We have a special episode of Earned today with our first gaming industry guest: Zeena Koda, head of global digital community marketing at gaming powerhouse 2K.
Zeena’s expertise spans far beyond the gaming industry: her previous roles include (but are certainly not limited to) on-air host and DJ for Sirius XM Radio, as well as senior digital marketing director for renowned record labels Capitol Records and Atlantic Records, and top apparel brand The North Face. To top it off, she’s also the host of two podcasts: Everything’s Political and LadyIsh.
To start the episode, we learn how Zeena’s broad career experience has influenced her approach to her current role building digital communities at 2K, and how she familiarizes herself with different cultures. We then dive into Zeena’s experience working in the music industry, before unpacking TikTok’s large-scale impact 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.
The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.
“The way that you build culturally relevant conversations is through community”: Zeena Koda on Investing in Culture and Community
Conor Begley: I always like to dive into what makes somebody really special. I think the broad experience that you've had across music, sports, apparel, gaming, each with deep expertise, is super unique. How has that broad set of experiences influenced your approach to building digital communities today?
Zeena Koda: There is a point in your career where you think, “Am I good at this? Can I do this?" And when people say to me, “It's really incredible that you've been able to move into different concentrations, go into different fields,” ultimately it's like, are you invested in culture, and are you invested in building community?
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 few years. The reason that I did actually rebrand our function as digital community marketing is because in this day and age, there isn't one traditional way that you communicate with people. Gone are the days where if you wanted to speak to somebody, you wrote them a letter or you picked up the phone. There used to be only two or three ways for you to communicate. [Today, it can be] overwhelming at times, because there's always a new platform, there's always a new methodology, there's always a new way to make content. I think it's been a really 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.
Every day I want to know what's new. Where are people actually building meaningful conversations? Are people using BeReal today? Are they not? There are so many interesting avenues, and honestly it's been a kind of a red thread throughout my career: I have been a cultural marketer and a community marketer. 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. 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.
Zeena Koda’s “Lust for Learning” About Digital Cultures Around the World
Conor Begley: So let's dive deeper into that comment you made specifically around culture. 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 industry and all the other categories you've been in, each one of those cultures is deeply different. Very different language, very different people, very different views on the world. How do you go into a culture that you don't know particularly well at the beginning and get to know that culture?
Zeena Koda: It is lust for learning. I think anybody who worked at an agency can relate, and I did seven plus years at Cornerstone Agency in FADER. We had all kinds of clients. 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 come in, and tech clients when social media was first budding. I really cut my teeth on understanding cultural marketing by working at an agency, because you have to understand that you have to live in the gray and love learning and really have a lust for learning.
So whenever I'm jumping into a new community and really trying to understand it, the number one quality that I'm looking for and want to evangelize to my teams is authenticity. Because no matter how much the tech changes, no matter what the medium is, that authenticity and the real conversations that are happening really matter to move the needle forward, no matter what you're trying to do from a cultural marketing perspective. So I go in and I learn, like all good things. We always 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.
I try to make it a habit of spending three hours every Sunday either reading or thinking and writing down thoughts on something that I was curious about. Do I get to those three hours every time? Sometimes it looks more like an hour of an audiobook, right? The most special time to me is really learning about new communities, thinking about different points of view. Storytelling is ultimately at the heart of everything that really excites me in life. So being able to put myself in somebody else's shoes, maybe it's my musical theater past, my being in a band past, living my art through that kind of medium, it is exciting, and I think that it makes strong marketers.
So in the work that I do with my team, no matter where I'm working, I’m 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. That's the coolest part of video gaming. 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. You can make a crappy movie. There are 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.
You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 62 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Gymshark, Gucci, Olaplex, and Instagram, visit our Earned Podcast page.