Visual novels are a great form of media- they combine game mechanics with an emphasis on narratives and strong visuals. They can be used to tell horror stories, high school slice of life, and so much more. But how do you market visual novels?
I’m Arimia, the lead developer at Crystal Game Works and marketing lead at Studio Élan. Marketing visual novels is a bit of a passion project for me- I like learning more about what people like and how they think. I’ve compiled a bunch of concepts I’ve learned over the years while marketing visual novels so you can get more eyes on your games.
What is marketing?
Let’s get this out of the way quickly- what is marketing? In a brief sense, marketing is the act of informing and teaching consumers about your product. Marketing is advertising, but it’s also so much more than just advertising. Marketing is getting an understanding of who is playing your product; it’s honing in on what they like about the product and delivering that; it’s making sure the people who will enjoy your product will find out about it.
- The presentation of the store page
- Tweets, TikToks, and other social media posts
- How you word your pitch of the game
- Graphics for the game
- Contacting press and streamers to play the game
- The game itself
At least one person out there will like your visual novel- now, you just have to find them.
A few marketing concepts…
Before we go any further, I want to go over (or refresh you on) a few marketing concepts that’ll be important.
Give more than you take.
Don’t constantly ask stuff from your followers or people you’re reaching out to- give something back! Show new art, share some insight into your process, things like that. You should ask for things like wishlists on your game but don’t make every post about that.
More followers =/= success.
A lot of followers is usually a good indicator that you’re doing something right, but it’s not the only metric you should track. Engagement, clickthrough rates, and more should also be considered.
Impressions: this is how many people could have viewed your post or page, meaning it appeared somewhere on their screen. An example would be your Steam page appeared on a search result for “visual novel”, but the consumer didn’t necessarily click through to view the page.
Engagement: tracks how people interact with your posts- this includes media views, comments, shares, etc. Do they comment a lot? Only like posts but not share/RT them? If you have a lot of followers but none of them are engaging with your posts then your high follower count isn’t helping you (this is why you don’t buy followers).
Clickthrough rates: are your followers actually clicking what you post? Do they click the devlogs you post or your store pages?
Always have a call to action.
A call to action (CTA) is a simple statement asking someone to do something– “wishlist my game”, “follow us for updates”, “get a free story by signing up to our newsletter”. This may sound like a contradiction to the first bullet, but a call to action can be something mutually beneficial, like giving something away if a person subscribes to your newsletter.
You won’t go viral overnight. You might never go viral.
The majority of marketing is less about trying to go viral and more about building a long-term, sustainable, growing platform that reaches out to your target audience. Virality is fleeting, as the Internet’s attention span wanes by the hour. A repeatable, maintainable marketing plan that engages your audience while also bringing in new eyes is what you want.
Personally I believe virality is partly knowing your audience, having a funny/relatable/interesting topic, a dash of luck, and great timing (which can also be up to luck). Yeah, I make banger Yu-Gi-Oh! tweets, but very few of them reach the numbers of Jounouchi dying.
Part of “you won’t go viral overnight” is also realizing that marketing takes a while to build up numbers unless you already have a fanbase you can transfer over. Don’t be frustrated if you’ve been on Twitter for a month and only have 100 followers! That’s 100 people who went to the effort of hitting Follow and sticking around. Consider what you want to do in the long term- do you want to make a studio that releases several more titles? Do you want to do commercial projects? Think about your future.
Consider the marketing funnel.
A marketing funnel is a marketing concept that says that different people are at different stages of familiarity with your product and you need to find different ways to communicate with each of them.
When you make a post, consider who is reading it and how familiar they are with your game.
A person who is at the Awareness stage is just finding out about your game while a person who is at the Consideration stage already knows about your game and is considering playing it. Someone in the Awareness stage needs to see the game’s hook, but someone in the Consideration stage needs a final push to play the game.
You can learn more about the marketing funnel here.
One last thing about the marketing funnel- Steam* is at every level of the funnel. Someone can find your game on Steam at any point in the funnel, but most importantly Steam is the bottom of the funnel.
*This is assuming you’re publishing on Steam. Otherwise, replace “Steam” with whatever platform you’re distributing to.
When do I start marketing?
