Gary Offutt: master of the e-newsletter

Gary_offutt
Say what you will about billboards, but is there a more vile marketing medium than the e-newsletter? Packed with puffery, these lengthy invasions of your inbox usually survive there only because it’s so hard to unsubscribe from them. But I’ve found proof that they don’t have to suck. The one corporate newsletter that’s allowed past my spam filter is the weekly bulletin from video-game retailer GameStop. It’s informative, brief and, quite often, hilarious. Two months ago, I set out to discover who wrote this anonymous bit of weekly excellence. With some help from Anya Mailandt at GameStop agency The Richards Group, I now bring you the answer. Read on after the jump to learn about this mysterious marketer, see examples of his style, and find tips on how to boost your e-marketing with vintage Shatner and a microkini.

—Posted by David Griner

The author of the weekly newsletter for Texas-based GameStop is a guy
named Gary Offutt. As you’ll see in the Q&A below, he’s a former
journalist and art director who only began tackling the newsletter in
mid-2007. You can subscribe to the newsletter and read Gary’s blog over
on GameStop.com
.

Before I get to my interview with Gary, I wanted to share a few of the gems from the newsletter:

• “When you pre-order Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, we’ll give you a
unique keycode that will allow you to reserve your username early. So
if you want first dibs on ‘CuddlyKitten,’ ‘MacrameKing’ or some other
fear-invoking moniker, now’s your chance.”

• “Team up with your panserbjørne friend and your dæmon to discover the
mysteries of The Golden Compass. A panserbjørne is an armored ice bear,
and a dæmon is a manifestation of a human’s essence. We only mention
them because we want to show that we know the HTML codes for ‘ø’ and
‘æ.’ ”

• (From an item about Crysis) “When you’re called in to recon the
disappearance of a team of scientists on a remote island littered with
North Korean infantry, you’ll have to rely on the power of your
nanosuit, which is not to be confused with a microkini.”

• “So if Sonic can run faster than the speed of sound, and Mario is a
short, chubby plumber, it seems obvious who’s going to win the
100-meter dash in Mario & Sonic: Olympic Games.”

That should give you a feel for the tone of the newsletter, which
always favors the pop-culture zinger over the hard sell. Essentially,
Gary has succeeded in making an e-newsletter that’s so entertaining,
you almost forget that it’s merely a corporate marketing piece. 

So how does he do it? Here are excerpts from our recent Q&A:

  Q: How long have you been writing the e-newsletter? What were you doing before that?
  A: I joined GameStop mid-August of 2007, and I started on the
newsletter shortly after they showed me where the restrooms were. My
resume reads a bit like the script for Little Big Man, starring Dustin
Hoffman. Instead of a having a gunfighter period and a scout period, I
have a newspaper period, a graphic artist period and even a
youth-minister period. I earned a pretty decent living as a graphic
artist for about 15 years. Maybe it was the middle-age crisis talking,
but I decided to dust off the ol’ journalism degree and try writing
again. GameStop was kind enough to give me a shot.

  Q. When you took on the newsletter, were you asked to shoot for a
specific tone, or did GameStop just leave it up to you to keep it
interesting?
  A. Our Vice President of E-Commerce and Direct Marketing John Brittell
and Director of E-Commerce Curt Burgess had a vision for a GameStop
“voice” that was funny, sarcastic and maybe a little edgy at times.
They explained the vision to me when they brought me on, and it’s been
a good fit for all of us. We try to be politely edgy so we don’t offend
anyone.

  Q. Some of your best bits often don’t even describe the game itself. Do
you ever find yourself worrying about that, or do you figure that your
audience can just get the nuts-and-bolts info elsewhere?
  A. Most of our customers are avid gamers who keep up with the latest
releases. We don’t want to bore them by merely cutting and pasting the
game description from the back of the box. We try to give them a reason
to look forward to the newsletter by throwing in a few non-sequiturs.
We always provide links to the game information on our Web site for our
readers who want to learn more about the specifics of a game.

  Q. Have you ever gotten outside feedback about your writing for the newsletter?
  A. We really don’t get that much feedback concerning the newsletter,
but we do get the occasional cancellation notice from an Xbox 360 user
who says we talk about the PS3 too much, or the PS3 user who says we
talk about the Xbox 360 too much. Once I got an e-mail from someone who
said an obscure movie reference I used made him laugh all day every
time he thought about it. That made my day to know that somebody out
there was laughing because of something I wrote.

  Q. How would you describe your goal for each newsletter?
  A. Every time I sit down to write the newsletter, my goal is to make
milk squirt out of somebody’s nose with the least amount of words. We
have a limited amount of space, and once I list when the game is coming
out, which platforms it’s designed for and any special offers, I have
to go straight for the comedic throat as concisely as possible. I try
to think of that one guy who’s bored at work and pulls up our e-mail.
He deserves that we at least try to make him smile.

  Q. What do you think are the biggest challenges of writing something
like the GameStop e-newsletter? Any advice for companies out there that
want their newsletters to not suck?
  A. We end up featuring some of our more popular titles three or four
times in the newsletters. Coming up with that fourth funny thing to say
about a game sometimes requires me to do some research (watch sitcoms)
to trigger the creative juices. The No. 1 rule for writing a newsletter
is to know your audience. Luckily, we have a fun-loving, intelligent
audience, and we can take a few liberties with that. There’s nothing
wrong with tinkering with the formula until you find what works best
for you and your audience.

  Q. Do you have any “finest moments”?
  A. I’m my biggest critic, and I tend to hate everything when I go back
and read it later. However, there are some that still make me
laugh—like saying that we discovered that Tajikistan was a real country
only after we played FIFA Soccer 08, or telling our readers, “We’re
sure that Pony Friends will go over much better than our idea, Pony
Death Match
,” which cracked up my 10-year-old daughter.

I’m also fond of a recent one about NCAA March Madness ’08: “Wouldn’t
it be weird if the real NCAA Basketball Finals turned out exactly the
way you played it in NCAA March Madness ’08? It sounds like a Twilight
Zone
episode. You discover that you can predict the future with your
game console, only to have William Shatner tear the engine off the
plane on your way to Vegas.”

This one strikes me as doubly funny because it has nothing to do with
the game, and any good Twilight Zone fan knows that William Shatner was
a passenger who saw a creature tearing up the engine on his plane in
that classic episode. So it’s random and intentionally incorrect.
That’s the kind of stuff that makes me laugh. Plus, you can’t go wrong
with a Shatner reference. He’s gold.