What Fortnite Can Teach You About Your Customer

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So, what is Fortnite?

Fortnite is a co-op sandbox survival game developed by Epic Games and People Can Fly and published by Epic Games. The game was released as a paid-for early access title for Microsoft Windows, macOS, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on July 25, 2017.

The word “sandbox” in videogame lexicon means the player can do "whatever they want" in the context of the game – there are few rules about what they can do when. In contrast, something like Pac-man has all sorts of rules and boundaries, the complete opposite of a “sandbox” game.

 In 2018 the game is released for free and begins to break all sorts of records. It breaks a Twitch record first which is a video service similar to YouTube that predominately services the gaming community. The record was broken when the best player on the planet Ninja played the game with Drake, Travis Scott, and Juju Smith. At the time the stream was so big that Epic Games immediately set up a 100-person celebrity Pro-am tournament at E3, the biggest stage for video game companies, as it sets the stage for the next 12 months of gaming.

The next record was broken on YouTube and that stream eclipsed the 600,000 people streaming the Twitch game to the tune of 1.1 million streamers at the same time and a grand total of 42 million unique viewers watched it overall. For some context that is larger than anything on TV sports or otherwise by a factor of 10x…

Let’s talk about traffic for a minute. Traffic occurs when too many people are going in the same direction at the same time. Too many people in your space doing the same thing that it all becomes noise. You can combat that by going a different direction.


Instead of using large marketing campaigns and charging $70 for the game itself. Epic Games the creator of Fortnite sees “free-to-play” as the future of gaming. This idea of giving away the game for free in February of this year scored Fortnite, a free game, $126 million dollars in that month alone.

How do we build loyalty and trust like that? We go back to the marketing funnel. Most brands, even in 2018, spend their time focused on the purchase phase. How can I sell more widgets and the problem with that mentality is eventually you get competition in that space and you would be going head-to-head on price. When your only differentiator is the price you are in a race to the bottom that you might win.

Instead what Fortnite shows you is that you should live here in retention, or what most marketers call advocacy or what Alex Wipplewurth wrote about in 2005 allowing your customer to hijack your brand and have a stake in its success. Advocacy is where the Harry Potter magic happens.


You do that by giving away your best* stuff there is an asterisk there because this doesn’t mean give away things that will damage the bottom line. Instead, it means to think about what brings value to your customer and can, in turn, drive MORE sales and give that to them for free.

For Fortnite they understood that if they could get TONS of people playing and talking about this game they could make money in other ways with in-game purchases, characters skins and things like that.


TED as an organization gives away its best stuff in the form of recorded presentations of the talk but the real magic is getting invited, yes you have to be invited to go to a real TED event and that invite costs you around $6500 for the honor. But by giving away all the content they still preserve the mystique of wanted to be in the audience. Simon Sinek knows this all to well as the idea of “Start With Why” can be understood rather simply in his 18 min TED talk…and yet. He is a New York Times Best Selling author 4 times over. 

Adam Silver the commissioner of the NBA understands this at his core. He knows that the other sports tend to be overly protective of their product and not necessarily "fan friendly." The NBA gives away their best product for free in the form of highlights on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snap Chat. The strategy is “snacks vs. meals” so the fans get all the snacks online that they want to drive them to the meals which are the games in-person. This strategy has paid off as the TV ratings are up, attendance is up four years in a row, and they have an amazing community of 1.4 billion humans around the product.


The biggest movie in the world has done this better than anyone taking 10 years to tell a story. This feat has never been done in cinema and that alone would be something that Marvel could have leaned on – the 18 prior movies to say here, come see our next thing. Instead, they made 5 distinct trailers to attract the superfan, the casual fan, the summer blockbuster goer, and families. Then, in order to double down on that, they built more anticipation by creating a campaign where Thanos (the main bad guy) wrote a letter to the fans asking them NOT to ruin the end of the movie. This tells fans of the franchise that something SO big is going to happen we don’t want it to be ruined for you.

It should come as no surprise that Avengers Infinity War crossed $1 billion in less than 11 days. It should be less of a surprise that Fortnite is currently hosting a Thanos themed game type – free for fans.


