Rocksmith 2014 uses real guitars.

The original Rocksmith guitar video game sold 1.5 million copies when it debuted in 2011. But for its sequel, Rocksmith 2014, French video game publisher Ubisoft wanted to reach a much larger audience of people who want to learn to play the guitar.

It turned to Nomadic, a digital creative agency that helped with the marketing of Ubisoft’s phenomenally successful Just Dance game series. The work they did together is a textbook case on how to broaden the audience for what could be a narrow-interest entertainment product. The campaign came about by looking at the market in a different way. If the marketers succeed, they’ll convert the market from fans who played Guitar Hero-style games with faux guitars to fans of Rocksmith, which works with real guitars.

The Nomadic team in Scottsdale, Ariz., unearthed a telling statistic: People search the YouTube video site 20 million times a month for the keywords “how to guitar.” That led to a campaign to market Rocksmith 2014 as the “fastest way to learn guitar” and a collection of YouTube videos that showed how real people learned to play the guitar with Rocksmith in just 60 days. Sales for the game, which launched in October, aren’t in yet, but Ubisoft is pleased with the results.

“I can say that what we are doing is working,” said Shane Bierwith, the senior brand manager at Ubisoft, in an interview with GamesBeat. “You can see it from the sentiment on the forums, YouTube, Facebook comments, and other social media. We have done a good job repositioning our brand as the fastest way to learn guitar, and we have shown a video game can serve as an educational device. That was very difficult to do the first time around.”

Bringing in the marketers

Ubisoft got help from a team that included Tim Washburn, the executive creative director at Nomadic; and Dawn Bates, vice president of strategy at Nomadic. They saw the need to evolve Rocksmith from a game (which promised the fantasy of pretending to be a rock star) to a tool that “gamified” the learning of guitar. If it were positioned as an easy learning tool, it could attract people who were intimidated by video games. The development team designed Rocksmith 2014 as a learning tool from the outset.

“The reason we got into Rocksmith to begin with was because, seeing all of these instruments made of plastic being played, and having a few guitar players among us, we were thinking about the power of this,” said Laurent DeToc, the head of Ubisoft North America, in an interview. “What if you could just hook up a real guitar and have people make better use of their time? Not that having fun with a plastic guitar isn’t a good use of your time, but you can make better use of it if you can have a fun product that also leaves you with a real-life benefit. You’ve learned how to play guitar or improved the skills you already have.”

“With the first game, Ubisoft had captured the gamers already. It would continue to market to them, but it needed to go further, moving from gaming into learning,” Bates said.

“They asked us how to market this,” Washburn said in an interview with GamesBeat. “Rocksmith already had the gamers. To expand its reach, it was important to broaden it. We needed to figure out where people were engaging with guitars and how to learn it. We needed somethin

    g more tactical and detailed.”

A new kind of engagement marketing

Ubisoft already knew that it had a good learning tool. An independent national study by Research Strategy Group found that Rocksmith was the “fastest way to learn guitar,” partly because the game tells you what you did wrong in a song and helps you to learn the way you want to learn. One of the reasons for that, Ubisoft believes, is because games can offer “adaptive learning,” where they can test your skill and then adapt the difficulty to fit your proficiency. The study helped legitimize the claims that were previously only qualitative.

Part of the challenge was convincing people that they can learn something from a video game.

“There’s an inherent disconnect between video games and learning,” Bierwith said. “Once you break down the science of it, it makes sense. But these guitar learners are not our core demographic. Our goal was to break the stigma of video games with them. This is a legitimate way to learn guitar.”

One similar success in the market are fitness games such as Nintendo’s Wii Fit fitness game for the Wii console. Ubisoft has had its own success in that market with Your Shape, which uses Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing system to monitor your exercise movements.

Bierwith said that Ubisoft saw parallels in other markets, such as language learning. Rosetta Stone built learning software that made it easier to learn a foreign language. Through clever marketing, it rose to the top of the heap and is now the undisputed leader in recommendations for how to learn a new language, beyond learning it in a classroom.

“We looked at self-improvement products, because that’s what learning guitar is at the end of the day,” Bierwith said.

Of those who played the original Rocksmith game, 95 percent said they learned to play guitar with it, Bates said. Bierwith said that research showed that 12 million people own both electric guitars and game consoles. Ubisoft was only beginning to break into that audience. Guitar teachers are certainly the best way to learn guitar, but they’re expensive and few can afford to go to them every day.

Through Google search analytics, Nomadic found the popularity of guitar searches on YouTube. In that sense, Rocksmith’s primary competition wasn’t paid guitar lessons. It was free content on YouTube, Washburn said.

“That’s intuitive,” he said. “But it was a paradigm shift to think of free content as a real competitor. We realized that free wasn’t going to get them through that window of really learning how to play the guitar. We had to engage people first.”

Rocksmith debuted in time for the holiday season. That was important because it coincided with the time when people had spare moments to learn new things. Searches for guitar lessons spiked four or five times during the holiday season. But by tapping into the learning market, Rocksmith would be able to tap into a perpetual audience. Washburn noted that 2.5 million guitars were sold in the U.S. in 2012. That was an important market of new learners.