63 - Zeena Koda, 2K

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This is a podcast episode titled, 63 - Zeena Koda, 2K. The summary for this episode is: <p>In today’s episode of Earned, we’re joined by our first gaming industry guest: Zeena Koda,<strong> </strong>head of global digital community marketing at gaming powerhouse 2K. With previous experience at renowned companies like Sirius XM Radio, Capitol Records, Atlantic Records, and The North Face, Zeena’s expertise spans far beyond the gaming industry. We learn how this broad career experience has influenced Zeena’s approach to her current role at 2K, and how she familiarizes herself with different online and offline cultures. We then dive into Zeena’s time in the music industry, before unpacking the large-scale impact that TikTok has had on the space. Zeena also discusses the intersection of music and gaming, and shares what attracted her to gaming. Next, we hear which social platforms are most influential in gaming right now, and how 2K chooses which influencers to partner with. To close the show, we learn more about 2K’s NextMakers community, and how Zeena balances her multitude of interests.</p>
Zeena Koda's Career Background
01:15 MIN
The Platforms That 2K Invests in Most
04:12 MIN
How 2K's Platform-First Strategy Helps Them Engage With Different Gaming Communities
05:00 MIN
2K's NextMaker Community
02:33 MIN
2K's Approach to Paid Partnerships With Creators
01:52 MIN

Conor Begley: Our first gaming interview, I've been talking about getting into entertainment forever, inaudible was the first one that pushed us into it. And now that we're with CreatorIQ, we're going to get lots of awesome guests that give us a perspective on the overlap between entertainment, gaming, creators, fashion, beauty, et cetera, it's going to be great. Today's show is awesome, Zeena really dives into it. She's got such a deep background across all these different industries and was a perfect guest for the first one. Remember, if you enjoy today's show, be a friend, tell a friend that is the best way that you can help. Thanks guys, enjoy the show.

Speaker 2: Explore the minds and marketing strategies behind today's winning brands and businesses. Tap into the power of the Creator economy with Earned by CreatorIQ. Here's Conor Begley.

Conor Begley: Hi everyone, welcome to Earned, today I've got Zeena Koda, the global head of community marketing or digital community marketing, which oversees all of creators, social and community, so welcome to the show, Zeena.

Zeena Koda: Thank you, I stay busy.

Conor Begley: And for those that don't know, Zeena is a podcast pro, she's had two of her own podcasts, one that is-

Zeena Koda: Three.

Conor Begley: Three. Oh, I thought inaudible there was only two plus-

Zeena Koda: Actually four, inaudible.

Conor Begley: Oh yeah, I was going to say, how do you classify the Sirius XM kind of air- host? Is that classified in there? So we're in for a good one today.

Zeena Koda: Awesome. Excited to be here.

Conor Begley: Yeah. And for those that don't know you, maybe I'll give a quick intro, a little brag session, because I think we're going to learn a lot today. So like we said, your earliest background, you've had a ton of experiences, whether it was on- air host and DJ at Sirius XM, running the digital strategies for musical artists including Erykah Badu, Kevin Hart, you were the senior director at North Face and I think your boss was on a previous podcast, Steve Lesnard, who was the CMO at North Face, now the CBO at Sephora. You had several podcasts, you're the co- founder of the Asian American Collective, you're a Webby Award judge, and now at 2K, you're leading some of the largest communities, I think in the world, right? So Borderlands on TikTok has almost a half a billion views, 150, 000 members on Discord, 800,000 on Twitch, NBA 2K's got over 2 million followers on TikTok, over 5 million on Instagram. And this number surprised me, 17 billion views on TikTok, which is a shocking number. Obviously, PGA Tour has over 2 billion views on TikTok, the list goes on, right? So you are now leading some of the biggest communities in the world and have possibly lived three lifetimes based on my math, considering all the different things you've done, so excited for today.

Zeena Koda: I don't like to be bored, as you can tell. Yeah, I like to keep it spicy, for sure.

Conor Begley: I can see that. Well, let's start at the top, right? So I think I always like to dive into what makes somebody really special, right? And I think for you, that kind of broad experience that you've had across music, sports, apparel, gaming, each with deep expertise is super unique, right? And so give me the idea of how that broad set of experiences has led to your approach to building digital community today.

Zeena Koda: Yeah, for sure. I mean, there is a point in your career where you think, " Am I good at this?" Right? " Can I do this?"

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: And when people ask me, oh, it's really incredible that you've been able to move different concentrations, go into different fields. And ultimately it's, are you invested in culture? And are you invested in building community?

Conor Begley: Mm- hmm.

Zeena Koda: Whatever the product is, whatever the background is of what you're doing, it really is just investing in culture and community. And for me that's been a really strong part of everything that I've built over the last years. I would say that community comes up, and a reason that I did actually rebrand our function as digital community marketing is because in these days and age there isn't one traditional way that you communicate with people, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: Gone are the days where if you wanted to speak to somebody, you wrote them a letter or you picked up the phone, right? There used to be only two or three ways for you really to communicate, which can be overwhelming at times, right? Because there's always a new platform, there's always a new methodology, there's always a new way to make content. And I think it's been really an interesting journey to learn how to better connect those stories and those products with those communities and those audiences, and for me that's a lifelong quest, right? Every day I want to know what's new, where are people actually building meaningful conversations? Are people using BeReal today? Are they not? What's Gas? Right? There's so many interesting avenues and as well inaudible consumers, especially working in the gaming industry now. And honestly it's been a kind of a red thread throughout my career, right? I have been a cultural marketer, and a community marketer, right? And the way that you build culturally relevant conversations is through that community and actually building authentic and legitimate connections to that community. That's a quest, that's not something that happens overnight. And you're going to make a lot of mistakes, and you're going to learn a lot from it, but I think really being true to that community and remaining authentic is something that really helps me to be purposeful in my work.

