It's been over a week since Gamespot fired Jeff Gerstmann and created the biggest controversy of 2007. I didn't think we'd be able to top Manhunt 2 mess but the termination of one of the industry’s leading journalists has created a firestorm of controversy. Who knew that one of the biggest controversies of 2007 would involve an average game like Kane and Lynch and wouldn't involve Rockstar and/or Jack Thompson?
Now that the dust has cleared it does look like Jeff was fired for reasons other than his review. Unfortunately the damage to Gamespot’s reputation have already been done. Ten years of journalism excellence has been flushed down the toilet and and created huge credibility gap with readers and advertisers.
This damage not only hurts the game from a readership and subscription perspective but what company now wants to advertise with such a tainted brand? I’m already hearing rumors that advertisers are starting to spend their money elsewhere because they don’t want to taint their product by advertising on the site. If that's the case then Gamespot is getting it from both sides.
This raises the question of “How does Gamespot” fix this problem. Unfortunately, there is no easy fix that will reset everything back to normal. They can’t just re-hire Jeff Gerstmann and move on like nothing happened. Here are a steps that Gamespot could take to start re-building their brand and their reputation.
From the reports that have surfaced online there is/was some kind of power struggle going on between the advertising and editorial sides of the house. In order to restore credibility that power struggle needs to disappear and the best way to do it is to get rid of the people who created the situation.
The main person behind that seems to be VP of Games Josh Larson who may have been pushing back on the tone of some of the reviews in order to curry favor with advertisers. Again these are based on reports but if there is anything remotely true to the story than Mr. Larson needs to join Mr. Gerstmann in the unemployment line. I'm not sure if this will help much but it's just the start of the pink slips.
The folks at C|Net may also want to conduct a review of their sales people and determine if any of them needs a permanent vacation as well. By firing these people Gamespot can re-create the feeling that any reason for concern is no longer with the organization. I wouldn’t focus completely on the sales staff and you could use this process as an opportunity to weed out weaker writers on the staff.
Bring in a trusted name from outside the organization
Now that you have cleaned house it’s time to bring in some new credible new blood to help re-establish your credibility with advertisers and readers. Promoting someone from inside the organization doesn’t do you any good and an infusion of new blood is usually a good thing. My short list of candidates would include N’Gai Croal, Stephen Totilo, Christopher Grant, Kyle Oreland, and Brian Crecente but that's by no means a complete list.
All of these writers will need serious convincing to put their reputation on the line for Gamespot and you will probably have to back up the money truck to pull one of these writers out of their current positions. The new blood will also help attract some new readers as well and bringing respect and trust the publication and you can't put a price tag on that.
These writers wouldn’t necessarily have to write reviews but could focus on features and serve as a review ombudsman for the site. I know it’s a bit of a cheesy metaphor but they would essentially act as the canary in the mineshaft for the balance between editorial and sales.
As part of this process you should bring in select subscribers and other gamers to discuss what’s going on at Gamespot and to get their opinions on what’s wrong with the site and how much damage has really been done. Not only do you get good feedback about the current situation but you could also get some new ideas for the site as well.
These sessions will also provide some idea about how much damage has been done to the brand and what you can do to salvage the brand. I’m not saying you need to site around a campfire, sing songs, and hold hands but some face time with your public could generate some good will as well as good ideas, especially if you implement a few of them.
Re-evaluate advertising spots/campaigns
It’s time to re-evaluate the ability for advertisers to buy Gamespot in its entirety. By allowing advertisers to buy so much space on a site you give them the power or the appearance of power over your site and the content within. This is never a good thing and its gotten pretty tacky as well when you go to Gamespot and it has been completely re-skinned for a game,a game company, or something else. Remember when Microsoft bought all the advertising on the PS3 section of the site earlier this year? Sure it was kind of funny but I can’t imagine there were a lot of people at Sony that were happy about.
Maybe it’s time to break the advertising areas into smaller blocks and sell them individually. Sure the sales people are going to have to work harder but it prevents advertisers from having that much power over your content or the appearance of power over your content. It also gives you new mechanisms to cross sell products as well. Maybe you sell ads for Flight Simulator X along with ads for Saitek flight control products. There are other creative options out there as well but giving yourself up whole hog needs to go.
Open up the review process
One thing that came out during the Kane and Lynch discussion was that the reviews on the site go through an editorial review board for tone and content before they make it to the site. While this is probably a good idea it does give the impression that the reviews get watered down a bit. Maybe it’s time to give up this practice and just edit the reviews for grammar and spelling and eliminate the groupthink. If you don’t want to do that then at least let the authors put a few notes into the review explaining some of the things that changed in the review process so that people know what some of the original content was.
Go after previous subscribers
After you’ve made a few changes it’s time to go after those readers who have canceled their memberships over the incident. From reading the Internet message boards it seems like Gamespot hast lost members in droves and if that is true then you need to find a way to get those readers back.
After you’ve made some changes it’s time to offer your former long time subscribers a reason for coming back. You might want to offer a free month of service for every year they were a member or even offer a general free membership for a month or two to win people back and court a new audience.
Like going after the previous subscribers this is something that will have to be done after changes have been made at the site. Changes to the site will need to be outlined in the ad campaign and don’t be afraid to poke a little fun at yourself as well in them. Be humble in your ad campaign but be thorough. I shouldn’t be able to watch G4, ESPN, Fox, or SpikeTV without seeing at least one ad for the website. I shouldn’t be able to watch a sporting event without hearing the words Gamespot mentioned four to five times.
This will be critical in re-building the site and bringing in new blood. Again this isn’t cheap and if a national TV campaign isn’t in the cards I shouldn’t be able to browse a major website without seeing an ad for the site.
While you’re at it you should also reach out to the blogs and other gaming websites and do interviews about the changes and why people should come back to Gamespot. It’s going to be a hard sell but if you want the readers to come back you’re going to have to eat a lot of crow.
If nothing else works then maybe it’s time to scuttle the Gamespot name and move on to something else. Sure the Gamespot brand has a little mojo left in it but if nothing works then maybe it’s time to kill the Gamespot brand and move on to something new.
It’s also to important to remember that for a decade Jeff Gerstmann was one of the faces for the site and while they are separate entities there is still a strong association between the two. Re-branding is expensive and time consuming but it may be the only way to put the scandal behind them and move on. Several major corporations have done this in the past with decent results and while you hate to throw away a decade's worth of brand equity this may be the time to do so.
If you’re wondering why re-hiring Jeff Gerstmann isn’t on the list it’s because that I’m convinced that the Kane and Lynch review wasn’t the reason why he was fired. Either it was really poor timing or the straw the broke the camel’s back. Unfortunately most of the gaming public doesn’t seem to believe that. Right now it’s critical for Gamespot to earn back the trust of its readership and doing so isn’t going to be easy.
I don't know Jeff but as someone who has been fired from a job before I wish you the best of luck and I can tell you it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. You're a pretty smart guy and I'm guessing you'll have your pick of jobs whenever you want a new job. Take your time though and enjoy your time off though.
I don’t know if Gamespot will actually do any of this or not. They could do something I didn’t think of but I don’t think they can sit idly by and hope things just blow over. Their credibility is at an all time low and if they don’t do something soon they may find that it’s cost them their readers and their advertisers.