Many people think going viral is a random bolt of lightning that strikes some lucky individual. It is the lottery. It is magic. It is random!
But in today’s blog I will walk you through the methodical campaign that Joe Henson used on twitter to make a 2-year-old game “go viral.”
Joe’s campaign was so amazing that Kotaku ran an article about it.
Despite the dogged reporting by Kotaku, they couldn’t crack the case. They just said “It’s unclear just how much the studio anticipated the recent buzz. Representatives for Digital Cybercherries did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.”
Well guess what? I found a Digital Cybercherries representative and got an interview with the immensely talented marketing director Joe Henson and it turns out Digital Cybercherries did anticipate the buzz and I know how they did it. It is an amazing tale and I am going to go deep into the nitty gritty of how this happened and how you can use the Twitter algorithm to attempt to do the same.
Going viral is not entirely luck. To actually cause it to happen and convert that attention into sales it takes a proactive and concerted and strategic effort. It is definitely not just luck.
The secret to success on twitter is to carefully monitor the day’s trending topics. If a topic goes huge and is in some way related to your game, build a tweet around it. Then if it starts to take off, use the viral tweet as evidence that your game has buzz and pitch journalists to write about your game. Simultaneously go for visibility on Steam such as discounts, daily deals, or other promotions. Your goal is to get on the “top sellers” list to boost sales.
But first some background
Hypercharge: Unboxed is a “wave-based first/third-person shooter with a small twist: you’re an action figure! Explore. Defend. Survive.” It released in 2020 for Steam and Nintendo Switch. It did not launch on any other consoles (more on that in a second.)
The game is developed by the 5-person independent-game-studio named Digital Cybercherries. Hypercharge was in early access starting in 2017. The full 1.0 launch was in 2020 and the initial post-EA sales were strong. If you look at the following graph of reviews over time, the first big spike was the 1.0 launch. Sales continued on for a little while as they did typical post launch marketing. They ran a Daily Deal etc…
However you start to see a consistent uptick in sales in April (sales and reviews correspond strongly in the following graph).
That uptick in sales corresponds to Joe’s experimentation and success with the Twitter algorithm. He really figured something out.
This blog post is the story of Hypercharge, a handful of gifs, and Joe Henson, one of the most brilliant Twitter marketers that you have never heard about.
Wait! I thought Twitter sucked?
It did. Well, the way we video game developers have been using it has sucked. Here is what Joe figured out … you know how everyone complains about how Twitter keeps showing tweets from people you don’t follow. Here is one typical Twitter complainer:
Well, that is the secret. To get new people to hear about your game, you need to appear on the feed of people who don’t follow you.
Joe hacked this system by inserting himself and his game into any trending topic that is even slightly related. It sounds so stupidly simple, but it is very effective.
First, Joe never schedules his tweets! Who knows what is going to be trending? Instead, every morning he gets up really early, looks at what is trending and tries to think of ways that he can mention his game and the trending topic in the same tweet.
The “What’s happening” section that is on the right side of the desktop version of Twitter is where you can see the trending topics. Then if anyone clicks one of the “What’s happening” links they will see all the tweets related to that topic. If you get just enough extra engagement you will appear at the top of the list of trending tweets. You don’t even need to use a hashtag. The Twitter algorithm just looks for the phrase when considering whether you tweet is part of the trending topic.
One day he saw that the phrase “Twitch Streamers” was trending so he composed the following tweet.
By using the exact phrase that was trending, his tweet was caught up in the algorithm and Twitter started showing it to strangers.
In September last year, Instagram crashed and the hashtag #instagramdown was trending. So Joe came up with this tweet
Toys R Us was trending and Joe’s game is all about toys fighting in a toy store. So he wrote a tweet addressing this topic.
If you just browse the Hypercharge twitter account‘s Tweets & Replies you will see it is an endless barrage of Joe jumping on one random gaming trend or another. They don’t always catch fire but it doesn’t matter, he keeps at it. As you can see from this exchange other Twitter users are catching on that Joe is everywhere:
In many of the tweets I am going to link to, you will notice the same GIFs are used over and over again. Nobody complains because he is targeting people checking the trends who have never heard of his game before. Joe has tested lots of gifs and he only uses the gifs that have been proven to engage with people.
