Over the last few days, I’ve been mostly doing two things:
- Chatting with potential employers
- Coming back from a 10+ year fighting game hiatus (thanks, Street Fighter 6)
After fielding a few questions about marketing strategy, specifically around content and social, it got me thinking: digital marketing strategy has a lot in common with fighting games - especially when it comes to core game mechanics.
An Introduction to Footsies
Chances are, unless you’re one of my friends from way back in my fighting game days who just happened upon this post, you have no idea what I’m talking about when I say “footsies”. To give you a quick understanding what I mean when I by “footsies”, I recommend giving this quick 3-minute video a watch:
In short, footsies is all about controlling the neutral space between you and your opponent. It keeps you safe, while giving you options to attack when opportunity arises.
Why You Probably Get Stomped in Fighting Games
Most people think they’re good at fighting games; until they play against someone who actually is.
We’ve all done it - you’ve been playing a ton of Tekken at home and can slaughter all of your friends with your diligent practice of 10-hit combos. One day, you’re at the arcade and see someone sitting on the machine. You think “I can take this guy”, toss your quarter in, and get ready to show your moves.
You proceed to get absolutely destroyed.
I don’t even need to see your gameplay to know what probably happened. While you were busy practicing your combos, your opponent was practicing their footsies. They were learning how to control the neutral space. When they baited you into attacking, you fell right into their trap.
Combos are flashy ways to do a lot of damage, but they’re completely worthless unless you know how and when to unleash their fury. It doesn’t matter how many hours you put into developing that perfect muscle memory if your opponent can just counter your every move.
You have to know when to use them and when to hold back - when to poke, when to block, when to grab, and when to punish.
How This Applies to Marketing Strategy
Were you even listening to anything I just said? It’s all right there. Fine, I’ll say it again for the people in the back:
Learn when to poke, when to block, when to grab, and when to punish.
It doesn’t matter how good your product is, how much planning went into your marketing strategy, or how much money you have to spend. If you don’t know how to control the neutral space, you’re going to get stomped.
Poking is all about testing the waters. At this point, you have three primary goals:
- Get a feel for what your opponent is about to do.
- Understand how your opponent reacts to your actions.
- Look for opportunities to punish.
Applying this to marketing is just like applying it to fighting game fundamentals. Test the waters with pokes. How does your audience react? How does your competition react? Can you spot any opportunities to capitalize on?
You can poke all day, but poking alone doesn’t win the fight. You need to know when to block - when to hold back and let your opponent make the first move.
At some point, your opponent is going to call your poke with a counter play. If you’re not careful, you’ll get punished. You need to be ready to block at a moment’s notice.
In marketing, this means understanding how each move you make might get countered. Every time you launch a campaign, promote a new feature, or try a new approach, prepare yourself for what the response may be.
(I use a pretty blatant example of this right here in this article - see if you can spot it.)
Sometimes, your opponent “turtles”. They block everything you throw at them and you can’t seem to get through their defenses.
It’s grabbin’ time!
In fighting games, grabs are unblockable. They’re a great way to break through your opponent’s defenses and get some damage in, punishing your opponent for being too defensive.
In marketing, this means finding ways to come at your target from a different angle that they weren’t expecting. It means finding ways to get your message in front of them that they can’t ignore.
To put it simply, grabs force an offensive action from an opponent in a defensive position. If they keep blocking, they’re going to lose. If they don’t block, they’re going to lose. They have to react.
“Grabs” in this sense are why startups tend to overtake large, established corporations. They spend a lot of time trying to avoid damage - completely missing that they’re about to get hit from a different approach that easily could have been avoided with a poke.
Punishing is the most important part of footsies. It’s the reason you poke, block, and grab. It’s the reason you play the game.
Yes, “punishing” is a strong term for a marketing tactic. But it’s a fighting game term and we’re using fighting games as an analogy, so I’m going to use it. Get over it.
Punishing is about one thing - taking advantage of a situation to gain leverage.
Maybe you poked from right outside of your opponent’s reach, baited an attack, and punished them for it. Maybe you grabbed them out of a block. Maybe you blocked their attack and they’re still recovering from it. Whatever it may be, you’ve found your opening and it’s time to strike.
In marketing, it’s the same thing. You’ve found your opening - all you have to do is react quickly enough to capitalize on it.
While you’re capitalizing on opportunity, it’s important to stay vigilant - every move you make has counters too. Even if you have a clear opportunity ahead, you should be ready to shift your position at a moment’s notice. Always be ready to block, grab, or poke again if the situation calls for it.
For me, fighting games and marketing are fun for the same reasons - they’re both about having a gameplan, executing on it, and adapting to ever-changing conditions with a lot of speed, precision, and creativity. It’s the back-and-forth positioning and response that makes it so exciting.
What do you think? Am I on to something? Or am I just a nerd who’s been playing too many fighting games lately? Drop your comments below and let me know what you think.
(If you want to play some games together or you’re an employer who wants to see how this strategy plays out in practice, hit me up on Twitter - my DMs are open.)