Conor Begley: So let's dive deeper into that comment you made there and specifically around culture, right? Because I think if you look at the culture of say NBA 2K versus Borderlands, which is a first- person shooter game or PGA Tour, or frankly the music and all the other categories you've been in, each one of those cultures is deeply different, right? Very different language, very different people, very different views on the world. How do you kind of go into maybe a culture that you don't know particularly well at the beginning and get to know that culture? What's your process look like there?

Zeena Koda: Oh, it is lust for learning, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: I think anybody can relate if you worked at an agency, and I did seven plus years at Cornerstone Agency and The FADER. We had all kinds of clients, right? You would have THQ or a video gaming company come in, you would work with Nike, you would work with a ton of music labels, and then you would have a Broadway play coming in inaudible, right? And tech clients at a budding time of social media, I really cut my teeth on understanding cultural marketing by working at an agency, because you kind of have to understand that you have to live in the grey and love learning and really have a lust for learning, and I really developed that working at that agency. So whenever I'm jumping into a new community and really trying to understand, again the number one quality that I'm looking for and want to evangelize with my teams is that authenticity, right?

Conor Begley: Mm-hmm.

Zeena Koda: Because no matter how much the tech changes, no matter what the medium is, that authenticity and the real conversations that are happening matter to really move the needle forward, no matter what you're trying to do from a cultural marketing perspective, so I go in and I learn.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: Like all good things, we always sort of have to remain students. And any time that you feel complacent or comfortable you know that it's time to really bootstrap and learn a little bit more, right? I try to make it a habit of every Sunday spending three hours of that day either reading or kind of thinking and writing down thoughts on something that I was curious about, right? Do I get to those three hours every time? Sometimes it looks more like an hour of an audiobook, right? inaudible commitment and you know this because it's tough having consistency inaudible family and other things going on in your life, that is the most special time to me. And the most special time is really learning about new communities, thinking about different points of view, storytelling is really ultimately at the heart of everything that really excites me in life. So being able to kind of put myself in somebody else's shoes, maybe it's my musical theater past, my being in a band past, right? Living my art through that kind of medium, it is exciting and I think that it makes strong marketers, right? So in the work that I do with my team, no matter where I'm working, and I've done a lot of this work actually in my time at 2K is really brainstorming and dreaming with the team about, who is that consumer? Who is watching this? Are we getting feedback? And we do an excellent job at feedback loops and understanding what our community is saying, and that's the coolest part to video gaming.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: This is the only entertainment medium that I've ever worked in where people can evangelize their thoughts or point of view on our products and we listen, and it actually makes a difference in the product, that's so unique. inaudible, you can make a crappy movie, right? There's so many things, there's so many entertainment mediums where the output is there, but the fact that games are interactive and that we really consider and care about those things, I think that that is one of the coolest parts of gaming and one of the most exciting things about the industry altogether.

Conor Begley: Yeah, and that becomes a very powerful feedback loop, right? We see it all the time in beauty and fashion as well, where it's you see the community say, " Hey, this is really what we want." Or" This is the feedback we have on this product." You make a change, and it's like, " Oh my God, I feel seen, right? I am helping to build this alongside you." And I think the second thing you talked about in terms of authenticity, right, is yeah, there's 2 billion views, right? Which is an unimaginable number, but realistically behind each one of those is an actual person, right? Behind Discord is a person, this ultimately goes back to people. And each time they interact with your company, you can make that either a really special experience or not a really special experience, and that multiplies out over time. And I think that a big strength of the internet is that I can sit in Lafayette, California and have a real meaningful interaction with somebody that's in another country or another state or is very different than I am, so yeah I love all that.

Zeena Koda: That inaudible of communication, right? It's this global... it makes the world so much bigger and smaller all in one actually. And I think that, that's what's been exciting, especially being around in the inception of social media, right? And seeing it grow and develop into this tool that has become my career and become a life's passion, right? There's so many amazing things that the ability of the internet has given us and I'm blown away every day that we can do this, right? I was watching The Crown actually over the last few days and I was thinking, kind of looking even back into the early nineties, looking at the cell phones and seeing their methods of communication like writing letters, again, we've come so far and the tactics again, just need to continually be reflective of how we continue to grow.

Conor Begley: Yeah, a hundred percent. Well, so before we get in, I want to go deeper into gaming and I want to go into your career a little bit more. But before we do that, I just want to talk briefly about kind of music, right? So you've had a lot of exposure to the music industry, and on this podcast, we haven't had a lot of people with that background, right? So I want to understand it a little bit better, kind of how you think about building community around an artist, around music. How did that work for you historically? How was that different than say, gaming or apparel or any of the other categories you've worked in?

Zeena Koda: Ooh, it's both easier and harder all in one, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: I got into the music industry because I was a musician, I was in a band for 15 years and I was like, " I'm too punk rock, there's no way I'm working a day job." inaudible but obviously we get older, we evolve, touring in a van with a bunch of dudes wasn't necessarily going to be what I'd be doing into my forties for sure. So I had to take a different method there, but I think the music industry, you really cut your teeth on being a reactive marketer in understanding how to fan the flames, right? You will hear that if you worked at a record label at any time in your career, you have heard fan the flames probably 19 billion times in your time there, right? It's a really interesting field to work in for a multitude of reasons, right? There's many, many, many, many stakeholders, right? But ultimately what matters is the relationship between the marketer and the artist, because some artists have an incredible vision, some have none at all.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: So you're kind of... there's really, it's a toss of the dice, right? What you're going to get, so you work really closely with those artists and those managers and you're kind of receiving them at all different levels, right? And the relationships are really the heavy drivers in everything that you do from a marketing standpoint. And working in the digital space of music is really interesting because not only do you have to have the ability to get the idea that you want over the line, you have to have the tightest relationships with all of your partners in both the DSP side, and then also all the social channels, right?

