Minecraft’s Online Video Marketing Success: Letting the Players Take the Wheel

Minecraft Taj Mahal
A user created replica of the Taj Mahal highlights the kind of creative activities that players of Minecraft engage in. Source of image: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/analysis-and-features/built-to-last-the-minecraft-model-9788669.html

Minecraft, a game that is incredibly popular amongst both kids and adults, was acquired by Microsoft for 2.5 billion dollars back in September. Technically Microsoft bought Mojang, the company responsible for Minecraft, but for all intents and purposes they were buying Minecraft, which accounts for the vast majority of Mojang’s value. As of the time of this post Minecraft has sold over 17 million PC or Mac versions according to the company’s website. Minecraft, for those not familiar with the game, is a sandbox (open world) game with multiple modes of play. The most well known one is perhaps Creative Mode in which players are able to create whole new worlds and then explore (with or without friends) using block-shaped characters. The game can almost be thought of as a fully customizable and programmable Lego set that people all over the world can play with separately or together. Minecraft is sold for a single price at purchase and does not carry any subscription fees or in-game advertising.

Minecraft’s success at its core has to do with crafting a great product that taps into the creativity of its players. The rapid ascent through which it has become the best-selling computer game of all time can be attributed to its globe-spanning fan base and their willingness to share with others their love of the game. An interesting article in REElSEO this past week discusses the significant portion of Minecraft’s marketing success that has stemmed from the creation and consumption of videos being produced by players of the game. Minecraft’s YouTube channel has over 183 million total views, which on its own would be seen by most as a great success, but it pales in comparison with the number of views that the game’s fan channels have generated. Fan created videos outside of the scope of the brand’s control (and their channel) have garnered over 31 billion views according to an Octoly report released by REELSEO titled “YouTube and Video Games Study.” Fan generated videos of in-game content range from tutorials to music video parodies to showcases of fan-generated worlds to story-driven adventures amongst friends playing the game.

Research by a Ph.D. student at USC’s Anneberg School of Communication named Alex Leavitt in 2011 took a look at how Minecraft has influenced game culture. A survey conducted as a part of Leavitt’s research found that one-third of the participants had heard about Minecraft through the viewing of online videos (a good article discussing some of his findings can be found here). Carl Menneh (the CEO of Mojang prior to the company’s acquisition by Microsoft) has acknowledged that the company has taken a very hands off approach in terms of controlling what fans are able to do with the Minecraft brand; allowing fans of the game to take great liberties in how they choose to grow the vast amount of Minecraft related content available for consumption.

Another company that has had success incorporating YouTube videos into their marketing mix through consumer-generated videos is GoPro. A while back we wrote a post that goes into greater detail on GoPro’s YouTube marketing strategy. Unlike Mojang, GoPro takes a more active role in incentivizing content producers to submit videos for display on their brand channel. The company leverages a team of 30 people (almost the size of Mojang’s full staff pre-acquisition) to review online video content and determine what is best suited for larger scale distribution on its brand channel along with its other channels of distribution. Given that Minecraft is a fully customizable world it would seem to run counter to the brand’s values and image to impede or control how its players express their creativity and love of the game.

For Minecraft and some of its most ardent fans, allowing this type of freedom with Mojang’s intellectual property has yielded some really nice win-wins. Fans create new mods (environments) for the game, which can be sold by their creators at zero cost for the company. Such elements increase user adoption, engagement, and retention by keeping things fresh and constantly evolving. The online videos created by users help spread awareness and excitement around the game and cost Mojang nothing as well. The creators of the videos are able to sell advertising on their YouTube channels and earn money for them.

Some Minecraft video creators have over a million subscribers on YouTube and billions of views of their videos. There’s the added bonus for Minecraft that these content creators are able to devote more time to producing quality content because of the financial compensation that they receive for the labor of love. As opposed to Mojang giving these individuals the financial resources to devote significant amounts of time to marketing Minecraft through their videos, YouTube’s advertisers are in a sense doing so.

From a marketing management perspective here are some questions to consider:

  • What are some of the benefits of taking a hands-off approach to allowing a community of fans to promote a product? What are some of the potential downsides?
  • In order to better understand the value of the different types of Minecraft videos produced by fans what YouTube metrics would you use and what would you attempt to glean from them? Would you attempt to analyze the comments provided by viewers of the videos and if so how would you attempt to gain insights from them?
  • With Minecraft now a part of Microsoft there will most likely be increased pressure to further monetize the brand. What types of possible strategies and tactics would you expect Microsoft to take in this regard and what are some of the potential risks?
  • As a marketing manager for Minecraft what kinds of marketing or branding opportunities within the game could be offered to other companies that would be of value to players of the game as well?