Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Ultimate Guide to Professional Storytelling Part 4: Creating Customer Value in Your Products and Services

What's in a Price?

There are plenty of philosophies on this subject, and I will be expressing my own personal experience and research. I attended the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati, and I have always been fascinated by valuation. What makes a customer spend $300 on a pair of Beats by Dre headphones which cost about $18 to manufacture? The answer is plain and simple in this case. It's marketing. It's the same way Nike can cause a riot every week with new variations of tennis shoes. They have created a collector's market that's about prestige. The product itself isn't really important, but more the image that is created and reinforced by the company and the customers themselves. In many ways these items are unregulated commodities that have high bartering value. More bartering equals less taxable income, so individuals that are locked out of more traditional wealth building still have vehicles they can use to go forward.

Customers also have a bias when a value is put on an event. If it costs you something (even a little) many attitudes are changed. Douglas Cole, a fellow blogger at gamingballistic.blogspot.com, shared with me a story about free martial arts classes that were hosted by his corporate employer. When it was totally free, nobody showed up. When they started charging $5/week, people started participating. Why would that be so? It's because they made a commitment, and if they break that commitment they lose value. It may seem silly, but people will try infinitely harder to make it to an event they've payed for than one that is free. 

Now what about RPG products? Well, I can't think of any time I have ever garnered prestige for owning them. Most classic RPG products have been measured in utility. "This book is a reference for XYZ. Is it worth it to pay $x?" There are tons of products that are just jam packed with character options and objects that have no real context in an adventure. In the Information Age there are countless wikis and websites full of these kinds of references, so I believe the value of that kind of product has dropped significantly.

The most successful products I have seen in recent times are in more of a "content in context" format.

Adventure modules have always been this way. Sometimes you just need a new monster or magic item to fit the feel of your content, so it becomes a mini-reference for that thing. Instead of a class option or description just taken at face value, you have a whole world surrounding it that gives it real depth and life.

So why are there still so many of these kinds of products up on RPG marketplaces for next to nothing? They're easy to make. You can just have a single idea about a class variant, person, or thing, jot it down, format it, and you have a product.

I'm not saying these aren't good places to start from. If you're a budding RPG writer that's just trying to get a feel for how making these items or systems work, go for it! Maybe someone will like it and toss you a few sovereigns for your energy. I would just suggest that making an adventure, from beginning to end, to bring all those things to life holds much more value for a storyteller looking for a base to perform from. 

Tools are cheap. Finished products demand a premium.

Thou Shalt Value Thine Own Work

This is the biggest hurdle I see when it comes to many writers and storytellers is this idea that people will only give their products or services a shot if they charge next to nothing for them.

I believe that this is an attitude that needs to change if people want to be seen as professionals and experts.

When you are able to dedicate your time to your craft, you will most assuredly become better at that craft than those that can only pursue it part time.

It is wonderful to have folks that are not career writers and storytellers that volunteer their time and skills to our creative hobby. However, they are usually experts themselves in other fields and would more than likely be just as interested to be patrons than to be creators if presented with the right opportunity. 

Remember, just because someone does something for "free," it doesn't mean you should too.

Art demands that the artist have their own diverse experiences to draw from, and tangential networking and learning is very important in any creative field. Taking time to learn something new about the real world just enriches things that you can think about and therefore represent in your products or storytelling. Sometimes the value these writers bring is mostly in their creativity that might not have surfaced without their other passions coming first in their lives. Take the gift with gratitude, and continue making wonderful patronized pieces enriched by the community.

Pricing Uncertainty

If you have no idea what your product or service is worth, or you're using it as a sample of your capabilities, Pay What You Want is wonderful. However, if you create something that is a work that can stand on its own as a performance piece, you really need to put a price tag on it. You need to think about both what you require (measured by cents/word) and what the market will bare. You should never price something for less that the time is worth to you, and always saying your time is worth next to nothing is not true. Putting some works out there and estimating from there is probably the best way to go for a self-publishers starting out. For commercial publishers, the cost equation for a digital product is something like this:

w = words
i = illustrations
c = cartography
o = formatting
e = editing
x = payment
z = sales
r = discount rate

Their cost is distributed over the number of copies sold. This is expressed by adding up the cost of all the required tangible elements divided by the total of the integral of an unknown function that would express the product's sales over time which is also discounted over that time period. Time is money, and the longer one of those sales takes to happen, the less valuable that money actually is through lost utility. Game design, playtesting, and other modifications are included in one or more of the other factors. For example, Game design is part of the writing and editing process, but can also spill over into illustration and cartography if maps have to be changed.

This is one of the reasons that many companies are reluctant to produce creative products. There is a huge, unknown risk being taken. Some of that can be mitigated by taking the success of previous products into consideration, but none of that can tell the future on how profitable, if at all, the funding of a new creative project will be.

For performance, I feel that $25/hr is very reasonable. With that your patrons get along with the hours of the actual session is all the time outside the game as well. There is lead-up time (making sure the servers are up and running,) module prep (reading, technical set-up, and interpreting for performance,) and general customer service (being available via e-mail for questions or clarification.) It should be noted that this is for pre-published material. If you were designing adventures from scratch I would believe you would want to negotiate some extra hours of payed prep time to allow for adequate planning outside of just reading and interpreting a published work. These could be converted to new material for sale with a bit of effort, but don't think that means you should discount the creation of things. You have no idea how much, if any, you would ever sell when it comes to that module.

If you do have a successful product from such a creation, do not hesitate to be generous with those that were a part of crafting the narrative. They may not be the "owner" of the work, but you couldn't have done it without them. Reciprocity is wonderful, but you have to put yourself into a position to actually be able to afford generosity.

A Brand, A Brand, My Kingdom for a Brand!

An established brand makes you a safer bet. In products, it's like having a public portfolio where people can go snooping around for reviews of all your other past work. A brand that stands for quality will make it very easy for a previous customer to buy whatever you put out. This may sounds awesome, but really it's a double edged sword.

If you do have a good brand, you'll be held to a very high standard.

A product that doesn't fall in line with brand standards can leave you with horrible backlash. This can be intimidating to some artists, and may end up causing problems with future creations due to immense pressure. Despite this, always create one and make sure you create a feeling of coherence and quality if you want it to add value to your products.

For individuals and services, a brand is all about having a uniform identity. Keeping your social networking branded and easy to follow allows people to get in touch with you much more easily, thereby giving you access to more conversations that hopefully lead to more business and networking opportunities.

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