Are Gaming, Podcasting, and Online Communities Becoming a Goldmine for Decorated Merch?

In 2020 and 2021, as people learned to work and entertain themselves through an unarguably difficult year, the worlds of gaming, podcasting, and other online communities flourished. These groups offered people new homes, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down. McKenzie SewOn is an American decorating shop that’s moving and shaking in these online spaces. One of its biggest clients is a Twitch TV streamer whose channel is among the top 20 on the platform. ‍

“We found an awesome niche by looking at who has a community following and who’s putting out great content. When you’ve got engaged fans and a good community, most of them appreciate a solid decorated-apparel item.”

– Joel Halberg, director of sales at McKenzie SewOn ‍

Our growing passion for online interactivity and community is opening a whole slew of new opportunities for apparel distributors and decorators to sell merch to gaming companies, podcasters, and other online communities. In Halberg’s experience, merch programs are very apparel-heavy, although he also fulfills other products too. “Some awesome programs offer a ‘merch gift’ in exchange for a subscription,” he says. “These programs work great with hard goods like bottles, mugs, keychains, and more. But the stuff that really sells is wearables.”

If your shop is focused on the gaming, podcasting, and YouTubing communities, you’ll want to offer a more end-to-end service that includes:

  • ●      Creating original artwork
  • ●      Sourcing premium garments
  • ●      Fulfilling orders

Decorators are serving these communities on a couple different levels. For example, some internet-based brands offer basic apparel programs with DTG imprints and direct-to-consumer fulfillment.

“Some fans will spend $30 on a T-shirt, while others will only buy a $15 tee with a clever graphic. You need to know the demographics.”

– Joel Halberg, director of sales at McKenzie SewOn

When you’re working with a bigger player, it’s hugely important to match the quality of the product you’re providing with the quality of the client’s brand. “We do a lot of elevated tees and hoodies using BELLA+CANVAS and Next Level blanks,” Halberg says. “We also screen print with water-based designs. While that quality level may not drive an initial purchase as much as creative artwork, it makes a huge difference in residual sales and repeat customers.”‍

Here’s what you need to know to help you tap into these online communities and start creating a new lucrative revenue stream for your shop.

Going ga-ga for gaming

Since before the pandemic, the gaming community has been continuously growing its merch lines. Of course, that’s because online games have been popular for years. But with long commutes to work and lots of activities to do outside the home, many people who might’ve otherwise played games never found the time—that is, not until COVID-19 hit and everyone went into nearly immediate lockdown. Yet, as restrictions lifted with the arrival of vaccinations, those new gamers stuck to their online communities and are now eager to show off their gaming allegiance.

If you don’t think gaming is a huge industry, check out some numbers that’ll change your mind:

●      By the end of 2021, consumers spent $180 billion US on video games.

●      There are approximately 2.75 billion gamers in the world today. That’s about 36% of the planet’s entire population!

●      While the stereotype of the average gamer is a teenage boy hanging out in a darkened basement, the average age of gamers today is 34, and over 45% of them are women.

Additionally, many people are taking gaming’s competitive side to the next level with the creation of e-sports teams and leagues. Globally, these leagues will see approximately $1 billion US spent this year, with steady growth expected in the years to come. One such tournament held in 2019 had a combined prize pool of more than $30 million US.

Another development that added to the appeal of gaming is the advent of Twitch, the live-streaming video platform catering to gamers. On Twitch, a user can stream their gameplay to show off their prowess and present walkthroughs of really complicated games to help people who get stuck. This has spawned a huge number of celebrities in the gaming world, and they’ll need you to produce merch for their fanbases.

Evan Fong, better known as VanossGaming, is a Canadian YouTuber and gamer from Toronto, Ontario. Vanoss uploads not only gaming videos but also animation based on his original artwork. His YouTube channel has 25.6 million subscribers. Vanoss sells merch with his branded logo.

“The fun but sometimes challenging thing with this group is that communication can happen at odd hours,” Halberg says. “If you’re a decorator looking into the streamer community, be open to texts at 1 a.m., when they’re done gaming. That’s when we’ve had some of our more successful conversations.”

What You Can Do:

Distributors and decorators already know so-called real-life sports are huge draws when it comes to merchandise. Now the popularity of gaming and e-sports is creating the same merchandising opportunities with in-demand options like T-shirts, hats, hoodies, and other frequently worn apparel.

