Friday, January 6, 2012

Marketing the American Checker Federation

Dear Checkers Friends,

If organized checkers is to survive, we need to overhaul the ACF's marketing and publicity, both to increase membership/tournament attendance and to improve the visibility and reputation of the game as a whole.  From what I've seen of historical checkers literature, the complaints that "no one takes us seriously" and that "we have to reach out to more players" are present in every generation of players.  Yet we've also managed to survive as an organization for 60+ years, and as an organized game for roughly two centuries.  So the task before us is twofold: identify what has worked consistently, and identify what new ideas or approaches are needed.

Like it or not, the ACF's support base is very conservative, in the sense that the players generally like doing things the way they've "always" been done, whether that means tournament governance or just taking a lucky sock to every Ohio tournament.  That can be frustrating for our second task, even if the proposed changes are seemingly inconsequential, but it can actually be quite valuable for our first task. There's nothing like running things the same way for years on end to subject nearly every element of a given experience (say, making tournament pairings) to intense scrutiny, so even if nothing's really been changed for a decade, those of us who've been around the game for many years can offer very useful analysis of why certain things are done.  Now, I don't think that necessarily takes any individual practices off the table (well, we should probably leave the actual checkers on the table, unless they're my opponent's pieces) in discussions of rule or policy changes, but it should encourage more conscientious discussion about pros and cons.

Our second goal, as I mention above, is to figure out what we need to change or to add, to improve the playing experience and to sustain the game's and the ACF's attractiveness for future generations.  We've made some progress in that area this past year: we now have updated ratings, a social media presence (including our first two webcasts of major events), significant scholastic interest in Missouri and Alabama, a strong group of "new" players from Italy, and wider access to checkers literature.   These accomplishments, and others that I've forgotten, have both shown us how we can potentially use our current resources and underscored certain limitations to those resources.  For instance, according to the Ustream metrics for the Moiseyev-Borghetti match, we had 8272 unique viewers tune in over the course of the match.  Even accounting for some view count inflation (which is inevitable since IP addresses often change), that's an exponentially larger crowd than we've had at any tournament for the past 15 years.  I don't know how many new members signed up for the ACF this past year, but I would be surprised if we managed 1% of that figure.  Lots of people play checkers, and many are even interested enough in playing checkers to improve their skills in it. But if we don't get them in the pews, so to speak, then to be perfectly honest I don't think we'll make it another 20 years, let alone 60. 

So we have to ask ourselves: what exactly does the ACF offer? What, in other words, is the product we're trying to market? Our current ACF Benefits page lists four items: the ACF Bulletin, the right to play in ACF events (a requirement rarely enforced outside the Nationals), an official ACF rating, and the chance to meet people with similar interests.  All these are good benefits, and I think most ACF members genuinely appreciate at least a couple of them.  But we're insiders, and the point of marketing is to make a product visible and attractive to those on the outside.  It's not easy, and it's not cheap-- as any business owner will tell you, publicity is the result of conscious and continual investment, in time and money.  Right now, to the best of my knowledge, we have two active checkers clubs (one in NC and one in TN), two scholastic groups (MO and AL), and about two dozen regular (annual) tournaments.  We also have no checkers columns, no press kits or brochures, no corporate partners or sponsors, no ads on playing sites (and of course, no playing site of our own), very little media coverage, and almost no competition for critical ACF leadership positions.  And perhaps most worrisome of all, the average national or international event receives financial support from well less than 10% of the membership, often resulting in prize payouts that barely cover the winner's travel costs.  These are depressing numbers, but I hope they're also eye-opening numbers.  We simply won't get anywhere relying on the game's natural beauty or the camaraderie of checker players: we must have a message, and we must communicate it well and often.

Now, at this point you may well be expecting me to ask you to invite a friend to a tournament, or track down some players at a local school (fire station, park, retirement home, chess club, etc), or talk to a local business about sponsoring the ACF, or get out your checkbook and donate ten bucks to the 2012 Nationals prize fund.  I hope you will do those things, but I also know you've heard them all before and may well have learned to tune them out.  So let me offer a tougher challenge: I want you to make the American Checker Federation a product worth telling the world about.  I want us to be proud to market our game and our group, because we're proud of what we've created. I want those of you who've left the ACF (or never joined) to get over whatever squabble you had with ornery officers or snail's-pace games or minuscule prize funds, and spend the three dollars a month (less than a gallon of gas!) to join up and make this organization work-- because it works for you, and won't work without you.  I want current members (even the crusty life members like me) to remember why you're here in the first place, and to find at least one "baby step" to help make the ACF into the well-run, professional organization I know it can be.  And most of all, I want you all to be ambassadors for the game: we may only have one Player's Representative, but we can have hundreds of representative players.

This is our game, and our group: it's time we get out of this rut, and hit the ground jumping!