As an Independent Game Designer & Developer, I understand how easy it is to get lost in today’s crowded online marketplace. In a sea of competitors, how can you make sure your product stands out? The answer may lie more in understanding your customer than in a fancy marketing campaign.

Developing an accurate picture of your ideal customer is more important than ever. Too many small business owners focus on catchall demographics like “18-to-34 year olds” or “stay-at-home moms.” Relying on generalizations like these can be a costly mistake.

Nowadays, knowing the nitty-gritty of your audience is crucial for discovering exactly who you are selling to. This is especially true for small businesses.

One way I’m building an audience for my upcoming game, Sombrero, is by targeting a focused niche market. Here are a few tips I’ve discovered through my journey, both as an independent developer and through my 15 years as an award-winning Art & Creative Director in the advertising industry.

Listen to Your Audience

It’s important to look beyond the numbers. Build a personal connection with the people who may be interested in your game or product. Don’t simply rely on impersonal sales figures from data analysts. Numbers are an excellent starting place, but they can only offer the slimmest outline of your target audience. This data is often skewed to represent a more rigidly defined demographic than your true potential audience.

Appealing to a large audience is a good thing… but it isn’t the only thing. Data that doesn’t accurately reflect the preferences of the relevant portion of a broad demographic can be detrimental to your entire project.

The best way to engage your audience is to speak with them, not just at them. Attend conventions and local events not just as a company representative, but also as an individual. People often find it easier to speak with someone who is roaming a show floor than having a semi-formal conversation with someone who is standing in a booth. By putting yourself on the same level as potential customers, you’re more likely to gain honest feedback and develop a true connection. This, in turn, will help increase sales, as potential customers will feel that they “know” the developers of their products on a more personal level, making them more likely to recommend your products to their friends and family.

Going to events as an attendee can also provide the chance to speak with small businesses that are developing products for the same market. This may present the opportunity for potential partnerships that can benefit all parties through both customer outreach and promotions. In terms of my game Sombrero, which is character-driven, that means crossing over character IP among internal and externally-developed games.

Read What Your Audience Reads

If you’re looking to understand your customer, you’ll need to understand where and how they are getting their information. This means reading the same publications as your audience.

Don’t just read the surface-level outlets designed to appeal to a wide audience. Dig deeper. Find smaller enthusiast websites and publications. This content may have the potential to connect more directly with your audience. One hundred small publications with just a few thousand readers each can represent a higher percentage of potential customers than a single “big” publication with a larger audience. That higher reader base is impressive in terms of numbers, but it won’t necessarily lead to a major upswing in your popularity with relevant, interested users.

Keep it Real

Finally – and this one can be controversial – I advise that you speak your mind. Both current and potential customers have real-life concerns outside of the products your company is developing. As a small business, this presents an opportunity that larger corporations separate themselves from in an effort to eliminate any chance of “bad” publicity: sharing similar real-life concerns with your customers. When you feel that you have something to add to a trending conversation, don’t be afraid to throw your hat into the ring. Part of being relevant is being a part of the action.

Begin a meaningful dialogue with your potential customers via social media and online message boards. To be clear, this isn’t something to fake. If you share similar concerns with a large portion of your customer base, share them through the appropriate social media outlets. Doing so will once again increase the potential for a customer to form a personal connection with you and your business, product and brand in a way that’s often ignored by larger companies: with honesty.

Taking the time to really learn who your potential customers are may seem like a tedious task, but it is worth the effort. Once you can easily and accurately define your potential customers, you’ll be far better equipped to develop the exact game, app or product that they are looking for. If you’re giving your biggest fans exactly what they are looking for, they’ll spread the word. Knowing your fans is the gift that keeps on giving.

Nick Robalik is an independent game developer operating under the company title of PixelMetal, with a goal to make fun, entertaining games with solid gameplay for people of all backgrounds and ages.

After 15 award-winning years in the advertising industry on the creative/visual side of things, Nick started getting back into game development with Sombrero, his first commercial game in 10 years. Advertising work is paying for the development. Please don’t hold that against him.

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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