Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Social Proof and Marketing Paintball

A while back, there was a thread on PBN talking about marketing in paintball. In that thread, someone mentioned a couple of books they had read during their marketing education in College and mentioned that these books were worthwhile reading. Since, as a business owner, I could always use more customers - having too many customers is always a better problem than having too few customers-I ordered these books to better educate myself. My mother always told me that one rarely gets dumber from learning. Anyway, one of the books was Robert B. Cialdini's 'Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion' and I have to admit, I found it very interesting. It has been, to my recollection, the only book that I finished reading and then started over again from the beginning to read it a second time. I'm currently about halfway through the second time. One thing I like about this book is that it is not written by a marketer. As a matter of fact, for each "trick" he points out that marketers use, he provides a countermeasure to prevent getting reeled in by the marketers.

Anyway, the book covers a section what the author calls "social proof". In a nutshell, what social proof means is when a person is met with uncertainty about a situation, they often look at others to see what the correct response or action needed to be taken is. Everyone does it at times. Teenagers do it very often for instance because teenagers often feel uncertain. They are constantly looking at others to see what the "correct" way to behave is. But it's not just teenagers, everyone does it. It saves time. Our days are filled with choices that must be made constantly, and social proof is one way to take short cuts so we do not have to deal with weighing the pros and cons of every little choice we need to deal with. Most of the time, following what others are doing, is the proper choice. Sometimes it's not; the Jonestown massacre (suicides) would be a very good example of when it may not be the right choice. But that's not what I want to talk about. This is a blog about paintball, after all.

Long before I read this book, I was well aware that paintball has always been heavily influenced by word of mouth. I think anyone involved with paintball for any length of time is aware of this. I've also always said that word of mouth can work for you and against you. Basically if people feel they have received good value (the entertainment was more than the cost), it will work positively. If however, people feel they didn't get good value (the entertainment was not worth the cost), it will work negatively.

Word of mouth, is basically the concept of "social proof". Those that know nothing or very little about paintball, will be influenced by those that have experienced paintball firsthand. Sometimes it doesn't even need to be firsthand. If Johnny's cousin's brother-in-law said that playing paintball hurts like hell, that might be enough to keep Johnny from trying to play the game. However, if the cousin's brother-in-law said it's the most fun he's ever had without having to remove his clothes, Johnny might just give it a try. Social proof. My friend says it's OK, so it must be OK.

For many years, paintball had a very high growth rate. This had much to do with word of mouth. People experiencing paintball were having a lot of fun and were telling everyone they ran into about how much fun they had, and next thing you know, those people were giving it a try too. And then those people were out spreading the word, and so on, and so on, and so on... When I did research in 2000 and 2001 to see if paintball was a viable business to get into, I read that it was the fastest growing extreme sport in North America. This was based on data from a few years prior to that date, but it was still quoted for several years after that. Looking back now, we know that paintball's growth rate went for a nosedive in approximately 2004. We also know that 2004 was in the midst of a very good economic cycle in North America, so the nose dive had absolutely nothing to do with any sort of economic downturn that happened several years later.

Paintball fell out of favour. The negative side of word of mouth had obviously reared its ugly head. Apparently Johnny was no longer hearing about the good value his buddies were getting during their paintball experience. The cost hadn't gone up. If anything, the cost had gone down. Also, Johnny and his buddies were probably employed and making more money than they'd ever made before. So if the cost hadn't gone up, the entertainment (fun) must have gone down. Johnny's buddies weren't coming home after their paintball experience and telling everyone how much fun they were having. Maybe they were telling their buddies how awful their experience was. I'm sure there were varying degrees of positive and negative feelings, but rest assured, the overall trend was that word of mouth had gotten more negative. I'm sure it didn't happen overnight either. I'm sure it was a gradual shift from positive to negative that happened over several years.