If you’ve already started making your visual novel, you start now. Your game can be a marketing tool- so you’ve already started marketing by deciding what to make! Marketing is something that happens throughout the development of a game. Start considering marketing now.
As for more specifics, like “when do I announce my game”, that’s more difficult… For my visual novels, I wait until I have:
- A logo
- A key art
- The main cast’s sprite artwork
- Started on the script (more than just an outline)
At the very least, you should have a pitch of the game. Have a solid idea of what you want to make. It’s okay if you change some details later on, but know what’s the core of the game. It’s pointless to have an announcement as a first-time indie dev where you don’t know what you’re announcing!
What’s your visual novel about?
Visual novels are a medium for story telling and come in all shapes and sizes. When you’re marketing visual novels, it’s important to remember that every VN’s story is different. A horror visual novel isn’t going to be marketed the same as a slice of life moege. Figure out 1) what your VN is about and 2) who will play it.
List out these different aspects of your visual novel:
- Story genres (romance types; story beats; themes)
- Aesthetics (themes; color palettes; art styles)
- Gameplay mechanics (how does the game function; are there any extra mechanics)
- Length (10 minutes or 10 hours?)
- Platforms (phone; browser; tablet; console; PC)
- Content warnings (such as mature content)
- Overall polish
The first three (story genres, aesthetics, and game mechanics) will be the main things that determine your target audience, i.e. who will be the biggest fans of your game. To read more about what a target audience is and general ways to find them, check out my talk notes here.
What is your branding?
When you have your target audience figured out, work on your branding. What sets your VN apart? How will your target audience resonate with it?
Branding will determine how you go about everything. It’s how you make your visual novel, how you talk about it, how your studio is presented, etc. As you can imagine, branding is a key part of marketing!
Why are you doing this?
Keep something else in mind- what are you looking to get out of your visual novel? Why are you developing it? Ask yourself these questions:
- Will it be free or commercial (i.e. sold)?
- Is this a short project (to gain experience from and/or a portfolio) or a longer project?
- Is it necessary that this game be a commercial success if it will be sold? (keep in mind that most indie games are not profitable)
Marketing a commercial game requires a lot more planning and effort than a free game- after all, a free game will market itself to a degree due to the low bar of entry and there’s less riding on the success. When marketing a commercial game, give yourself ample time to get the word out and plan ahead. A lot of times it’s easier to market a commercial game if you already have a free game out that has similar content. If you’re marketing a free visual novel, try not to stress yourself out- post about the game frequently but it’s okay if you can’t share updates every week.
Where do I talk about my visual novel?
While the places your target audience will be in vary, there are some general spaces for sharing visual novels.
- Lemma Soft Forums: a mostly EVN developer-oriented forum where you can share your WIPs as well as recruit talent.
- /r/VNs: subreddit for talking about visual novels- as per Reddiquette, post in a community for a while before you try to self-promote.
- /r/VNdevs: subreddit for talking about visual novel development.
- /r/otomegames: subreddit for specifically talking about otome visual novels and games. Has a weekly self promotion thread you can post in on Sundays.
- /r/BLgame: subreddit for specifically talking about boys love visual novels and games.
- Facebook groups such as Visual Novel Enthusiasts, Visual Novels, and more.
You can also Google different forums, Discord servers, Facebook groups and more that are for your VN niche. A lot of marketing is research. Don’t be afraid to spend hours just looking around the corners of the internet.
You’ll also want to set up social media for your visual novel. Some people set up accounts for each game, some people set up accounts for a studio (and also sometimes for each game).
…marketing channels are the different tools and platforms you use to communicate with your target audience.Hubspot, 7 Marketing Channels to Focus on in 2021
For the sake of this article, marketing channels are all of the sites you use to share your VN on. This includes social media websites like Twitter, group chat sites like Discord, forums such as Lemmasoft, and more.
Social Media Channels
Picking which social media to post about your game is an important choice! When you do so, consider where your audience is. There’s a lot of anime fans on Twitter, a lot of otome fans on Instagram and Facebook, and so on.
While it is a good idea to grab usernames on the big sites if you’re trying to set up a studio, don’t attempt to be active on 3+ social medias unless you have a person/team just for that. Focus on being active on a handful rather than having too much on your plate.