Conor Begley: Mm-hmm.

Zeena Koda: So you got to know your Instagram people, you got to know your Twitter people, if there's something beta, there's some opportunity that's coming up, you have to be able to be at the top of their tongue, right?

Conor Begley: Yep.

Zeena Koda: And if you have an artist that's bubbling up and blows up at any given moment, then everybody wants you.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: So inaudible kind of figure out how to maneuver that as well. There is no template for music marketing, which is super interesting, right? You learn to do everything and anything in order to be innovative and get attention. So when you talk about community building in that space, inherently the artist is the first vehicle for community building and it's like you don't get a product that's... it's a product that speaks.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: It's a product inaudible-

Conor Begley: The product is a person.

Zeena Koda: inaudible change their mind at any given moment, so it kind of has been a great... actually, a few people I know from the music industry have went over to gaming, actually a ton of my old co- workers at Atlantic Records have went into gaming or esports. And it is a really good primer for this world because it's very turnkey and quick, you have to pivot, you got to be super nimble, right? There's so many different ways that you have to show up, that you have to just be ready for whatever's coming down the pipeline, right? But I would say it's not for the faint of heart for sure, you could have the best ideas that just never get over the line. And you could do amazing work that never gets seen because it's not seen by an artist that's actually popping off, so it's a strange place to be for sure but if you are about it, it works. I mean I did it for, again, 15 years and in a lot of ways what we're doing with 2K, especially on the NBA side and developing little activities and it's been an influential piece of the music for a long time. To get a song in NBA 2K has been a huge feather in the cap for a lot of artists for a long time, right? So we're building some pretty strong stuff with our music side and it's part of the cultural piece of what we're doing on the sports side anyway, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: It's always inaudible that, so I enjoy that because it's fun to do a bit of that work too, but not be on the front lines of getting calls from rappers at 3: 00 AM, so inaudible but it's a good primer for literally being able to deal with anything in life and know what it's like to work 24 hours.

Conor Begley: Yeah. It's interesting to think about kind of... because obviously in sports you tend to have this blending of music, athletes, celebrities, right? The whole kind of adage, every athlete wants to be a musician, every musician wants to be an athlete, that kind of thing.

Zeena Koda: Oh inaudible.

Conor Begley: I never thought about the role that being a song on NBA 2K is a huge deal, I had never thought about that interplay between the two of them.

Zeena Koda: It changes a lot of artists' lives actually.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: I worked inaudible when he was still alive and it was a really big deal for him to be part of the NBA 2K soundtrack. So it's kind of funny that come years later and actually be part of the team and really evangelize how important it is on the other side. And we're thinking of different innovative tactics too with the music team on how we can integrate social and community channels to actually be a driver for that, because again, at the end of the day, it's all cultural communication fostered by community, right? So in this funny little diagram it all connects, and it all actually helps us to reach different cultural communities too.

Conor Begley: Totally. And I mean realistically I have to imagine part of... because I think you left music in early 2020, right? When TikTok was starting to take off, but you probably saw it already. We've talked a lot about the role that TikTok has played for musical artists and how basically if you become part of a big trend on TikTok, it similarly can kind of blow up your career. I have to imagine that plays a role as well because NBA 2K has got 17 billion views, right on TikTok, so that's got to be having an impact on artists' lives as well.

Zeena Koda: If you've been keeping a pulse on some of the premiers that we've been doing in game and then evangelizing them on social, you'll see that the last few... actually, even today we had something with inaudible, so there's a lot that we've been doing to slowly integrate that more into our social ecosystem for sure.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: And inaudible actually TikTok completely revolutionized and changed the way that the music industry marketed itself. This is showing my age, I was there at the change of physical product to straight up digital and streaming, which was a very scary inaudible to the music industry, right? Because they were like, " Oh my God, how do we make money? How do we actually monetize all this?"

Conor Begley: Yeah. Well, and their money did go like this for a long time, right? It tanked big time in the early days.

Zeena Koda: Yeah. 2006, 2008, 2009, it was really scary times, right? But I was there for that transition and seeing that kind of change over, you know that the record industry has learned how to pivot into the right digital channels that actually amplify what they need, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: First it's playlisting and then it's if your song's blowing up on TikTok and then TikTok developed their own sound distribution platform, right? And now TikTok is getting into the music game, so it is interesting how TikTok has not only revolutionized the way the industry has worked, but also reprioritized the type of content and the types of ways that artists are creating their marketing plans based off of that. And also the kind of artists that are entering the ecosystem because if they're big on TikTok, there's a potential that they'll be big in streaming. So it's kind of have been funky, I got to say from a personal level, I don't love that aspect of it, because I was a musician, right? And I've seen some good music get ignored because the mass quantity of it is just overwhelming for most people, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah, there's just so much of it. Yeah.

Zeena Koda: So much of it, so funny but from a trends perspective, I'm like, " Man, TikTok has really just... TikTok really changed consumption across the board and a lot of entertainment mediums."

Conor Begley: Yeah. We were doing an event in New York and afterwards the bartender who was there was like, " Hey, I need to talk to you." I was like, " Oh, what's going on?" And he was a musical artist-

Zeena Koda: Of course.

Conor Begley: ...and he is like, " I have to tell you the role that TikTok plays, it's crazy in terms of elevating people's careers, if you can get discovered on that channel."

Zeena Koda: Totally. inaudible that's hard, right? And it's actually being a live performer that's hard because I've seen a lot of artists blow up on TikTok who couldn't actually be an artist.

