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Hal Halpin
Joined: 2007-01-17

Not long after the successful merger of the IEMA (the game retail trade org that we ran previously) and the VSDA (a parallel retail group that represented the DVD merchants, we embarked on the launch of the ECA. Over that summer, about a year-and-a-half ago now, we did a lot of homework: forged partnerships, invested in infrastructure, and did focus group testing. We knew that the need for the ECA was significant and that the timing was dead-on, but wanted to make sure that the business model was sound.

What we found wasn't surprising: our target demographic (for those that would quickly find the ECA compelling) would be hard core or early adaptor gamers, toward the higher end of the 18-34 range, and that the value proposition challenge would be a hurdle. In short, that meant that we'd have a long row to hoe when it came to getting the word out, educating Generations X and Y about non-profit membership orgs ('cause, let's face it, how many of them would be familiar with similar groups like AARP or AAA), and then convincing them that for their twenty dollar investment, they'd be getting many times that back in goods and services.

So we embarked on building the business with two models running in tandem: Plan A, as it had come to be known, was the tried and true, long-term, build it and they will come model. Assuming that we'd see membership growth over X number of years at percentage growth per year at Y. Slow and steady.

Plan B was a radical change in the concept of membership org modeling, and I wish I could claim credit for it, but like everything else associated with the ECA, it really is/was a team effort. The idea was to proceed with Plan A, above, but also begin discussing individual membership underwriting with non-endemic corporations. In other words, talk with companies who are vested (or would like to be), but not dependent, in the games space and in empowering and enabling gamers, while tying their brand to that effort and approach them about picking up the tab for membership dues. I discussed it thoroughly with our ad agency's president, a friend and colleague, and another ex-employee and friend who also had non-endemic marketing expertise, and we honed the pitch.

At one point over last winter, we were offered a blank check from one of the major third party publishers... a first for me, and an offer that was both flattering and shocking. After taking a moment to collect myself, I politely declined - knowing that members want an independent organization, not beholden to or dependent upon the trade. On the one hand, they got it. They saw how impactful the ECA could become and wanted to foster that kernel of an idea. On the other, it was tempting from a purely financial perspective - virtually guaranteeing our future, albeit by selling-out the short-term.

Principle won the day. We stuck with Plans A and B and plotted through the spring slowly collecting momentum. We noticed that one change would need to be made: I'd need to be less of an introvert and be more vocal, as every time our PR folks arranged an interview, we'd see a corresponding spike in membership.

We started contacting Fortune 500s that appeared as though they wanted to try getting gamers' attention; folks that were trying in-game advertising, attending consumer events or advertising in the enthusiast media. Those companies span the gamut, from soft drinks to hardware, from financial institutions to fast food, and from auto manufacturers to telecom providers. Slowly, in our spare time, we started leveraging old relationships and working our way through the bureaucratic labyrinth to the decision makers and then to the budget holders, and finally to the implementers.

I realized that we needed an expert, who has those agency and brand relationships, to manage this effort because we found that every single company we talked with said "yes." But getting from the initial green light to a signed contract, with corporations of this size, is a long-term prospect.

I mention all of this here, publicly, for the first time because it's starting to look quite likely that 2008 will see at least one major underwriter implementing the concept (perhaps several), and that will surely change the scope and scale of the business. I'm not sure that it's "news" per se, but it is important strategic information that can and should be shared with our members. It's inspiring, exciting and potentially paradigm changing. But, as I said, these things happen over a long period of time - so this is just an informal update, purely because we feel you should know.

As always, if you have any questions, comments or concerns, please do reply here so that we can address them. And thanks for all of your support and kind words. It is appreciated.


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