Need inspiration? Jinx and Insert Coin are two shops that cater to the gaming consumer by completely focusing their websites on the most popular video games.

Halberg says finding prospects is the hardest part if you’re just breaking in. “Classic prospecting techniques” can work, but you might see lower conversion rates at first than you would with a typical corporate business. “Focus on geographical advantages with the opportunities located near you,” he says. “We’ve had much more success prospecting niche groups that we we’re actually large fans of too. . . . Passion for what they’re doing goes a long way in building trust.”

Artwork’s one of the biggest keys to merch success for gaming communities. “If you tap into why the fans follow the movement and offer a fandom-based graphic style, you’ll be successful,” Halberg says. “For gamers, think rock band poster artwork meets tattoo art with easter eggs hidden inside.”

Popular podcasters equal instant friends’

Like gaming, podcasts have exploded in the last year—recent stats show that there are 2 million podcasting shows. One of the best ways for people to stay in touch with their favourite celebrities and other online personalities has been through podcasts, especially if they have the chance to interact by leaving comments or questions or by calling in. Now after feeling supported by their favourite celebs during 2020, fans want to support them back.

But even podcasters who aren’t bona fide celebrities are finding ways to monetize their hard work. One of those ways? Selling decorated apparel to fans to promote their podcast. Plus, smart podcasters wear their own promo apparel and post photos on their website and social media accounts.

Canadian True Crime is a scripted podcast that covers crimes in Canada. The podcast is produced and narrated by Kristi Lee, an Australian who moved to Canada in 2009. It’s got an Instagram page with 15,400 subscribers.

During the pandemic lockdowns, regular podcasts were great company while people cleaned, worked, and exercised. For those who were already listening to their favourite podcasts, COVID-19 saw an 18% increase in the number of podcasts they had on their regular playlists. Gen Z and Millennials represent the biggest demographic groups who said they listened to more podcasts (31% and 26% respectively).

What You Can Do Today:

The personalities behind our favourite podcasts make them so fun and addictive. This is a great time to reach out to podcasters to help them monetize their e-format with branded merchandise and an online store as just one potential, consistent income stream. Many podcasts already have their own websites to sell products, so that’s an easy fit for you to integrate T-shirts, hoodies, and other items into their online shop.

Also, you should be aware that even more podcasters sell their merchandise through other portals. For example, Netflix has a plan underway to create a portal that’ll sell decorated apparel and merchandise from a variety of popular podcasts. If you’re a distributor or decorator, now’s the time to get in on this phenomenon. It really looks to be taking off!

If you’re looking to get your foot in the door, target start-up podcasters who’re flying solo or have a small team. “The best way to craft a winning program is to be the ‘easy button,’ offering a total package of services,” Halberg says. “Some of the larger podcasts might have more resources and be able to source by themselves from multiple partners, but most of these opportunities want one main decorator contact who can manage the whole program.”

Everyone loves to show off what’s important to them

Finding your tribe these days can require some brainstorming. But when you do find the right match, you’ll tap into loyal buyers who wear their connection and affiliation with communities and causes they embrace. Instagram and Tik Tok host many commnuinites for different fandoms. Some of the most popular are those centred around pop culture fandoms, i.e. television, film, music and books.

A perfect example isperhaps one of the most well-known online communities in which pop culture and nostalgia continues to rule: Twilight fandom. First seen on screen in 2008, the film had already amassed a large fan base with the book series. US store Hot Topic began selling the franchise merch, and quotes from the books and movies on their apparel pieces had fans flocking to the store. The most popular merch pieces were the Team Jacob and Team Edward T-Shirts. Fans were keen on the idea of representing their preferred love interest.

Although Hot Topic no longer sells Twilight merch all these years later, individual printers are selling their designs on their Etsy shops.

Fans can shop merch based on their favourite books, movies, and televisions series, like Harry Potter and represent their favourite Hogwarts house, Schitt’s Creek fans can sport their “Ew, David” T-Shirts and fleece tops, comic book and Marvel fans can purchase apparel with The Avengers designs . . . The list goes on and on!

Lots of people are willing to spend their money on decorated wearable merch, more so than on any other kind. “We found an awesome online niche by looking at who has a community following and who’s putting out great content,” Halberg says. “When you’ve got engaged fans and a good community, most of them appreciate a solid decorated-apparel item.”

These communities are becoming a goldmine of opportunities for distributors and decorators. Merch is driving everything these days, so get out there and make sure you’re getting a piece of the action for your business.