Conor Begley: Yeah, totally. Totally. So let's talk about gaming a little bit. So this is a relatively recent pivot, and obviously we've talked about the overlap between gaming, music, entertainment, et cetera. But obviously it was a very intentional choice, right? You're coming with a lot of success, you probably had a lot of options. So I'm curious, what made you decide to kind of go into a new avenue, right? And then secondarily, what has been surprising to you as you've kind of inaudible back the onion, right, and learned more about gaming? What was it that was surprising to you that you didn't know kind of coming into it?

Zeena Koda: Hmm, good questions. All right, my decision to go into gaming, I'd always been intrigued by gaming, right?

Conor Begley: Mm- hmm.

Zeena Koda: I'm a casual gamer for sure, my husband a little bit more than me, but when I first got the job, inaudible quite a bit of time on my couch playing Tiny Tina's and trying to conquer Tiny Tina's, but I've always recognized the power of gaming. And even when I was working in digital marketing for the urban artists at Atlantic Records, we would work with Xbox, there were a bunch of different gaming partners, we would chat with 2K at that time about the artists that were being integrated into the soundtracks. So there has always been this really common cultural language between music and anything in lifestyle marketing really with gaming, right? Because gaming is a lifestyle, but also it intersects and crosses the other way too.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: So it always intrigued me and I think the work that I had been doing at The North Face had developed into this interesting digital component where I was outfitting in different games, right? The last two years I think a lot of luxury brands have tried to get into the gaming space and create inaudible and create unique experiences in the gaming space, so being at a clothing brand at the time, I saw us as a great contender for that space as well.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: And there were some interesting games, a little more action sports type games that we were able to kind of get some headwinds with. So doing that, working, been on a Roblox project at the time, I just saw so much potential in cultural marketing within the gaming space, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: And the opportunity with 2K seems extremely interesting to me because I knew the power for music marketing that 2K soundtracks really had for artists. And I just really have respected what the brand has done with itself over the last almost 20 years now. So yeah, I mean there are a lot of gaming companies, but I wanted to be somewhere where there was opportunity to build a different kind of future, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah. Totally.

Zeena Koda: For the way inaudible gaming, the branding of gaming, what's really excited me is a lot of the esports teams and the way that they've been able to 360 brand themselves as well. So this seemed like the right opportunity and what better way to really evangelize that and help connect a lot of the DEI that drives my life and soul than through community, right?

Conor Begley: Mm-hmm.

Zeena Koda: And building, making sure that we built the right team to reflect that community, fostering that community, being able to see where there was opportunity to do more. With our NextMakers program, which is our creator loyalty program, we've done so much in just the quick short four months that I've been here and there's so many great plans for the future just to continue to build it out and be more inclusive, be globally inclusive, which is super different for me. I've worked at global companies, but this company is one of the most genuinely global companies that I've worked inaudible.

Conor Begley: Yeah, absolutely.

Zeena Koda: inaudible we just hired a head of Asia, so there is something to really be said about learning how to expand the world and also broaden and shrink that large digital world, right? There's a lot of principles that are kind of scalable there, so gaming has always been cutting edge, it's the biggest entertainment form out there.

Conor Begley: Yeah. Now people kind of underestimate the amount of time spent, it is just shocking. Yeah.

Zeena Koda: Totally underestimate the power, and with mobile gaming also taking off, it's insane to kind of see the reach that any gaming company could potentially have, so yeah it was just an exciting new frontier, the best marriage of entertainment and tech. And I love out there concepts and out there things, so made a ton of sense for me from a career progression standpoint to invest in 2K, and it really grabbed my eye as a career opportunity. If you talk about some of the most surprising things I found, I don't think surprising would be the word, but just understanding again, just how smart and savvy this community is.

Conor Begley: Yep.

Zeena Koda: And how supportive they also can be, and a lot of the things that we do, we're asking again for feedback, direct content from people, there's obviously a level of honesty that we're going to ask from people, but it's always come back much more respectful and productive than I've thought, right? Unfortunately, in the past gaming has received a stigma that's absolutely untrue, there is a really uplifting community here. And I think social vehicles like TikTok actually help to bring it to a more happy and more positive and fun and interesting place. So those are the kind of opportunities that I lean on and excite me, right? Because I want to really build kind of a different lens and a different voice for gaming that hadn't necessarily been there before. And I'm clearly not the first, inaudible amazing other trailblazers in the DEI and the women's space too, who are bringing, again, just a completely different lens to gaming than had been there in the past. So yeah, there's just endless opportunity and it's super exciting to be here during this time where the sky's kind of the limit.

Conor Begley: Yeah, a hundred percent, I mean I think my sister's a huge gamer, I think that the... it's very underestimated, right? People assume it's kind of a male dominated category and it's really not, right?

Zeena Koda: Right.

Conor Begley: And yeah, no, I love it. And obviously I will profess, I love to play games, watch Twitch all the time, and it's a big part of my life historically, and so it's fun. And I think if you look at creators and influencers very specifically, the kind of three biggest categories are going to be beauty, fashion, and entertainment, right? And within entertainment, I think gaming is the biggest out of that, so I think you're-

Zeena Koda: inaudible for you.

Conor Begley: I know. I think you made a good choice, I think... and obviously it just reflects in the numbers, right? These communities are just massive. How actually... go ahead.

Zeena Koda: I saw actually an interesting stat pretty recently from a TV exec on Twitter. On Twitter, the little nuggets that we found on Twitter, talking about his 19 year old kid and the fact that his 19 year old kid no longer watch... and this is a TV exec, classic TV executive never watched traditional TV. Everything was being streamed on Twitch and all the information that he was finding was literally being ported through Twitch. So hearing that sentence, just kind of looking at the lower end of Gen Z and looking as Alphas kind of creeping up there, right? A lot of this information is completely being integrated in one space, right? So sports, gaming, music, all other cultural conversations are all cropping up in a new form where there is no gatekeeper, right?

