Gabe Alonso: Q&A Session

Q&A Session: Gabe Alonso

The Gabe Alonso Q&A Session is happening on January 8th 2020 at 10:00AM PST (1:00PM EST)

Gabe Alonso is a proven digital strategist, with over a decade of digital, social, and content strategy experience, having honed his skills at top companies like Nike,, 360i, and MTV. His career has spanned multiple marketing disciplines – everything from social media to digital products to CRM. Currently, Gabe works at Activision, where he leads CRM strategy for the Call of Duty franchise. His team provides a more personalized and valuable gamer experience across their owned digital channels – email, SMS, mobile apps, and of in-game messaging. It’s their aspiration to send the right message to the right player in the right place at the right time. If they do that, they’re confident they can influence their community to play more and, ultimately, buy more.

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Gabe Alonso – Transcript

Q&A Session with Gabe Alonso @ Global Director, 1:1 Marketing, Call of Duty

January 8th, 2020

Hi everyone! Super excited to meet and chat with all of you. As David has noted, I’ve worked at MTV, 360i,, Nike, and now Activision, specifically on the Call of Duty franchise. I’ve done everything from social/content strategy to product marketing to membership/loyalty and now CRM. Happy to answer and chat about those topics – and no, I won’t tell you what game is coming out this year.

Do you prefer red or white wine?

Red! I lived in Portland for a while, so the Oregon Pinots are fantastic. My go to is generally a rioja/tempranillo and I love the reds coming out of Baja.

How do you feel about Battlefield being 100x better?


How big of a switch was it going from Apparel/Wellness to Gaming? How much does “fake it til you make it” apply when transitioning across industries or are the concepts similar enough that the transition is smooth?

Ooh great question! So interestingly, the reason I took the CRM/1:1 gig at ATVI was because I wanted to dive more deeply into being able to tell the right story to the right person in the right place at the right time. At Nike, I was doing that a little with the Nike Training Club app and Membership comms, but the data pipeline was still in its infancy. ATVI has allowed me to branch out a bit more here. So yes, the products were different but the approach is the same – give the people what they want when they want it (and maybe before they realize they want it).

As for the Fake it til you make it – Let’s just say I’ve played more hours of Call of Duty in the last two years than I did in the previous decade. I was always an athlete, but learning different audiences at Nike was key – running vs. women vs football etc.

Hi Gabe – thanks so much for being here. From a CRM perspective, what’s your formula to balance responsiveness with the cost of having a larger team and more expensive CRM tools? and if you don’t mind saying, which tools are you using for social and CRM?

Hi! So, while my title is 1:1 marketing, I don’t oversee social and what is typically considered 1:1. We wanted to rebrand 1:1 so that we could attempt to give every player the right message at scale. To do that, we use adobe campaign for email and braze now for push and SMS. For us the balance isn’t so much on responsiveness but on the volume of content needed to fuel relevancy and personalization. TO be honest, i’m not sure I’ve figured it out yet. But I can say I have one of the largest teams (15) and it still feels like we can’t keep up. We still struggle to find the balance between brand right and volume for testing.

Hi, can you tell me more about your role? What does 1:1 Marketing look like at Activision?

Of course! And Hi I oversee a team 15 or so people that drive content across email, SMS, push notifications, and in-game messaging (literally in the video game). Our goal/purpose is provide relevant, personalized experiences at scale for our players to drive the business. Effectively, that means getting players to play more and buy more. Our dream is to be able to send the right message to the right player in the right place at the right time. i’ve also begin dabbling in loyalty and what that means for Call of Duty – it’s not the same for every company, nor does loyalty mean a rewards program. It’s more how we can create great relationships with our players that is valuable for us and them.

Hi Gabe — How do you make the call of when to pivot and when to stay the course with initiatives? We’re having a tough go at my company finding the line here. I realize it is a general question, but what are the primary factors you’re considering or the way in which you approach these decisions?

Hi! Always tie it back to the business goals. What are you ultimately responsible to do? Is it drive revenue? Or engagement? Or something? Always bring it back to the key result you need to achieve. If priorities shift and they aren’t supporting your fulfillment of that result – then, IMHO, those priorities are wrong. That’s generally how we approach it because otherwise we’d be chasing the wind every day. If it doesn’t lead to players playing or buying more, I ask why we’re doing it.

