Earlier this year Sony began quietly readying an army of evangelists to take to the front lines of the escalating console wars.
The Experience PlayStation Now program had a "beta test" of sorts earlier this month, with Sony employees well-versed in the ins and outs of the PlayStation Portable and PlayStation 3 setting up temporary shop in a select number of Best Buys across the country.
The idea for the program is fairly simple: Get the PlayStation 3, the PlayStation Portable, into peoples' hands, explain all of the things they can do, and people will buy them.
"This allows real, live passionate people to reach out to consumers," said Kim Nguyen, marketing manager for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 2. "They will answer some basic questions and tell people things about the PlayStation 3 they may not know."
The merchandising representatives will tell people about the PS3's games, but also answer questions about the built-in Blu-ray player, about the hard drive, about going online with the console.
"This is the sort of dialog we want to have with our consumers," Nguyen said. "The root of this program is education. We know people see the PlayStation 3 as a very expensive machine. In order for them to appreciate the value of the PlayStation 3 they need to see all of the benefits."
While both Microsoft and Nintendo have tried their hand at different forms of marketing, this is the first time, Nguyen believes, that a console maker has created a program to talk directly to consumers on such a wide scale.
Sony has experimented with other forms of advertising as well, from the traditional to the viral and all three console makers also have kiosks in stores across the country where potential customers can check out their consoles and the games available on them. But Nguyen said that Sony's kiosks, located in 15,000 stores nationwide, aren't as personal as this new initiative.
"Kiosks are very passive," she said. "No one is engaged with you, there is no dialog, no questions and answers."
Nguyen said the pilot program for the Experience PlayStation Now was held in a handful of Best Buys across the country on a Sunday afternoon.
"We wanted to get out into the market and get our feet wet," she said. "We tested it out in a few stores and are getting feedback. Now we're going to regroup and discuss how it went before we rollout the program for the rest of the year at more retailers."
The marketing team behind the program checked in with the Best Buy locations to see if there was an increase in PlayStation-related sales and how customers responded to the program.
"The initial feedback has been way over expectations," she said.
The next step will be to start rolling it out at other retailers and in other locations, something Sony plans to do very methodically.
"We do plan to grow this program slowly," Nguyen said. "We have to be cautious."
Jesse Divnich, director of analyst services for EEDAR, thinks the idea is a gamble.
"In our industry we don't really see much grassroots marketing," he said. "That has been common with political campaigns or for sampling food in stores, but not in gaming.
"It's going to be tough to predict its success. It's a new venture that comes with a hefty cost."
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