For Nike, they knew that their best customers to execute this strategy were the collectors. The people that stood in line to buy exclusive shoes for hours and in some cases, didn’t even get the shoe. So they wanted to build some anticipation and much like Infinity War and Fortnite and deliver on it. They have had an app for sneaker collectors (known as sneakerheads) called SNKRS with no vowels – because, the internet.

The week of the NBA all-star game they were releasing a new version of a shoe from 1974 that was designed this time by rapper Kendrick Lamar. Everyone in the app knew the shoe was coming but Nike geo-fenced the SNKR users in LA and sent them all an address and a time the next day to show up. When they did they found they had arrived at the Nike all-star headquarters (surprise and delight) and each of them was able to buy the Kendrick Lamar shoe. The important part of the anticipation is that you pay it off.


This third lesson is a rather quick one as it centers on the ability to look at the world differently. See things around you and wonder how it can help inform you on how the world works and that understanding can help you understand your customer. You see when going about creating Fortnite some of the influence is pretty clear things like LEGOS, Minecraft, cosplay culture, comic book superheroes, Halo, Dungeons and Dragons, the end game of chess, the movie The Perfect Storm, the A-Team, and on and on. That influence comes from the developers using their experiences in life and bringing them into the work.

But if they had stopped at any point to ask customers what kind of game they should make – people would have said; Call of Duty in the same way we enjoy the apocryphal story that if Henry Ford was asked what people wanted they would have said, “a faster horse.”

Because while everyone is your teacher, not everyone is there to tell you something – they might be there to show you something. Customers tend to skew the truth when asked directly in order to fit with social norms, so asking them instead of using observation and data to learn can be problematic.


Take for example if you wanted to open an ice cream stand and you wanted to serve only flavors people like. If you asked your customers, they would likely answer Mint Chocolate Chip because that is the number one flavor people say they like. But if you were to look in their freezer or follow them around for a summer you would see they eat vanilla as that is the number one selling flavor in America.

Marketing is about what people DO, not what people say they do.


When most people think of Starbucks they think of what? Coffee? But that is not what Starbucks really does because if they did, they wouldn’t be more than a coffee company instead of a perennial brand. A brand that Nestle just gave $7 billion to because they couldn’t get their own coffee brands going and they wanted the lift inside brick and mortar grocery stores. Starbucks is creating a story that goes on forever it may start with occasionally getting coffee inside one of their locations and that becomes buying coffee in a bag from a grocery store. This is how they give their best stuff away because an average bag cost $8 and will make 34 cups of Starbucks coffee which would cost upwards of 10 times that if you were getting it each day in the store.

Once at home in many cases it doesn’t match the experience in the store with a barista so they are building a relationship.


You move from buying occasionally in-store to having a favorite store. One of my favorite Starbucks experience is when I worked with my friend Julian they would have his order ready every day at the time he came in with his name on it ready to go. This is one of their core beliefs, the desire to be the “third place” in your life. That spot between home and work you go to feel comfortable and be inspired. So, when something like what happened in Philly happens it shakes the brand to its core principles and they are working to build back that trust.

Back to Fortnite.

It is easy to think that this is an overnight success that makes millions of dollars because it is part of the zeitgeist or the flavor of the month and yes that flavor may be the future of that industry…and yet.


Fortnite is something they worked on for 7 years. It is something they tinkered with, got feedback, made changes, and iterated for 7 years. Which for me, 7 years is a really long time for an overnight success and here is the thing…they weren’t alone. They have a competitor in a game called Player Unknown Battlegrounds or PUBG. But PUBG wasn’t ready to give away their best stuff…only the mobile version is free. PUBG hasn’t built the community that Fortnite has or invested in the evolution of the product the way Fortnite has and it hasn’t achieved the success that Fortnite has. But it could have.


Modern marketing is not about price it is about patience and empathy and I know better than most that patience is something that can be hard to come by. However if you want to have a long term relationship with your customer you must be willing to engage in that relationship, be willing to give more to that relationship than you might get back, and ultimately understand that like your relationships in your personal life – you will get out of this relationship what you put into it so if you want to give, give, give, create anticipation, learn from them, and play a different longer game…you will win every time. 

Eric HultgrenComment