So what happened over those years to change people's opinion about paintball? This is where we get the chicken or egg debate happening. Two main things happened over the years prior to 2004, and continued happening for a while after 2004. First, technology advanced to a point where, by most people's standards, extreme amount of paintballs could be shot out of a marker. Secondly, paintball prices decreased to a point where players could afford to buy the paintballs needed so they could be shot out of the newly developed technology. With cheap paintballs and higher technology, it was only natural for the average player to shoot higher volumes to increase their odds during their encounters with other players on the field. But that was, literally, a game changer. The game changed and unless there was some outside intervention, would never again be the same. Word of mouth (social proof) would never again be the same.

Let's look at competitive paintball for a moment. It was always assumed that if competitive paintball was shown on television, that it would become more mainstream; that it would be accepted by more people. Social proof. If people see others doing it, they might be inclined to think that it's an OK thing to try and do themselves. Look at all those people having fun. I think I'll give that a try. There is probably some truth to that, as far as competitive paintball goes. On the other hand, if "regular" people, who know very little about paintball, see competitive paintball on TV, they might get a totally different feeling. These people now see paintball as a very extreme competitive sport. Something that is fun to watch for a while because it's almost absurd to them, but not something they would probably be interested in doing themselves. These people might now have that image in their minds when the topic of paintball arises. In that respect, having competitive paintball on TV, may actually hurt the rest of the paintball world (namely anything that isn't competitive paintball, which we know is the majority of paintball). With the majority of paintball hurt by competitive paintball on TV, I have to wonder how much overall good it serves competitive paintball? It has always been my feeling that the majority of competitive paintball players progressed to competitive paintball from recreational paintball.

It seems to me, that we, as an industry have done a huge disservice to ourselves by first, allowing high technology to be utilized at the local field and secondly, by putting competitive paintball on a pedestal, and trying to portray it as "paintball" in general. Competitive paintball is NOT what the average player wants to play for their first game. That doesn't mean that some of those "average" people might not progress to competitive paintball. We know that some do. But by having changed the game as we have, we don't get to see nearly as many of those average people. Social proof, in the form of word of mouth, is keeping them away.


  1. I will be the first to say that paintball on TV isn't the solution everyone thinks it will be (and we've proven it by putting paintball on TV), but I don't think it's a problem either. Lots of sports are on TV that people play for fun that they would not find fun at all if played the way, and with the people, that play the sport on TV.

    So I don't think televising is a problem. I do agree, however, that first-time players playing a form of paintball that in any way is similar to the way tournaments are played is a huge problem.

  2. Yeah, I probably exaggerated a bit when I said we have done a huge disservice to ourselves. There is quite a bit of recreational paintball exposure on TV these days that can counteract the extreme version people might see. But I don't think it was that way a decade ago. There seemed to be a big push to show competitive paintball and to purposely keep recreational paintball(camo paintball) out of the public eye.

    People DON'T try play paintball for various reasons but the most predominant one, by I believe a wide margin, is the discomfort factor. I myself, many years ago turned down my first two opportunities to play paintball because my friends who invited me gladly showed off their war wounds (bruises). I couldn't imagine that I wanted to put myself in a situation where I would end up with similar wounds. I had never seen paintball on TV at that time, in any format. Had I seen back then, what competitive paintball is like (especially what it's like today), I am quite certain I would have kept turning down invitations to give it a try. I don't think I'm a particularly big chicken. But had I witnessed players on TV getting shot multiple times and associating each one of those hits with the possibility of acquiring a bruise as I had seen on my friends, I'm not sure I would be here years later writing about paintball.

    Having said that, those that are more interested in extreme sports, would be influenced if they witnessed competitive paintball for themselves. That would be typical of the way social proof works. But I still think that for everyone else (those not majorly into extreme sports), competitive paintball on TV probably has more negative influence than positive. And if I'm right, and it's keeping people from trying paintball for the first time, it may have an overall negative affect, even for competitive paintball.

    Now, if professional competitive paintball was shown on TV, but there was enough commentary to let people know that when paintball players first start, they play a much less intense type of paintball, then that would be a different story. BUT...competitive paintball isn't structured that way. The lowest levels still use the same equipment and the amount of paintballs shot (and the amount of times p[layers get shot) isn't grossly different from the pro version (your High School version may be one of the few exceptions), at least not in the eyes of a first timer.