How much does gamification play into user retention?

Gamification is funny. It’s all about behaviors right? if you create the right behaviors with players and they feel those behaviors are valuable to their every day, they’ll come back. Part of that behavior is having a trigger or reward to ensure it happens again and again. Take a look at Power of Habit if you haven’t – it’s a great read.

In all seriousness, what does your job look like? As a “Global Director”, I feel like that’s largely a Project Management/PMP role versus having your hands directly in marketing. What does that look like?

That’s quite an astute statement. I’d say it’s a little of both. I’m actively managing my team to ensure we’re sending campaigns out accordingly as well as providing the reporting/performance broadly to the organization. That’s a lot of managing, etc. But I also try to pitch new things, new ideas (like what would loyalty look like for COD), and ways to bring our digital ecosystem more close together. A lot of my day is spent ensuring my team has the right information to do their job and then communicating up and out as much as possible.

With Call of Duty being arguably the largest FPS franchise in the universe and also having such a regular release cycle, how do you learn from marketing cycles? Do you mostly try new things or just keep trying to refine the process?

Fantastic question. With the way the gaming landscape has changed over the last year or two, our marketing org has realized we can’t just do the same thing over and over again. I think you saw that a bit with how we released Modern Warfare and you’ll see it again for this year. There is a certain power to be on an annualized cycle – you get very good at releasing games. So it becomes a combo of doing what we do well and pushing ourselves to take it up a notch to keep players on their toes and provide the best experience ever. We’re definitely aware that we need to be more disruptive and more always on than ever before. There’s a lot of noise – we need to cut through it.

Interesting background – used to love MTV…seems like you’re well versed in the entertainment side of things. What 3 skills would you say have propelled you to your role today? Whether technical or non-technical, curious to know.

I’ve tried to take bits and pieces of every role into my next role. At MTV, I was in production mgmt so (1) it was all about getting it done – when you’re 5 minutes to live air and Bruno Mars doesn’t have a dressing room, you make him one (yes, that happened). (2) The power of relationships – people say this all the time, but I’ve never gotten a role for which I didn’t have a friend or former colleague recommend me for. Keeping relationships from all my various industries helps as tech continues to bring specialized roles/industries closer together. (3) My desire to do what’s right for the consumer. I love making people feel good/happy/something of value to them. One of my favorite roles was leading community for Oreo at 360i. Every day I managed to make people feel awesome by talking to a cookie. This is what drives me every day – to make peoples lives better in some way shape or form.

Welcome Gabe! Call of Duty has practically dominated the multiplayer world for a decade (maybe more?) now, how do you stay relevant to your customers? Most video games have a “shelf-life” of 3-4 years. Can you elaborate on your customer strategy?

Thank you! So, a lot of this is based on the studios and their approach to the titles each and every year. We are the only annualized title that gives you a different story, a different experience, etc. year after year (FIFA and Madden – you know what you’re getting). So I have to give kudos to the studios for creating products that continually bring innovation to gameplay and performance year in and out. I can’t speak much more to how insights drive the game creation process, as I’m not super privy there. But I do know that our studios keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s cool and upcoming to see how that could fit in the COD universe. From a Marketing POV, we’ve created behavioral segments that have given us more insight into what kind of messaging and topics and content resonate with certain kinds of players. So when we get a new product/game, we can mold messaging to cater to what these segments will like – or avoid sending to certain segments we know won’t move the needle. Hope that helps!

What are the top 3 tools that your team use for tracking, analysing user engagement, traction, retention and why?

We are basically full-stack Adobe for analytics, DMP, campaign (email) – we wanted to create efficiencies by being on the same stack. And we’ve now on-boarded Braze for SMS and Push notifications – their UI is really great and we’re looking forward to creating omni-channel journeys with them.

What differences/challenges do you see in acquisition for a game product versus other consumer/B2C verticals? In a former life I worked PR for an agency and our clients were several AAA studios. They put a heavy weight on our metrics and outcomes to generating new players (single-player games, though)

This is a great question. Acquisition via intent is super important early on – that means driving pre-orders. Which doesn’t really exist in other verticals, because it’s all about the hype (and selling out quickly a la Nike quickstrikes). Once we go into live services, our job is keep players in the game and keep them spending. While yes, we have acquisition efforts happening via paid media and digital retail still, our role on the CRM side is all about engagement/retention. Because we know the longer we keep them playing, the more they buy.