Also notice he doesn’t use that typical too-cool-for-school twitter sarcasm, he doesn’t use memes, he doesn’t even bother with #screenshotsaturday and #wishlistwednesday (they never trend). He is just… everywhere… mentioning today’s trend and reminding you to check out Hypercharge.
So that is core to this strategy. You are basically crashing whatever Twitter’s biggest cocktail party is at the moment and quickly turning the conversation into something all about you in the nicest, friendliest way possible.
Do this enough and a breakthrough could eventually happen. This effort is what led to the moment, where Joe’s hard work paid off.
Going super-mega-hyper viral
Step 1: Pre-hype
As I mentioned, Hypercharge was released on Switch and PC, but Joe had a hunch it would do well on XBOX too. So in April 2022, he saw Xbox Series S was trending. So he jumped on it and send this twitter
Notice how he explicitly uses the word “Xbox Series S?” It seems weird in a tweet to be hyper focused on the console model, but that is how he got hooked into the trending topic.
The Kotaku article even called out this strange behavior:
“… Regardless of the chronological order of posts—refers solely to the “Xbox Series S.””Ari Notis – Kotaku
This tweet did well but not super viral. Instead, he just gained a ton of followers who were super into Xbox Series S. If you go back through Joe’s April tweets you will see they are slowly getting better and better traction. He was building his following among the Xbox crowd. This was priming him for the next phase….
Step 2: The mega-viral tweet
On July 3rd Joe woke up and saw the word “Xbox” was trending. So he picked out a super-potent GIF that had done well on TikTok earlier and tweet this:
This tweet gained traction immediately and just kept going up and up in the list of trending tweets.
Then by pure dumb luck, eSports influencer Jake Lucky with 279.5K followers saw the tweet and wrote his own tweet about it.
Step 3: The secondary response
After the Jake Lucky tweet, their visibility reached an all new tier. Gaming royalty such as Cory Barlog and Tom Warren retweeted it. In 1 day Joe ended up gaining over 10 million views and over 400k likes. This attention caused other people on other social media sites to repost his tweet to their following. Every single one of the Hypercharge social media accounts doubled in followers that week.
Step 4: Parlay this excitement to the next level
At this point Joe has a lot of attention and famous people sharing his message on Twitter. So he started using this publicity to reach out to the press. He pitched sites like IGN and popular UK gaming blog GamingBible. Many of the sites had given some coverage to Hypercharge in the past. So it wasn’t a cold audience. He just kept in contact with his biggest supporters on the press side. Here is the exact pitch which Joe sent to GamingBible
I hope you are well!
I’m not sure if you have seen, but Hypercharge within the past day has gone insanely viral.
This particular clip gained over 300,000 likes on twitter, and millions of views.
You’ve been great to us in the past and I was wondering if you would like to post the footage on GamingBible? The main reason for going viral is that we announced the game is coming to Xbox, which seems to be our now biggest fan base.
Joe Henson‘s pitch to GamingBible
[Links to all the viral tweets and attention he got, I excluded for brevity]
This is a very important step. The lifeblood of any news site is traffic and clicks. Writers usually only cover games that can earn their site traffic. Basically they only cover the stuff that has already proven to be popular. It sounds like a chicken-and-egg problem. But, Joe’s viral tweet and the celebrity association were proof that Hypercharge was worth writing about.
So GamingBible reposted their trailer and wrote a blog post. You can see it here:
Reposting their trailer got another 10 million views, 250k Likes, 40k comments.
This was also when Kotaku saw the game going viral and covered it.
Then on Instagram an incredibly popular pop-culture aggregator account called House Of Highlights (35.3M followers) created a post with the trailer clip and Joe’s tweet.
That post alone got 716,000 likes on Instagram.