Conor Begley: Mm- hmm.

Zeena Koda: The gatekeeper is you and the gatekeeper had traditionally kind of kept conversations very insular to whatever that aim is.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: That's a really exciting prospect, and over the last few months we've done a lot of work on doubling down on NBA's Twitch Channel. I don't know if you've seen, but we're streaming every week and we're starting to really kind of pivot our efforts towards that and continue to lift up our NextMakers, looking to integrate them as hosts. So there's a lot of just really cool avenues that you can take away the traditional thought of the way that things should be and actually port them to a place where you can sculpt what the programming is, right? And the audience sculpts that by being part of that community and also responding back.

Conor Begley: Yeah, a hundred percent. Let's talk a little bit about those platforms for a second. So I'd love to get your perspective on kind of the directions that platforms are heading and just what you see as kind of the biggest platforms, right? Because I think that's what's unique about the gaming industry, is Discord's really big, right? Twitch is really big and it has some play in other categories, but the dominant category for it is gaming. And obviously, but you have the more traditional channels like YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, are still very big communities in gaming. What direction do you see those, which platforms are on the rise? And which ones do you see kind of dropping off more recently?

Zeena Koda: It's pretty clear for me and strategically this is something you'll see obviously with our output, I mean short form content has overtaken. And again, the TikTokification of all of these platforms is pretty evident, right? The fact that everything has become a vertical size or vertical leaning just shows you consumer behavior has changed in that way, right?

Conor Begley: Mm- hmm.

Zeena Koda: For us, there's pretty three solid platforms that we lean on, and that's YouTube, Twitch and TikTok right now, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: With the obvious port over to Reels, YouTube Shorts, and all of those other reforms, right? I just think there are different uses for each, right?

Conor Begley: Mm-hmm.

Zeena Koda: And Discord, obviously, we don't really look at as a social channel, it's more of a community channel, but Discord continues to grow on the low no matter what, right? Discord is kind of the OG gaming communication channel, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: People have been talking in that platform for years at this point. It's been interesting to watch that channel become more commercial in other ways. When you have to inaudible on there, when you have inaudible brands kind of trying to communicate and see what audiences are out there, it's interesting. Do they always win? I don't think so, but I think for gaming, there's such a strong community on Discord. That is where we get to dig into those real, real conversations and it becomes more of a fanatic, not even fanatic, but the most core and interested, let's put it that way audiences are really incubating those conversations there because it's the right place to have it, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: It's a one to one, it's where fan meets fan and we facilitate convo. It's kind of our meeting place, right? I would inaudible with Twitch, really important one, it's a big indicator if people are streaming your games, right? And it's a big deal for people to be able to collaboratively discuss new pieces of the pie, right? And you look at also YouTube even kind of taking streaming on as a little bit more of a serious contender for them, getting more into the gaming space, they recognize the power of streaming, right?

Conor Begley: Mm-hmm.

Zeena Koda: We just had actually inaudible today for Marvel Midnight Sons, which was incredible, right? Kind of talking to developers, looking into the fun... what is the game going to be like, right? What can you do within the game? And I think that, that's the kind of insight that people want to know. So whether or not that's on YouTube or being streamed through Twitch, that's information that is a requirement for us to give to our fans and to our consumers, right? Where is the future going to go? YouTube and TikTok are going to keep going for the streaming, the streaming buck too, even the Twitch is kind of the king there. I would say that TikTok has actually done a really good job of bringing streaming more into their ecosystem. A lot of creators as you know are making money off of TikTok streams. Finding the right and authentic way for that to kind of integrate into what we're doing for each game and each title, I think is really... it's really key to, again, that inaudible around authentic, right? Because if it's thirsty or doesn't feel like the right opportunity, it can come off the wrong way, right? So really looking how we can bring these things together in a way that resonates with the audience and maybe exploring streaming on other platforms that we wouldn't have necessarily utilized or leveraged before will continue to be kind of a quest for us, right? As the functionality increases, the draw to go other places and try other things is going to keep increasing, so those are going to be the ones that we're kind of doubling down on, and I really see helping to move forward what's going on, obviously in the gaming world. And I'll be excited to see what is next, right? What comes next? I don't know, I wish I could look into my crystal ball and tell you, but...

Conor Begley: Totally. I noticed you didn't mention-

Zeena Koda: inaudible.

Conor Begley: I noticed you didn't mention Instagram and that's something that, I mean you still have a fairly large, you got 5 million fans on Instagram for NBA 2K and other channels.

Zeena Koda: Sure.

Conor Begley: How do you think about Instagram versus the other channels? Is that something you're kind of not as investing in as heavily right now?

Zeena Koda: I think Instagram's still important, right?

Conor Begley: Sure.

Zeena Koda: It's still very important, but Instagram reads out a bit more like a leaderboard, right? And it is more of a passive conversation versus a multi- touch point engaged conversation, right?

Conor Begley: Mm-hmm.

Zeena Koda: And it's not enough on Instagram, it's just literally where the UX is at right now. Instagram cannot be understated as an extremely important part of any marketing campaign, right? And especially again, with the TikTokification of the platform and Reels becoming more of that precedence, it's still very important to us, and we think of different ways that we can create a unique experience. So when we're making a video for TikTok, we may make a spinoff that is more tailored for Reels, right?

Conor Begley: Mm- hmm.

Zeena Koda: I think with NBA it's been interesting to kind of see the difference in the fandom on those platforms, right? With Instagram having probably a little bit more of an older audience that wants to see a little bit more polished content, maybe isn't used to some of the cultural conversations you might be seeing on TikTok, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah. Yeah.

