True story: Two of the greatest actors of the 20th century met for the first time on the set of a movie called "Marathon Man." One day they went to lunch and Dustin Hoffman asked Laurence Olivier: "Why do we do it? What creates this passion we have for acting, for self-expression, for this crazy business of pretending to be people we're not?"
Olivier replied, "Dear boy, it's really quite simple." He leaned forward and said, softly but with intensity: "Look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me, look at me..."
It's a basic fact of human nature that people like - no, people need - to be seen, to be recognized and appreciated by others. For some, it's enough to get a daily kiss from a loved one and a warm "Hi, Joe, how ya doing" from a few close friends, neighbors or well-wishing coworkers. For other people, a spotlight and applause are as necessary as protein and oxygen. (Of course, a few nuts settle for just being stared at, which might explain purple hair, nose rings and tattoos.)
However it plays out, all of us need to be visible to each other in some way. This simple psychological fact has powerful implications for every consumer-facing business. Give customers even a small amount of recognition, and you significantly increase their chances of returning to buy again.
Who doesn't appreciate the waitress remembering your name? Who doesn't like the bartender remembering your favorite drink? Who doesn't like getting frequent flyer rewards, good-customer discounts and gold member perks?
Conversely, customers who receive zero recognition from a business are far less likely to patronize that same business again. Nobody likes to be treated like an ATM, valued only for their money. Nobody likes to be an Invisible Man – unseen, unappreciated, unrewarded.
All too often in the music and games industry, the Invisible Man is the player. You know: the guys and gals who select the music, rack the pool balls, spin the trackball, flip the silver ball or throw the dart ... and pay the bills.
We talk all the time about manufacturers, distributors and operators. We pay a fair amount of attention to locations. But what about players? Do we even know who they are? This industry has, to my knowledge, commissioned only one player demographic study in 25 years (Gallup did it for Atari in 1984).
Yes, I've heard all the arguments why spending money for player surveys is not worth the investment. Maybe so, maybe not. But I'll tell you this: There is no substitute for knowing your customer. Equally or more important: There is no substitute for acknowledging your customer.
The industry's Invisible Man is not entirely without footprints, of course. Players become extremely visible in leagues and tournaments, for example. Few things make players feel more appreciated, and more likely to keep coming back and putting money in the cashbox, than being recognized by teammates; listed on a roster; shown in a photo in a team magazine or on a league website; and receiving a trophy at a local, state or national tournament.
To their credit, the best game designers constantly talk to (and hang out with) players. Whenever they design a game, they're thinking: "As a player, would I enjoy this? Might other players like it?" That's a fine and necessary tactic. But it doesn't make the Invisible Man feel visible.
Good news: This industry's Invisible Man is getting a lot more visible these days with online player forums, player communities, social networks, personal playlists on jukeboxes and the like. But there's more to do. We have more tools than ever to bring the Invisible Man into the spotlight to make him (or her) visible, and to make them feel appreciated, remembered, served, heard, empowered and valued.
Every networked machine is a potential survey-taker and billboard for patrons' views and recognition. Every operator who owns a desktop computer is a potential creator of a local online community ... of players. We have more tools than ever to make players feel - and actually be - part of a community.
In the coming years as industry members ask themselves, "What else can we do to improve business?" one of the follow-up questions should be, "What else can we do to recognize our players, make the Invisible Man visible and increase player loyalty and repeat business?" A great deal is riding on how we answer those questions.