There’s a lot of visual novel devs on Twitter and Discord such as Devtalk and our bot, Lemonchan. There’s a fair amount of otome fans on Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit. There’s also a lot of moege and JVN fans on Reddit. Look around and see what’s the best fit for you- in general, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are all solid choices for visual novels accounts. You can also make a YouTube and Reddit account (or use your personal Reddit like I do) to post occasionally and not daily.Tweets by VN_Devtalk Follow @VNDevtalk
For an indepth guide on social media marketing from a visual novel dev’s perspective, you can check out my ongoing guide here:
Discord has grown to become the largest hub for gamers and anime fans in recent years, completely replacing Skype. If you’re unaware of it, Discord is a group chat client for connecting with friends and joining group servers. There are lots of servers for game development as well as studios.
I recommend joining game development servers and finding developers you vibe with. It’s a great way to get feedback on your projects, learn new things, and make friends. There’s tons of general game development servers, but for visual novels here’s a few I run:
When you join dev Discords, keep in mind that they’re going to be full of developers. Developers are not people who are primarily consumers. These aren’t going to be your target audience, but getting feedback from fellow developers and making connections is very important.
You might be thinking of making your own Discord for your studio or game. Managing your own studio Discord is a big undertaking, but can be a great place to build your own community. I wouldn’t recommend it for devs first starting out as it takes a lot of time to manage and that time can be better spent other places. If you’re establishing a studio or have a Kickstarter then it can be a good idea once you have something out (such as a demo).
One thing that’s stood the test of time so far has been email. Everyone has at least one and newsletters are still viable- if not more viable than ever. According to Chris Zukowski (who’s marketing blog I whole-heartedly recommend), email is still king and leads to much higher conversion rates than social media.
Newsletters aren’t hard to set up nowadays with services like Mailchimp and Tinyletter- you can even have a newsletter through Twitter using Revue. Having a lead magnet (such as offering free wallpapers) is great for getting signups.
The contents of newsletters doesn’t have to be anything long, either. Monthly update posts that summarize what you’ve been working on or sneak peeks can be emails.
What do I post about my visual novel?
One common complaint I see a lot is “I don’t have anything to post about my game”. Wrong! You have a lot of content to post, if you know what to use.
In my post Social Media Post Ideas, I talk about over 40 different ideas for posts about your game. These ideas include:
- concept art
- in-game assets
- works in progress, sketches, previews
- team & character interviews
- process guides / devlogs
You can find more ideas of what to post in the article here:
If you’re still worried about content and spacing it out, keep in mind you don’t have to post daily. Find a rhythm- maybe you’ll post every Tuesday/Thursday or every Wednesday. Posting twice a week when you’re starting out is fine. Once you get closer to release you should start posting every other day or daily, but until then it’s fine to not post daily.
How do I talk about my visual novel?
Different people have different methods for how they pitch their visual novels. I’m not here to tell you one set way to do so, but rather give you some ideas for how to talk about your game.
Formal or Informal?
You might be enticed to go completely formal with how you talk about your game- no casual tone, only business professional- but don’t think this is the only way you can talk about your game.
Indie games have an advantage over AAA in that they’re made by small, personal teams. You can be more personal when you talk about your game, especially if your team is just yourself. People don’t shrug away if you say “here’s my horror visual novel” as opposed to “New horror visual novel preview”. If people do shrug their noses at the thought of an indie English VN, they’re not your market.
Posting memes is fine! Some indie game marketing advice says to stay away from posting memes, but I say the opposite is true for visual novels- anime fans love memes! Even if you’re not making an anime-styles visual novel, you can still do this- just keep you audience in mind. For example, /r/otomegames always has memes on the front page that are related to otome games.
Occasionally you’ll see a trending topic that’s relevant to you or a holiday will pop up. These are good chances for posting content that will do better than other pieces of content.
For trending topics, make sure you know why it’s trending. You don’t want to post something on a seemingly innocuous tag and find out later it was trending for controversial reasons.