Hi, Gabe. How are you? There is one Affiliate Programm of CoD? If yes, that programm work well for CoD in general? Sales, branding, etc. Thank you

Hi! Doing well thanks. To be honest, I’m not sure how our affiliate program works. Retail is a bit out of my purview. Sorry!

Hey Gabe! Seems like you’ve had your hands in pretty much the full funnel of marketing. From your experience on a whole, what would you say are the most successful methodologies to building communities (online and off)?

Hey there! First and foremost is develop a conversation. People these days want to be a part of it and they want to be heard. So create content that plays to those behaviors, inspire and enable them to create content on your behalf. Be relevant but only in a way that is authentic to your brand (not every company needs to jump on every meme – it generally comes off try-hard). Brands are only as strong as their advocates – if you can turn every person into an advocate of your brand, they’re doing your job for you. Then you can focus on providing value for being a part of the community (read: loyalty). I look at something like @outfitgrid that my friend Dennis Todisco created. He started a community of people who wanted to share what they were wearing in a creative way. He highlights the community every week and also gives them access or opportunities to exclusive products when he can. That community now meets offline IRL to chat about fashion, streetwear, etc. It’s not a massive meet up but they do it. That’s all it takes. Give people a forum to connect on things they love – if that’s your brand even better. And then get outta the way. They’ll do all the heavy lifting for you.

I’m working with a firm that has been burned by a couple CRMs and now I’m introducing another I believe will truly work for them, but I’m trying to figure out how to motivate and help them keep the faith. Have you ever been in that situation?

I think it’s mostly to do with showing why the system will make their jobs easier/better and how it will impact the business. New tools always take a minute to get adopted – hope your customer success team for the system will help get your teams on board! I’ve been through it – it’s not fun, but it always works out with some compromise and patience haha

How much of your messaging segmentation is done from a quant/behavioral perspective vs. a more brand or persona led one?

We’re actively trying to move into a more behavioral segment-driven approach. Up to now it been heavily based on things like ownership/play affinities/skill and general brand/persona. That said, it’s still important to have defined brand/persona that is consistent even if you’re talking to different behavioral segments. You don’t change who you are, just how you speak.

Gabe.. thanks for taking the time out! From a personalization talked about using Adobe & Braze for the toolset… I’m guessing you’re using Adobe’s “realtime CDP” functionality? I’m on a mission to bring similar personalization options to SMBs, but obviously they don’t have the resources to jump on Adobe or some of the other expensive platforms… do you feel that SMBs should be jumping into the personalization deep end as much as they can, or is segmentation of audiences and targeted messaging enough?

Mm I don’t believe we are quite yet (and yes, we do use them for our DMP). But that’s less an issue with them and more an issue of the immense volume of data we get from our game.

As for personalization, I feel like if you can provide some sort of “I know you” moment throughout the journey, that’s enough for most companies. People just want to feel seen. Maybe that’s a ‘Hi Mark” in an email or a welcome back on the website. I think it’s more important for SMBs to understand where their opportunities lie within their segments to maximize revenue. So, yes to your point – targeted messaging and segmentation should be a major focus. Because if you’re sending the right message to the right cohort, even if you’re not calling them out by name, they’re going to feel spoken to because you’re providing them relevancy. Start with relevancy then move into personalization.

What has been the most successful channel for you to engage with players outside of in-game messaging?

So, email for us will always be successful due to our scale and reach. But this past year I’ve been pleasantly surprised with SMS – the CTR and engagement have been higher than I expected. It’s on my to-do list for 2020 to figure out how to grow and maximize that channel. People don’t like just anyone texting them – so if they allow our brand to do it, that’s a huge win.

I read above that you’re running email on a separate platform from sms and push through braze. Would you consider migrating email to braze in the future?

Likely not – the efficiencies that come with Adobe are why we’re on the stack.

How do you prioritize distribution to consoles in terms of power/capability (PS, Xbox) vs. Switch (mass user base / different demographics)?

This is a great question, but a bit outside my purview. Apologies

Thanks everyone for the great questions! I’ve gotta run now, but if you want to connect I’m @gabealonso on Twitter and you can find me on linkedin. Let’s keep the conversations going!

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