This is an article about the changing role of press embargoes. The difficulty in writing anything at all on the subject of embargoes is that, even as many of the arguments have become familiar and well worn (and I can highly recommend John Keefer’s 2008 piece to that end), the issue ceases to be any less contentious. Hardly a day goes by that some exasperated journalist somewhere doesn’t bemoan the shrinking walls of the PRison in which they are forced to work. The death of the embargo has been called before, and again and again. However, it seems that no amount of vacuous cage-rattling in blogs, forums and magazines can give it the coup de grace for which it is apparently begging.
First, the basics: embargoes are an intervention used by PRs to exert control over how information (read: journalists) behaves, how it flows from brand to audience, in order to make their marketing plans work. This most commonly takes the form of sharing information prior to an official announcement or release in order to give journalists time to analyse and write about it thoughtfully – and critically, preventing publication until a set time and so to coincide with that announcement. This means that all the content that sits around their IP can exist neatly within a larger marketing plan: “The reviews will all hit shelves from this date, so lets get the ads in that issue of the magazine and have the TV ad air on this date with retailer information so we can push people closer to purchase.”
Standing in the way of control
It is possible today, however, to actually exert that kind of control over information? Further, if an embargo is a tool used to control the architecture of information and that architecture changes then surely the tool itself is called into question?
Given 24-hour news cycles and the fact that, thanks to blogging, game news coverage is so vastly oversupplied, hundreds of mastheads continually scrap over the tiniest scraps of information – compounded further when writers are paid or bonused on the traffic they generate. Time to think and analyse is a luxury, and those who take it risk being overlooked when another title steals the scoop with a story covering just the bare facts. The value of any content deteriorates exponentially and so many writers are reduced to parroting the sculpted words of a press release or CEO, rather than performing any kind of duty of care to their readers by fully researching their work. But when many readers are only interested in the first 140 characters of content, does this matter?
Conversely, for many embargoes actually represent an opportunity for journalism of a higher calibre. When information is commoditised, careful analysis and informed thought is surely how you create value, differentiate yourself, build a loyal readership – simply getting there early begins to lack potency. In light of this, embargoes are arguably not just of benefit to the marketer but the journalist too, giving them the time they need to perform this task. Hell, people might even be willing to pay money for that kind of content!
All of this presumes that embargoing content is even possible today, however. When everyone has a camera in their pocket and when new information is valued above all else, there is a certain futility at press events in ordering attendees to turn their devices off and expecting them to keep schtum. It’s near impossible to exert such control, and it’s only really traditional media outlets that actually have anything to lose from defying it. As the BBC’s Rory Cellan Jones puts it: “In an electronic age, controlling the flow of information is like ordering the tide to come in a couple of hours late.” Ultimately, an embargo is only ever as strong as the weakest person that agrees to it.
What does this mean for marketing? Well, firstly, these programmes of messages and actions, which happen in a certain place, at a certain time and in a certain order so that audiences behave in certain ways, represent a very old fashioned and linear view of how members of the public learn about new games and make purchase decisions. It is increasingly out of step with how they actually behave – rather, they zigzag between a great number of sources – some official, some not, some reputable, some not, some 1,400 words long, some 140 characters long. They do this pro actively, negating the need to push quite so much information at them at one time. Under such circumstances, the embargo, while not utterly useless by any stretch, has a great deal less profound effect as the trigger for a tsunami of information on launch.
It isn’t just the way that information behaves that is driving this – the changing nature of product development is also making big embargoed bursts far less relevant. The rise of large scale betas and the increasing treatment of games as services lend them to models of growth that start small and build over time. Developers are necessarily making the game (and therefore all there is to know about it) available long before the majority will ever touch it. It sounds counter-intuitive but it works really well, and that is why we’re seeing more and more of this slow burn-style publicity.
If consumers are pro active in searching for information and your product emerges rather than simply explodes into existence, you can worry a lot less about forcing the public. You can use advertising for that. This also means that you don’t need to work so hard to make sure journalists behave, and you can worry less about information leaking out in a way you didn’t necessarily orchestrate or expect. No, it is much more about making sure it is available when they, your audience, come asking for it.
Thom Dinsdale works in advertising. You can follow him @thomdinsdale.