For holidays you’ll want to prepare ahead of time to make sure you aren’t making last minute plans. Every year for Valentines I make Valentines cards for myself and Studio Élan. I start these at the beginning of February so I’m not running late trying to come up with cute sayings.
happy valentines day pic.twitter.com/JZlfLDAEYS— Studio Élan ⚢ (@vnstudioelan) February 15, 2021
How do I make a marketing plan?
A marketing plan is a strategic roadmap that businesses use to organize, execute, and track their marketing strategy over a given time period.Hubspot, Marketing Plan Examples
Every good campaign starts with a plan. While you don’t need to make an official industry marketing plan, it’s a good idea to put your notes down in one place, especially if you have a team.
For my own marketing plans I’ll throw notes together in an image. Here’s a template for how I organize my thoughts.
Here’s a version of it filled out with my RPG visual novel Asterism.
The basic idea of this template is to get you thinking about the main selling points of your VN, the main pieces of content you’ll use to show that, and where you’ll show it. You can read an indepth explanation to the template here.
Pick which channels you’ll focus on and plan from there, detailing out how you’ll post on them. If you’re still stuck, you can use my general social media calendar as a guide.
This calendar is a guide for ideas of what to post each day. Don’t try to post every idea each day! You can use this as a template and mix things around as you like.
Before we wrap things up I want to give some parting words of advice.
Don’t worry about posting daily.
One question I get asked a lot is “do I have to post daily?” No, no you don’t. When you’re first starting out- especially if this isn’t a commercial game- don’t worry about posting daily. Post at least once a week, sure, but don’t stress yourself out on having something to go every day.
The amount of posts you should make weekly will depend on a lot of things:
- Your workflow
- Scope of the project
- If it’s free or commercial
- How much time you can dedicate to content creation for social media
The bigger and more expensive the project, the more emphasis you’ll want to put on posting multiple times a week. If you don’t have ideas for what to post, check out my article on 40+ social media post ideas.
Set up a Steam page as soon as you have screenshots ready and a clear pitch.
In order to rank higher on Steam, you need wishlists. In order to get more wishlists, you’ll need more time. Publishing your Steam page ASAP will get you more passive wishlists- do not wait until a month before release to make a public Steam page! You don’t have to rush a Steam page, especially if you’re new to it, but don’t push it off to the last minute.
Release your game on itch.io.
If you don’t know what it is, itch.io is a free indie game publishing site. Uploading a game there is about as easy as you can get and completely free. It’s super easy and gives you more eyes on your project, so upload your demo there as well. If you tag your visual novel right you’ll also gain a fair amount of passive views on the project.
Reposting content is fine.
The lifespan of content on the internet decreases by the day. When you post something online, not all of your followers will see it, either. Repurposing and reposting older content is fine, as it’ll be completely new to new followers and some of your current followers.
An example might be a piece of artwork for the game. If you posted it a year ago, you can repost it with new context (maybe share the Steam page, talk about a demo or upcoming convention, etc.). Do this for content you haven’t posted in months of course, not content you posted recently.
Don’t pitch your visual novel as “not like those other boring visual novels”.
I’ve seen this happen time and time again (usually on crowdfunding pages, oddly) where a dev will say “my visual novel is a unique take and not like those other boring visual novels”. Almost every time I see this phrase it’s followed by “story-heavy” (as if other visual novels aren’t story-heavy) and/or “meta breaking”. Not only will you irk visual novel fans but you’ll also earn the ire of fellow VN devs. If your visual novel truly is unique, then tell us why. Pitch YOUR game to us- don’t push other games down!
This article has been in works for months. It’s hard to get everything down in one go-I always tend to forget important parts-so this post will be updated. Thank you to everyone in Devtalk who helped me edit and add to this post!
There’s a lot of general advice here for marketing VNs as well as some examples, but there’s no one-size-fits-all marketing plan. Every game is different, so every game needs a different marketing plan. Marketing is hard! But I think it can be a fun puzzle, figuring out what pieces go where.
I have a lot of other articles on indie game marketing and visual novel development, so check those out if you’re interested in more- I’ve also linked several articles within this post up above. If you want to talk to myself & other VN devs about marketing your visual novel, join Devtalk! I have an entire channel just for marketing there.
Thanks for reading and good luck on making your visual novel!