Monday, March 12, 2007

Community Management Focus

In my comparatively short span of time spend managing online communities I have noticed that budgeting time performing community management can be summed up into three basic types of activities. To visually represent this, here's a little diagram I whipped up to help represent these areas of focus-

Printed out, I poke a push-pin in where I feel the community focus is, and a second where I feel it should be headed. It has helped my own day-to-day tremendously and serves as a great reminder up on the office wall. What follows is an explanation of the three points of CM focus, Infrastructure, Growth and Maintenance as well as a short breakdown of some of the related activities.

Infrastructure in Community Management is any means by which your message may be conveyed and the refined processes thereof. Infrastructure is the whole of all of the combined methods and systems that permit your communication and influence to travel through your network of contacts and information outlets. These are represented in various mediums, as forums, websites, fansites, IM lists, newsletters, e-mails, in-game chats and more.

In most situations, the Community Manager’s primary pieces of infrastructure will be the Official Website and the Official Forums. In a typical setup, communication flows from developer to player via the website, and from player to developer via the forums, with the Community Manager mediating and facilitating the flow of information.

In essence, community infrastructure is the “population cap” of a given a community. Infrastructure determines the level of organization and order your community possesses as well as the number of individuals and groups it can comfortably accommodate. Being too far under it is never good, as it means the community growth has gone stagnant. Going too far over this imaginary “pop cap” through accelerated growth can be equally detrimental, and can result in a few tricky problems like Community Manager burnout, fan resentment, and poor perception by the gaming media.

Growing the level of infrastructure in a community is as simple as spending the time working building tools and improving relationships with the people involved. Here are a few examples of infrastructure found in common gaming communities-

Official Website
Your official company or game website.

Community Sub-site
A special community specific sub-site, usually containing links to forums, fansites and special downloadables.

A fan or network run site dedicated to news and community for your game.

Official Forums
Message boards which are considered the primary source of community feedback for your game, usually hosted with the official site.

Fansite Forums
Community run and guild forums, usually hosted off of existing fansites.

E-mail List / Newsletter
An extensive listmail that can be used for one-way communication with your players.

Chat rooms set aside on official or fansite servers which can be used to host discussions and developer chats.

Direct Instant Messaging (Yahoo, MSN, ICQ)
Direct line of communication with your evangelists, fansite owners and key player leaders.

Developer Information Pipeline
The process by which you the Community Manager receive aggregate information about the development of your game. A raw source of unfiltered information from the development team, garnered through meetings, company e-mails, casual discussion and task lists.

In-game Tools & Systems
Global broadcast messages, Messages of the Day, patcher notes, built-in news systems, lobbies and general chat fall into this category.

(Online) Community (Relations) Manager/Director
This is the person responsible for representing the developer to the fan base. Responsible for creating and following through on initiatives and using all the resources available to grow, maintain and organize the game’s community. Operates as the primary conduit between developer and player for communication and feedback.

Community Representative
Shares the load with the Community Manager in maintaining the community. Usually specialized to provide developer feedback on the forums.

Forum Administrator/Moderator
Forum admins and mods, either employees or volunteer players. These individuals are responsible for keeping order on the boards and making sure discussion remains civil and focused.

Fansite Owner
Owner of a game or genre-specific website that focuses heavily on your game or a set of features in it. Fansite Owners post news, stories and articles about your game on their site.

Evangelists are the front-line warrior-leaders of your community. Usually early-adopters, fansite contributors or guild leaders, evangelists are the primary opinion makers and tend to maintain large networks of friends and acquaintances that they influence. The evangelist is the primary building block of a strong community.

Growth is the means by which a gaming community increases in number or dedication. Numerical growth is easy to quantify using basic metrics of forum traffic, unique site visits and in-game user polling. Growth in the player base dedication to the game can be a bit more difficult to determine, but nevertheless represents a very important aspect of effective community management. The loyalty your players show to your game correlates directly to how likely they are to recommend it to a friend, and word of mouth recommendations are some of the strongest forces in the gaming market.