This “Parlay” step is very important. If any social media of yours ever goes viral (on any site such as reddit or youtube or Twitter), use this as proof that your game is interesting and start reaching out to any and all press outlets. Send them a link to all the positive attention your game is earning. Pitch a story about how you are “awe shucks just a teeny tiny dev from a teeny tiny town working out of a van who doesn’t know anything and you are down on your luck, and almost quit but you just won the visibility lottery and your dreams are coming true.”
That story is journalist catnip and they might just do a post about you.
Step 4: Steam response
Despite this being a tweet about Xbox, lots of people who read gaming news also game on Steam. Luckily Joe and his team had a Steam discount available and they quickly discounted Hypercharge by 20% to trigger the 150K wishlists they had built up since their steam page went live in 2017..
The viral tweets + press coverage + the “now on sale” email propelled the game to the Steam ‘Top Sellers” chart. Which gives it even more visibility and put Hypercharge on the main carousel for Steam. No one from the team reached out to Valve to request this visibility, this all happened algorithmically from a flood of traffic.
Here is a screenshot of Hypercharge appearing on the “Top Sellers” tab.
After this whirlwind campaign that involved jumping on a trend, influencing the influencers, contacting the press, scheduling a steam discount, Hypercharge ended up with over 30 Million impressions and 1.3 Milling visits for the month of July.
Note that as exciting as all that social media traffic is, most of the traffic to the Hypercharge Steam page came from Steam itself.
The top traffic sources were:
#1 source was “Main Carousel ” (aka the front page of Steam)
#2 source was “Top Sellers list”
#3 source was “Specials tab” (so front page of Steam still but under the specials section”
Last week I wrote about the middle domino theory. This is basically what happened here. Joe’s viral campaign helped trigger the first domino. The Steam discount helped propel that forward. That triggered the Steam algorithm and the game was put on the front page where it REALLY started selling well.
Here are the final stats for the viral tweet that kicked all this off: 4,000,000 impressions, 25,000 link clicks,
According to Joe, the campaign doubled the amount of sales compared to them leaving their early access launch.
How to replicate this:
- Have a good game, that looks attractive, is in a genre that gamers like to play, and has a good hook that you can latch onto and attract people. A boring game with amateur art will not work here.
- Include your intended “call to action” in your twitter name and add the CTA to your bio. Here is what the twitter handle looks like for Hypercharge. There is no doubt what they want you to do:
- Brainstorm every single topic that might be related to your game. Think of your game’s setting, your art style, the pop-culture that inspired your game or that it is based on. Remember how Joe jumped on the Toys ‘R Us topic because his game is set in a toy store? You need to do the same.
- Once you have your associated topics, start following a bunch of those topics from within Twitter so that you can see them when they start trending:.
- From the twitter desktop click the More tab, then click Settings and Privacy > Privacy and Safety > Content you see.
- Start searching and adding topics related to your game. Filter out stuff that isn’t.
- It takes a while, but curate a feed that will show you trending topics that match with your game and you can jump on.
- Test out a ton of gifs of your game and have a collection that you know gets people interested. You can test these by running ads, testing on Reddit, or just looking back through your Twitter history and seeing which Tweets did the best.
- Every morning, look over at the “What’s Happening” section and click the “Show More” link. Look at the “For You” tab because that has the recommended trends based on the content you told Twitter you were interested in. Also check the “Trending” tab. The more popular the trend, the better your chances at going viral.
- It will take time to practice, and get a big enough following, and just dumb luck. Joe didn’t go super viral right away it took him at least 3 months of concerted effort. If you go back through the Hypercharge history you will see there are mixed results. It doesn’t work every time. You also need to learn what audience likes your game. Not every trending topic is appropriate for your game. You will need to learn what overlaps. Don’t give up..
- If you do go viral think of ways that you can leverage that attention for even more. Reach out to press, see if any influencers engaged with the content and reach out to them to see if they want to play your demo.
- If you can, discount the game. The viral tweet is just the initial spark the true visibility comes when you trigger the Steam algorithm.
So I hope you see, “going viral” Isn’t something that just happens to you out of the blue like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. It is a carefully choreographed dance that looks effortless but requires a lot of behind the scenes effort.
If you are curious how things go viral you should also watch this video about a YouTuber making a viral video