How Great Products Sell Themselves: The Red Barrels Case Study

This past Halloween, a small and independent video game development studio made a huge splash with its latest video game, Outlast. Outlast is a survival horror game, a genre neglected by major studios and perfectly timed for a release back in September leading up to Halloween. The five-person Red Barrels Studios lacked the extensive marketing budgets of an Electronic Arts or Warner Bros. to promote a media product, but as Outlast demonstrated, you really don’t need it anymore.

Marketing plans have a habit of de-emphasizing the word-of-mouth value of a product or service to focus marketing it themselves directly through social networks, newsletters or other inbound marketing channels. This is fair enough since inbound marketing channels are viable ways to build relationships that direct visitors to your product, but it does bypass one very important step in the marketing process.

Outlast demonstrates is the value of having a product that generates interest, enthusiasm, and passion. It’s hard to do, but if your product is worthy of being marketed on its own merits, people online will genuinely do the work for you; not because you’re offering any particular incentive for them to promote it, but because they love your product and want to spread the word to as many people as possible.

Outlast didn’t open to an extravagant midnight launch ala Call of Duty: Ghosts or The Avengers. It didn’t have glitzy television ads in between episodes of The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad. It went live on digital distribution sites like Steam and Good Old Games, got positive press coverage from game journalism sites like Kotaku and Polygon, and had solid sales thanks to the first batch of early adopters.

Then, as people started getting used to Outlast, the word-of-mouth train rolled into town. With Outlast being a visual product, YouTube turned into enterprise-level marketing exposure for Outlast. Look at what one search for Outlast on YouTube reveals:

The first result, a Let’s Play and scare reaction video by YouTube personality PewDiePie, has seven million hits. Seven million people learning about Outlast and it didn’t cost Red Barrels Studios a penny. If you were to convert even one percent of those views to people who eventually bought the game at $20, that’s $1.4 million in revenue that the developers didn’t spent any advertising money for.

It doesn’t end there. The following videos rack up hundreds of thousands or millions of hits, and Outlast also enjoyed spotlight by Conan O’Brien. The game has won a bucket of awards for indie and horror related video games and media, and the Red Barrels Facebook page is full of fans extolling their enjoyment of Outlast, subsequently spreading the message to their own networks. Meanwhile, the Red Barrels team has been interfacing with the community and enjoying a successful Reddit AMA. The result is that, as of November 6 co-founder Philippe Morin confirmed that the game at least made its money back, even with a PlayStation 3 version on the way.

Solely by virtue of creating a memorable product (especially in a genre that major publishers are snubbing), Outlast enjoyed product exposure worth millions of dollars in what the Red Barrels team would pay for in traditional advertising or even PPC campaigns through Facebook or Google.

This, however, is where a lot of business owners and startups tend to miss the point behind case studies like this. They see that Red Barrels didn’t pay for any of this exposure and call it “free” marketing. While it didn’t cost the team any money for this widespread attention, it took a year and a half for them to secure studio funding, and more time afterwards for development of Outlast. It takes hard work to create the type of product that people love enough to promote on their own; Morin’s own AMA response indicates the team put a lot of work in making the game legitimately scary.

The concept of “free” is a misnomer because, as has been frequently discussed, money isn’t the only currency. Time is a much more finite and precious resource than money, and it takes a lot of time, energy, and hard work to create a product so adored as Outlast is quickly becoming.

Furthermore, once the ball is rolling, you can’t rely just on other people. Word-of-mouth marketing is like a fire; it expands or withers depending on how much attention you give it. It’s why the Red Barrels team did a Reddit AMA, why they’ve spoken to the gaming press, why they’ve retained a public relations company, and why they’re active on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (if admittedly a little slow on responses and mentions).

Take a look at your product (or service) and do your best to think as your consumer. Is this a product so perfect for you that you want to take a photo of it and upload it to Facebook or Instagram? Would you tweet about the quality of service you received to your followers? Would you actively browbeat your friends into trying the product because you know they’re going to love it? It’s a hard level of customer loyalty to achieve, and inbound marketing platforms can help, but all roads lead to your product. The impact it has on your target audience may net you your own fanatically loyal brand advocates down the road.