Of the three pillars, Growth is perhaps the most difficult to affect. Is there a demand for your game? Does it fill a need? Is it buggy or well polished? Do your marketing guys know what they are doing and if they have enough of a budget to do it well? These are all concerns related to growth that are beyond the control or purview of a Community Manager. The good news is that growth can be prodded in the right directions through targeted community initiatives. This includes contests, fansite promotions, live in-game events, swag strikes, developer chats and anything else that directly engages the community. In addition, direct conversion through clear invitations to notable evangelists in related genres can help get a community starting from scratch off to a great start.

Typically the most influential evangelists in your community will have come from other communities, and early growth is an absolute requisite. As Raph has mentioned, don’t be afraid to steal the community you need! All communities and social structures have come from one or another, born out of the need to share in order to accomplish. What follows are a few examples of actions that can inspire growth in a gaming community-

Screenshot Contest
Offer a small prize to anyone who can capture the greatest looking or funniest screenshot from your game, or even a caption contest for an existing screenshot.

Tournament Competition
Appealing more to the hardcore segment of your community, a tournament of skill can be great fun and can generate a lot of interest.

Fan Art Contest
See who can draw the best or funniest fan art for your title and offer prizes to the winners.

Fan Fiction Contest
Let your players write up their version of events or expand the lore of the game with some fan fiction.

Game Knowledge Contest
Reward knowledge about the game world with a trivia contest.

Target Evangelists: Same Genre
Visit the forums and fansites of games in the same genre as your title, establishing connections with them and networking with their evangelists.

Target Evangelists: Related Genre
Visit the forums and fansites of games in related genres as your title, personally offering an opportunity for evangelists to experience a greater variety.

Incite Topic Discussion
An official thread inciting discussion about a particular topic tends to garner a greater amount of attention. Don’t hesitate to shift focus towards something your dev team might want feedback on – keeping the dialogue fresh is good!

Arrange Fansite/Media Exclusive
Nothing builds fansite love faster than an exclusive interview with a developer. Proactively offer your devs and in-progress concept art and goodies as down-payments on coverage and interest.

Maintenance can be considered the regular daily upkeep required to keep a community intact and functioning without issues or drama. Most methods of maintenance revolve around keeping your community well informed about progress the development team is making, and keeping the channels of communication open and clear. Regular website updates with news items, frequent posting in the forums, patronage to prominent fansites, board moderation, checking up on evangelists and site owners and making sure that feedback gets to the right folks on the development team are all examples of maintenance activities.

Maintenance is the “default” mode Community Managers operates in, as they are tasked with keeping the online community content and informed. Keeping an eye on the level of maintenance in the game’s community is a very important role to consider when building up infrastructure or targeting increased growth. A drop in the maintenance can be a costly one, and difficult to recover from. Managing expectations and perceptions players have of the Community Manager and the community itself takes on an important role in the everyday upkeep. Keeping in constant touch with the community is the best way to build healthy, lasting relationships with your players and also boosts their confidence in having chosen your game to play. Here are a few examples of community maintenance.

Maintenance Actions
Read/Post on the Forums
Pay attention to the active threads in your community and offer your voice where response is needed. You represent the developer’s presence, and keeping involved lets the community know that they are cared about.

Metrics Tacking / Trends Analysis
An arbitrary function at best, metrics tracking can help justify certain actions taken to grow the community, and also display growth trends as well. Tracking referrals can also be useful for identifying isolated pockets of community that might not be receiving as much attention.

IRC / IM Dialogue with Fansite Owners and Community Leads
Being directly available to certain higher-level evangelists and site owners can help when situations arise that need immediate attention. Having these contacts close at hand can help to build strong relationships with them.

Board Moderation
Keeping your forums clean of trolls, griefers, spammers and other nuisances helps to instill a feeling of order necessary for maintaining a vibrant community.Website Updates
The best way to keep your public informed and aware is by presenting information about the latest happenings and news on the official website or community sub-site.

Town Hall-style Chats
Allowing players to ask questions in a town hall style IRC chat can help fans relate to the development team and know first-hand that their concerns are being heard and responded to.

Player Issue Resolution
Filter through the din of player feedback for valid concerns and issues, compile them, and direct them to the appropriate departments in the development team.


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