In an overly saturated marketplace, it can be tough to stand out from the crowd.
Between market disrupters, new competitors, and established juggernauts, we’re all vying for a limited amount of attention. That’s why I was excited to speak with Holly Liu, co-founder of the mobile gaming company Kabam, at this year’s Collision Conference. Kabam is known for games such as Marvel: Contest of Champions and Transformers: Forged to Fight, and was valued at $1 billion in 2014.
Launched in 2006, Kabam recently sold off a large portion of their company to Netmarble, and I was curious to hear Liu’s top tips for staying afloat in a sea of competition.
Cecilia Haynes: How can startups stand out from the competition?
Holly Liu: When the marketplace is pretty crowded, there are a couple of ways you can differentiate yourself. A lot of your approach will depend on your core competency. For example, one of the things that many people may not know about Kabam is that we were not always into gaming. We started out as a B2B corporate social networking company, quite different from what we are today.
Nobody ended up using us, so we said we could either return the money or take everything that we had learned and pivot in a new direction. With the blessings of our board members, of which were only two, we ended up going into Facebook at the right time. With the platform growing so rapidly, we started building fan communities for TV shows and sports teams.
Because we were there first, we were able to stand out even after Facebook became saturated with a bunch of similar apps.
However, if you launch after the marketplace is already crowded, look for opportunities to offer unique features that others aren’t capitalizing on. For example, people were already talking about “Grey’s Anatomy” and other shows online, but what we offered was a place where fans could congregate and talk to one another. We learned that our true core competency was building communities online.
CH: In addition to community building, what are other ways companies can leverage unique value propositions?
HL: Building a loyal community base is an effective way to elevate your brand above competitors. Another way is pure technology. Look at Google. When they came out, there were already seven other search engines, so did we really need another one? Their competitive advantage was developing more sophisticated search technology. You could look at Snapchat and say the same thing. Do we really need another messaging app? Turns out, maybe we do. Who would have thought disappearing messages would be so valuable?
CH: Do you think diversity is a way to differentiate your business?
HL: In the gaming industry in particular, there are not a lot of women — so if you’re thinking about building games, please do! Many of my female friends often say, “Oh Holly, I’m really sorry, I just don’t like video games and I don’t play them.” My response is usually that it’s not that you don’t like video games, it’s just that there aren’t many games made for you. That speaks to the lack of diversity in my industry.
A barrier to entry is upfront costs and so game makers tend to cater to an established aesthetic and gameplay style. I do think that we’re beginning to experiment, so hopefully we’ll see a surge of creative approaches and be able to tap into new audiences. If you feel like you’re not a part of what the gaming landscape currently is, definitely push the boundaries and tap into your passion, even when it doesn’t fit the current mold. We need folks like that!
CH: Do you feel that offering a quality customer experience feeds into a company’s longevity?
HL: Whatever you’re cultivating — audience, users, or players — it’s incredibly important to be continuously in touch with your community. Since we are less of a traditional gaming company, we approach marketing and content release differently. Our business model is what we call free-to-play. For us to make money, the player needs to want a premium experience, like a sword to help cut through things faster. This is a fundamental shift from how the traditional gaming world works, where players buy a game that will have pretty much the same story no matter how many times it is played.
We liken our approach to how TV shows think about their audience versus movies. Movies have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but in television there’s a longevity that needs to be considered. Because our model is free-to-play and I’m earning everybody’s dollar, we release content very similarly to a TV show. Nothing is released all at once; instead, we have an arc sketched out, like unlocking different parts of a map.
CH: What is your approach to customer loyalty?
HL: Since most people keep their phone in their pocket 24/7, we’re often in the most intimate parts of people’s lives. On top of that, our games are built to be incredibly social, so we often encourage people to build alliances and connections. Our goal is to provide a continual service. The relationship doesn’t end when you download the game. We’re there to help foster ongoing interactions with our users, which brings it back to our core competency of community building.
Our goal is to build a lifetime customer.
When it comes to service, we will dedicate customer champions to what we call our VIPs. A lot of people may initially think, “Oh, it’s the people who spend a lot of money,” but that’s not the full picture for many businesses. Customer loyalty is a part of our model, and so we have evolved to focus more on our regulars who come back seven days a week. They are who become lifetime players.
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