Zeena Koda: You do have to have a kind of a different lens, but when I look to the future and what we're trying to do and ways that we're trying to bring in Gen Z and remind them of how important, especially with NBA, this game is the culture, but just how good this game is, right? The platforms that we're looking to really lean on that functionality and that edutainment aspect have to be more of a TikTok or a YouTube in order for us to get that information inaudible directly, because also they're searching for it.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: The searchability piece I think is that red thread there, right?

Conor Begley: Mm- hmm.

Zeena Koda: Instagram, you kind of look for things.

Conor Begley: Or you kind of just follow the people you follow.

Zeena Koda: Yeah or you... it's dog videos, I've gotten my husband in on all the Pomeranian videos, so all he sees is Pomeranian videos now. I feel like the algorithm also has been a bit of a trickster in terms of trying to get new information to new eyeballs. And that's what we're trying to do, right? We're trying to progress, we're trying to move forward. So I think that those platforms like TikTok obviously, being a huge search engine for most people, which is crazy when you think about that.

Conor Begley: It's so weird, right?

Zeena Koda: inaudible as well, being educational platforms are key for us because of those kind of things.

Conor Begley: Yeah, it's interesting to think about, this is kind of outside the bounds of this conversation, but obviously Google is the original search engine, right? But you see people are going direct to Amazon to search there, right? Instead of starting on Google, they're going to TikTok to learn versus going to Google, they're going to YouTube, although I guess that's technically owned by Google.

Zeena Koda: Yeah. Smart move on their behalf inaudible.

Conor Begley: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So you talked a little bit there about kind of specific communities, right? So the community on Instagram is very different than the one on TikTok, is very different than the one on Discord. How do you structure your internal team around that? And obviously you've got the streamer relationships as well. Do you have people focused on specific platforms? Are they focused on specific people or specific communities? How is that structured in terms of managing those relationships, engaging with those communities? Yeah, how do you do that? How do you structure it?

Zeena Koda: Sure. I mean it's all about the North Star, right? That's my branding experience, right? And the North Star really has to be aligning as a team to look at the priority platforms and what we're trying to get after, the demographics and the consumers that we're trying to really bring in, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: We know that we have returning gamers who are engaged, our most core of the community, but we want to expand and obviously with diversity and trying to make sure that we're really reaching a more diverse slate of our community, which are literally the gamers, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: You go younger and younger, there's this stat that's been floating around, I can't remember, it's 2040 or something like that, where most people will be multicultural by then, right?

Conor Begley: Mm- hmm. Totally.

Zeena Koda: One or two different backgrounds, and seeing that shift I think is a really, really important thing for most business folks and marketing folks to really start understanding, right? So when we're talking about Gen Z, Gen Alpha, really beginning to understand how you connect in a meaningful way with those communities are important and where are they? What platforms are they on, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Totally.

Zeena Koda: Platform-first strategy and really drilling down on, again, those specific platforms that we know we need to win on, because not only are they extremely important to our business, but those are where our consumers are, those are where our fans are, right? Those are our people. So the way that I've kind of... the team is, although I bring in under one cohesive digital community marketing umbrella, I think it's really important to look at them in three segments that work together as a tripod, right?

Conor Begley: Mm-hmm.

Zeena Koda: Good together. So you have the community piece, you have the traditional social piece, which just crazy, it's traditional now, creator and influencer team who are also bringing in a completely different community, the outside community into us, right? Our NextMaker program, which again is our creator loyalty program, we have hundreds of NextMakers and even more who have applied to be part of this program, who are literally our go- to when we are building community events and looking to kind of evangelize different functionality within our products and getting first looks at our games, right? Building that sense of community within that actual group as well is also a really big part of what we're doing because that's the true community, that's the IRL community, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: Anybody can get an email that says, "You're a part of our community, here's a code, call it a day." We're building relationships, right? And that's painstaking, that's time, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: That's actually time and commitment to do that, which I think makes NextMakers a very unique kind of offering from others. It's really kind of inaudible to those, the community aspect really includes Discord, our Twitch content, and how we're beginning to think of our streaming content suite, which you know is no small feat and pretty expensive. It's not necessarily like you flick your hands and this could just come together, but again, incorporating those NextMaker communities, right? So that NextMakers we see as the extension of that, that kind of sits between community and influencer and creator, right? Because it's influencers and creators that are creating a community. And then in the influencer and creator side, I've done a lot of this work coming in the last few months. We are expanding far beyond just looking at creators that are gaining centric and that are specific to our games, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: I know from a lifestyle perspective how important it is to really kind of outreach to different groups and affinity groups that makes sense. And also have just a different kind of take, whether it be sports, whether it be cosplay, whether it be just comedy, whether it be a inaudible entertainment. These are the authentic voices and these are the voices that the younger generation and people in general are listening to, right? We're more apt to actually listen to the opinion of somebody we see on TikTok giving a hot take, right, than to watch the evening news and listen to that as truth, right? So just being culturally cognizant of that, I think that it's really important for me to make sure that that part of the team too continues to grow and develop and grow way outside of just what we're doing in gaming. Really cater to those other communities and build more brand awareness for 2K in general, so that that affinity starts from a different place, right? I want anybody from anywhere to find out who we are, and I think that, that's kind of the beauty of working with creators, right? You're working through their lens to evangelize who you are.

Conor Begley: So I think one, I would love to have you talk a little bit more about the kind of NextMakers community, right? For the audience that doesn't know what it is that you're talking about there. And the second thing is, obviously we've mentioned streamers a bit here, I'd love to know kind of the role that they play as well as how you think about kind of organic coverage versus say, paid relationships. Can you talk about those kind of three elements?

Zeena Koda: Yeah. So NextMakers is actually a free program, right?

Conor Begley: Yep.

Zeena Koda: That again, is our loyalty program where the whole incentive is to join to get first looks and to become part of that core community surrounding our game titles, right? There's a bunch of gaming companies and a bunch of honestly other entertainment companies that have similar cultural communities that might be one here, one there, this is combined into one, it's a very heavy vetting process.

