An annual event going back to 2008, the Mario Marathon is an amazing example of building a community through word of mouth, relentless promotion and clever interactions with fans. It’s one of the earliest examples of a gaming marathon benefitting charity, which involves streaming gamers playing the games to a live audience over the course of several days.
The team of Mario Marathon volunteers has done an impressive job growing their community each year – no easy task considering the long downtime between each event. The Mario Marathon has reached over 500,000 gamers to date, and through them raised over $125,000 for Child’s Play.
Following our recent experiment in online charity gaming, we reached out to Mario Marathon co-founder Brian “Shirt Guy” Brinegar to learn more about how it’s done. Read on for his insights on community building and how to motivate members for a common good.
Wavedash: Thanks again for the chat! To start off, are you surprised that charity gaming marathons have caught on to such a degree?
Brian: I was not entirely surprised. Gaming marathons are a fun way to bring the gaming community together to support a cause and they are relatively easy to get started. We’ve also tried to support the community by providing some documentation on how our events have been created.
WD: Are you finding it harder to differentiate yourself from the increased competition? How do you keep potential new viewers from saying “Oh great, another marathon”?
Brian: I always spend an excessive amount of time and money trying to top the previous year. I hope this shows when someone happens across our stream. We try to add a level of interaction and attention to detail that would be hard to establish on the first go around. We also have a huge advantage of being established as one of the early marathon groups which provides some additional access to get the word out.
WD: How did you grow your community of stream-watchers in the early days?
Brian: Initially, we were just very very lucky. At the beginning of the first Mario Marathon we were featured on both Penny-Arcade and Kotaku. This provided us with a ton of traffic. For the second year we weren’t sure
what access we would have to major gaming sites like these, so we pounded the pavement, sending information to every media outlet we could find contact information for. We also try to keep past donors and supporters informed of the annual event via e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.
WD: What are the best fan interaction ideas you use to keep viewers engaged?
Brian: It’s all about constant communication. The Internet provides the opportunity for a vast amount of two-way communication unavailable in any other media. We use channels such as Twitter, Facebook, IRC Chat, Fanart, and Skype to facilitate this communication as well as a way to hold contests and audience challenges. This year we’ve added something we call “React Time” which lets the audience applaud, boo, taunt, and laugh at the team by clicking buttons on our website. A system analyzes these reactions and triggers actual sounds we can hear.
WD: Aside from those who donate loads of money, who are your most valuable viewers/chatters? Are some members better for a healthy broadcast than others?
Brian: Everyone that watches the Mario Marathon is very important. Those ofus who put the event together really are nothing without the people who support what we’re doing. Every person who donates, helps to spread the word, or interacts during the event plays an important part in making it successful. There are also a small number of people who stick around throughout the year, act as moderators, and generally provide feedback and ideas for improving the event. These people really add to Mario Marathon in an unmeasurable way.
WD: What viewer behavior has surprised you the most?
Brian: The fact that viewers show up to watch a few old guys play video games for days on end pretty surprising all on its own. Beyond that I’m surprised by the dedication and support the community provides. Many
people go out of their way to provide support that we could never expect. For example, this year viewers have stepped up and contributed prizes, an amazing T-Shirt design, and what will ultimately be an amazing promotional poster/prize. This kind of support comes from all over the world. Its a surprise to anyone I tell about the event.
WD: What is the optimal time to announce a marathon and start generating buzz, but not fall off people’s radar?
Brian: We’ve announced Mario Marathon about 5-6 months out each year. Since we only hold one real event each year this gives us plenty of time to promote the event. Also, because Child’s Play Charity runs their donation drive in November and December it’s important for us to get on their schedule before they stop updating the site for the year. Keeping the buzz going can be very difficult. We start a media blitz about two weeks prior to the event. This includes press released to print and television, e-mails to gaming sites, etc.
WD: How do you reconnect with viewers from previous marathons? Do you see the same viewers returning year after year, or is it largely fresh faces?
Brian: Yes, there are a lot of names that pop up year after year. We have over 1,100 attendees from previous years signed up to attend via a Facebook event. Of course, there are a ton of new people every year, some stop in for a few minutes, others become a part of the community and stay connected year round.
WD: The “achievements” are great! What benefits have you seen since they were implemented?
Brian: We’ve always had an internal list of promotion “achievements,” which are goals for promoting the event each year. Last year, for Mario Marathon 3, we made this list public in the form of achievements. The thought
was that some of our viewers may have connections or resources we do not have internally. If they are willing to use their connections to help promote the event we want to provide some direction. The achievements also act as a kickback to the various groups that do support us. Having an achievement titled, “Can I has Joystiq?” does a little to show how much we value Joystiq’s support.
WD: Do you have any plans to further “gamify” your event, like you did with achievements?
Brian: Absolutely, I’m very interested in the ability of games to teach and influence people’s actions. For example, I use my Discover Card to buy almost everything because I earn points which I can use to receive “prizes” (cash back bonus rewards). This is a very simple game, but it influences what I do. Some games, like Animal Crossing reward players for returning each day. We try to use these concepts to promote engagement and reward those that participate throughout the event. This year, we’re introducing a feature called “Social Trivia” which lets people all over the world participate in a multi-day trivia contest. Our structure of donations unlocking levels is another game-like element, there are very small measurable and achievable goals that all add up to a huge amount of money for Charity. If we started with a single goal of $125,000 it seems insurmountable. Lastly, we are adding a set of audience participation games, which will let members of the audience actually plan some custom games with the team, right from their web browser. Think 1 vs. 100.
WD: Is a charity gaming marathon a good way for an existing gaming community, website or company to engage with members? Why or why not?
Brian: The internet provides an amazing number of new ways to communicate with lots of people, be it live video, social networking, or a custom online game, all of these things that bring people together are going to engage and likely grow a community. A gaming marathon is a popular way to bring these technologies together, but I believe it’s the massive amount of communication that really engages the members of a community. The one advantage that a charity event provides is a sort of beacon for everyone in the community to point at an say, “Look at this! Look what we were able to accomplish as a community.” I hope that the members of the Mario Marathon community realize how much they have accomplished and how important they are to the process.
WD: Finally, do you have any parting tips on how would-be marathoners can find and grow an audience?
Brian: Just ask. Ask people to share on Facebook, post on message boards, and send out Tweets. This kind of first hand word-of-mouth support can go along way. Of course, the group hosting the marathon needs to do their share of work to make sure the show is something people want to share, but once you’ve got that setup, just ask.
To donate money to Child’s Play through the Mario Marathon, visit their donation page. For more tips on how to run an online charity event, visit the Mario Marathon’s handy how-to guide Notes On Running a Gaming Marathon.
The fourth annual Mario Marathon webcast kicks off on June 24th.