers could be bothered to comment on other entries. The amount of feedback did grow after the deadline, as one entrant predicted, but still I only got a grand total of 1 (one) comment across two entries. And you know what? I went and tried the comment author's own games. Rated them. Added them to a public collection.

I would never have done that based on his own submission alone. Even though I did notice it.

I'm sure you've heard this before, but 20th century media conditioned us to think of creators in an impersonal manner. Just names on a cover. Demigods sharing the fruit of their creativity with the rest of us, the humble consumers.

And it was all bunk. As soon as the Internet gave everyone a voice, it turned out creators were people like any other. Who are, in turn, fans of other creators. And they love talking to their fans... and fellow fans.

If only you let them know you are out there.

Seriously, now. Want people to notice you? Go and comment on blogs. Leave (honest) reviews on their work. Rate it. Tweet about it. You pay attention to them first, and some of them will respond in kind. Wait for others to come to you, and nobody will.

Oh, it takes patience and persistence. A certain amount of marketing, too. (I was hoping to avoid the "m" word, but it turns out I can't.) Your work needs to be somewhat polished, and presented cleanly at least. E.g. if you make a game, at least give it a minimal title screen, cover art and a blurb. And yes, you'll need to do some actual advertising. I pay for ads. I even get a decent return on investment. No shame in that, either.

But personal interaction is still the most important marketing tool. There's a reason why modern e-commerce platforms allow you to favorite other authors (Smashwords) or games (Itch.io), and show them to anyone else who might visit your profile. That's called cross-promotion, and it's the next best thing to word of mouth. Why should I waste my time checking out random books when I can see what inspired my favorite writers? Sure, I may not have the money to buy those other books right now, on top of everything else, but that's why shopping baskets were invented.

And if you don't buy what other people make, why should they ever buy your wares? Generosity, like respect, must be reciprocal to work well.

Or at all.