Conor Begley: Mm- hmm.

Zeena Koda: We regulate that community, which is really important to us, if anybody gets out of line, they're out. Very safe community from our lens because there is that hand to hand curation, there are built relationships. When we're thinking of our marketing around a specific title, we go straight to the NextMakers as a portion of that output from the creator standpoint, right? And from that community standpoint, so again, this is a two year plus old program that we continue to develop and grow. And what we're trying to do is grow that globally, so including different NextMakers from other communities that are globally representative of what's important to those regions, right?

Conor Begley: Mm- hmm.

Zeena Koda: A lot of this has traditionally been rooted in gaming and what's important to those titles that we've already established year over year, but as we continue to grow, we're looking to bring in more lifestyle spaces, right?

Conor Begley: Yep.

Zeena Koda: And as a global standpoint, hey, what's really big in Spain could be completely different than what's big in North America, right?

Conor Begley: Mm-hmm.

Zeena Koda: And the creators and influencers that resonate there and that we want to continue to work with and leverage over and over and continue to build that relationship with could be completely different. So that's the kind of thing that we're thinking of, we're building a symbiotic relationship because we're also helping to build visibility for them, right? This is not a purely paid activation, this is helping to put them on if we're hosting something, looking at who our NextMaker suite are to potentially be our hosts for those kind of things. So it's really building with that community and helping to uplift them too that I think it makes it absolutely special and just different from other communities.

Conor Begley: A hundred percent.

Zeena Koda: And for streaming... the second question was for streaming.

Conor Begley: Yeah, streaming and paid relationships as well, is that something... do you guys engage in that? How do you think about that? Who do you decide to sponsor? All those kinds of elements.

Zeena Koda: Yeah, of course, and we pay creators, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: We pay the creators that we're working with, and when we take something that's outside of their scope, there isn't a game that they have an affinity for, right? We don't try to do that because again, we want to be with authentic people, we want to be with people who are authentically connected to a title or to something. The lens is always to look through what is the platform first? What platform are we trying to conquer? What platform are we trying to get? What is the reasoning behind why are we trying to be here in a meaningful way? So it always kind of starts through that lens. And when we're working with different streamers of people in that community, again, it really is people who have a strong affinity for the game and have an audience built off of that, or have some kind of other tie in, right? So we don't want to just say, " Okay, give me a slate of 50 women, right?" That's not how we want to do this because we really want to make sure that everything's authentically tied in. And these are people that we can continue to build relationships with over each title inaudible.

Conor Begley: Yeah. I mean those long term relationships are incredibly valuable, right?

Zeena Koda: Critical.

Conor Begley: Yeah. And I think that we... I mean we obviously see it in the data, right? But the brands that do the best really build these communities and then maintain them over time, right? It's not about one off initiatives or one off campaigns or anything like that.

Zeena Koda: And that's exactly what NextMakers is actually, it's really building that community to continue to grow with them and have them bring ideas too to us. We'd love to hear if there's something that you're interested in doing, let's hear it, right? So that's really, again, a special quality because it takes a lot of time and curation to do that, but we're adamant on that and to protect them and to make sure that they feel safe.

Conor Begley: Yeah, a hundred percent. So I want to get into one more kind of question, more career focused, and then we'll do one kind of fun end of show question.

Zeena Koda: Okay.

Conor Begley: So you mentioned it earlier, but you like to keep busy, you got a lot going on. I'd love to know just for those that kind of want to get to where you've gotten to in your career. How do you balance? You've got your day to day job with 2K, but then you've got a lot of other initiatives. You mentioned the Sunday morning kind of activities in terms of getting to know other cultures, but what are some of the other kind of day to day habits you have that allow you to keep so many different things going on?

Zeena Koda: When I was younger I was a mess with scheduling and my personal email. When I was hosting every day on Sirius and going to Cornerstone and FADER all day long, I would never get to scheduling. And I think the biggest lesson that I learned there was to be a meaningfully productive person and be a busy person, you have to schedule and stick to a schedule, you have to schedule lunch-

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: ... you have to schedule production, you haveto schedule rest time, you have to schedule time that's for thinking and for ideating and putting together programming, right? I think scheduling to me has been a saving grace and sticking to that schedule. And then also taking the time to really shut down when I need to shut down and just go away. I'm an only child, I need a lot of alone time to recharge, right? I'm not one of those people who's like, "All right, let's keep going." So respecting that boundary for yourself I think is also really important, right? Because it's really, it's hard when people need a million things of you, to balance them, I think having again, that schedule and specific times where you're looking at specific problems, right? Or things helps me to actually balance that, right? So if I'm doing something with a nonprofit, it's before work or after work, right?

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: And I schedule the time.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: It's the weekends, right? It's other times or holidays or things where I have additional time, I like to keep concentrated in the moment and really have a lot of one- on- one conversations because I think that's really meaningful, especially for my team as I continue to grow them and as they continue to understand what the vision is. I try to have boundaries as much as possible, but it's not always easy.

Conor Begley: It's tough, it's tough.

Zeena Koda: It's not always easy, I joke with a lot of my other friends who are also very multifaceted, I'm like, " I can't lose my marriage, my job, my nonprofit, my community work all in one." So finding that striking balance and just resting when your body's like, " Nope, it's over, you need to sleep, you need to rest." But prioritizing personal relationships and who I am as a person is really important to me because it fills my cup to be the best that I can in all of my work.

Conor Begley: Yeah, a hundred percent. And I think the scheduling is really indicative of just being very intentional with your time, right?

Zeena Koda: Mm- hmm.

Conor Begley: So that's one of the things that I've found to be the most valuable is not only scheduling, but then kind of auditing your schedule and being like, " Is this how I want to be spending my time?" And you can kind of see it and be like, " Hmm, why am I spending so much time on this?" And then you can adjust based on that. So yeah, I love that. All right, let's do one fun end of show question. And this one's a little more serious than our traditional ones, but obviously you started the Everything's Political podcast, you helped co- found the Asian American Collective in 2020, both of those in 2020. And it seems like that was a period of time in your life where you made some pretty serious investments outside of work. Obviously we know what happened in 2020 with the pandemic, but were there any particular moments that you look back on and said, " Hey, these are going to be... I'm going to start investing in things outside of just my direct career that I think are impactful to the broader society?"

Zeena Koda: Totally. I've been a podcaster for a long time, since I was done with Sirius in 2014, right? And then being an on-air host and a video host, I did that work before, it was YouTube friendly, right? You go to the studio, they would do your makeup, you would read the teleprompter, right? Feels like a different life, that kind of work only exists for failed actors these days, inaudible anything for actual broadcast professionals who are working at local news, right? I'll say in 2020, it was an interesting convergence of timing, right? Because I had been thinking about the idea for Asian American Collective for a while and just got lucky enough to meet my partners at the very beginning of 2020. So the timing is just insane over the last year or so when you think about it, right? I had been wanting to create a community for Asian Americans in music when I was in it, right? And really thinking about it and having worked the agency side, record label side, and worked as talent, I realized that it's all one, right? Especially when I was working in urban digital marketing at Atlantic, we worked ton with sports partners, other agencies, we knew was one, but what I recognized is there weren't a lot of other Asians around me and also not a lot of other Asians in power, right? Or that were confident enough to have a voice too. So I really wanted to incubate a community for us to find each other more than anything.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: How can we inaudible? How can we get the younger ones jobs, right? How can we mentor each other peer to peer, right? If you have a question, you want to talk about salaries, you want to do... anything you want to say, there were no close communities or safe communities, I felt at the time for Asian Americans. So beginning this at the top of 2020, I met my two partners, one that works at YouTube and one that works at WME as an agent. We both kind of had the same mission, had known each other from working in the industry and were like, " Let's just build this and see what it is." Right?

Conor Begley: Mm-hmm.

Zeena Koda: And crazy enough, the next year, we had already been building this for an entire year and when the pandemic hit, there was a moment we were like, " Do we still do this thing? We can't even bring people together." But in fact, it actually continued to grow because people were looking for a community digitally, so that worked.

Conor Begley: Yeah.

Zeena Koda: And then obviously getting into Stop Asian Hate, we were a very vocal piece of it, created a petition with change. org, really wanted to help outside of just the Asian American community build awareness for these egregious things that were happening to the community overall and some of the issues that started to bubble up and really was a bit of a racial awakening for us. So it was really powerful to be part of that, but ultimately we had always just been in a community that wanted to help really be great representation of the Asian community to other marginalized communities and other inaudible communities and also just uplift other people. So that was important to me because I hadn't rectified my alignment with my identity. And over the last years I've really begun to really embrace that, had suppressed it for so long, like" Oh yeah, I eat rice. Yeah, whatever." inaudible, I don't have a washing machine, we hand wash everything. And it's these funky things as you grow up as the child of an immigrant parent that you start to really understand. It used to be embarrassing and it became very actually unique and fun to me as I got older, right? And especially as I think of starting a family of my own future, right? And with Everything's Political, I was sitting in the house day in and day out, had been toying with the idea of doing something a little bit more politically driven. I'd been very civically driven, I really care about voting, I think that voting is one of our greatest tools as American citizens, right? Across the board, no matter what you believe, right? Go out and vote, do it, right? And I think that that had started to kind of percolate and I kept thinking about the political nature of life, right? And that no matter what you do for a living, there is a political tie in to what you're doing, right? Kids' schools, political, right? Your family, political, Everything's Political, so I just felt an interesting evolution for me as coming from the music journalism world and being a little bit more of a critical journalist and writing some stuff for Adweek and starting to kind of pivot my thoughts and my creativity into a different space, felt like a cool fun side project.

Conor Begley: Yeah, I know, it's awesome. I love it.

Zeena Koda: inaudible.

Conor Begley: Yeah, I love that your side projects are, for me, crazy time commitments, I am just impressed with all the things that you do. That's super impressive.

Zeena Koda: inaudible one day.

Conor Begley: That's the way to do it. Well, I really appreciate you taking out the time today, Zeena. I know I learned a lot, I'm really excited for where you're going to go in the gaming industry and I am yeah, just so appreciative of you taking the time out.

Zeena Koda: Thank you, Conor, I appreciate your time and talking with me.

Conor Begley: Awesome. All right, bye Zeena.

Zeena Koda: Bye.

Speaker 2: Be a friend, tell a friend and subscribe. Earned by CreatorIQ. CreatorIQ is your all- in- one solution to grow, manage, scale, and measure your influencer marketing program. Ready to unlock the power of the Creator economy? Get started with a demo today at creatoriq. com.


In today’s episode of Earned, we’re joined by our first gaming industry guest: Zeena Koda, head of global digital community marketing at gaming powerhouse 2K. With previous experience at renowned companies like Sirius XM Radio, Capitol Records, Atlantic Records, and The North Face, Zeena’s expertise spans far beyond the gaming industry. We learn how this broad career experience has influenced Zeena’s approach to her current role at 2K, and how she familiarizes herself with different online and offline cultures. We then dive into Zeena’s time in the music industry, before unpacking the large-scale impact that TikTok has had on the space. Zeena also discusses the intersection of music and gaming, and shares what attracted her to gaming. Next, we hear which social platforms are most influential in gaming right now, and how 2K chooses which influencers to partner with. To close the show, we learn more about 2K’s NextMakers community, and how Zeena balances her multitude of interests.