Back in 2008, I helped put together an article for the Game Developer Magazine about Community Management in the [game development] industry. You can find the published version at the bottom (jump to) or you can read the original answers below (some were shortened or removed since the article had a limit on the word count for the print magazine).
The Community Managers Group
The Community Managers Group (CMG) is a private association comprised of professionals in the gaming industry that manage their respective communities. To learn more about the CMG, please visit our website at www.communitymanagersgroup.com.
- April Burba – Community Manager, NCsoft
- Christian Schuett – Community Managers, Reakktor Media GmbH
- Jonathan Hanna – Producer, Kaneva, Inc.
- Richard Weil – Community Director, Cartoon Network
- Sean Dahlberg – Community Manager, Designer, Stray Bullet Games, LLC
- Victor Wachter – Online Community Manager, Cryptic Studios
What are the top three things a Community Manager is employed to do, in your opinion?
1. Be the liaison between the Dev/Publisher and the Players. This means helping developers and publishers make wise community decisions and being able to tell them if there are problems in a tactful way. The flip side is being able to take information that may be seen as a negative to a player and knowing how to make the best out of it or diffuse it rapidly when reporting it to the players.
2. Encourage and facilitate community between everyone involved in the game. (devs, players, fansites, press, third-party vendors) Help players create their own events, fansites, contests, radio-stations, and wikis. Give them information, swag, and pimp their activities on your site. Attend their events. This gets them involved in your product and creates a sense of ownership and citizenship in your game. This also gets development involved with the playerbase and helps stop the ‘us vs. them’ mentality.
3. Care and feeding of super-users (the players who buy anything/everything associated with your product). Encourage them to become product evangelists by making sure they are fed information, listened to, encouraged and generally feel good feelings about your product.
The Community Team is responsible for player retention, player acquisition, and creating the messaging.
Retention: This is what most Community Teams are most well known for. Whether it be message board posts, news story updates, Q&As, developer chats, helping a player with a problem, etc. the Community Team should always be working to keep players informed, interested, and involved (the three “I”s of Community?).
Keeping the players informed helps them look forward to the future and feel less frustrated when things go awry. Keeping players’ interest is all about giving them reasons to be excited and coming back for more. And the more the players are involved the more sense of ownership they will feel even if they don’t agree with every decision you make. The better a Community Team is at achieving these the more likely players are to stick around.
Acquisition: An often overlooked responsibility for Community Relations is player acquisition. Community Teams are in an excellent position to empower the playerbase to grow the game. Players are passionate about the games they enjoy and they want others to experience the game too. The Community Team should not only foster this, but create ways to facilitate players to be evangelists and spokespeople for the game. Good player retention practices can lead to player acquisition opportunities and the Community Team should take advantage of that.
Messaging: Just about everything the company does that affects the game or service needs messaging. When updating the game or changing a service policy there should always be a plan for how to communicate these issues to the community and those beyond the community. It’s important for the Community Team to work with Marketing and PR to create a consistent message and then communicate that message plan to anyone who might be talking to customers. Community professionals must often react to situations as they unfold in near real time and having good messaging practices helps make doing that easier.
I would say that the three main functions of a Community Manager are Retention, Acquisition (an aspect of Marketing) and Marketing, and Coordination. Retention and Acquisition have been covered very well, but Coordination is an often-overlooked function of Community Managers.
Many game events and website initiatives can functionally span multiple departments in a game company. These could include in-game events and promotions, stress tests for beta, special seasonal in-game events, etc.
Also, they can include “real world” events such as player gatherings, press events, launch parties, etc. Typically, Community Managers have played a valuable internal coordination role in these cases, though it is often ad hoc and informally. This function should be better institutionalized.
Conceptually, three items form the foundation of effective community relations:
Engagement: Using the social infrastructure of the Internet, we build awareness and attachment to our games, services and company. We are constantly reaching out to people through our own online presence, as well as seeking opportunities to introduce ourselves to external communities who may be interested in our games. Once we have piqued an audience’s interest, we must maintain activity that keeps their interest.
Participation: Community relations is responsible for building an online architecture of participation that allows individuals to contribute to a community and to be recognized for their role in it. This can take the form of encouraging user-generated content for our games and web sites, recognizing individuals and groups who have made positive contributions to the community, or simply keeping yourself available and visible to discuss your game with the people who play it.
Service: Community relations strengthens the quality of a company’s services by maintaining contact with the customers, delivering critical information to them and acting as their advocate in development and business decisions.
How is being a Community Manager different from working in Marketing or being a Customer Service Representative?
I haven’t been much into marketing yet but I have been working in customer support for quite some time.
In comparison the CSR is indeed in direct contact with the customer like the CM is but in a more businesslike relationship. The approach towards the customer is not that personal and strictly focused on offering assistance to the customer’s problem be it account, technical or game play related. In my work as a CM I always try to build some kind of personal bridge to the community to give them the feeling that I am one of them which often proves as very useful if you have to render some bad news to them.
The biggest difference between Marketing and Community is that, for the most part, Marketing is a one way communication and Community is a two way communication. Marketing may create an ad or put out a press release, but they are rarely asked to respond to the players’ reactions. The Community Team generally reacts in real time to player questions and concerns in addition to creating announcements.
That said I’ve always felt Community and Marketing have more in common than they do different. They’re both responsible for communicating about the game, and more importantly, they’re both ultimately responsible for acquisition and retention. They both talk to the community, they both talk to the media (or at least they both should), and both are responsible for creating the messaging that form the basis for communicating with customers and potential customers about the game and service. In many ways, to be effective, Community and Marketing should operate as two sides of the same coin, supporting and working with each other as much as possible.
Marketing, PR and Community Relations are all part of an overall corporate communications function, where the lines of demarcation are becoming increasingly blurred. However, the Community Manager differs from Marketing is that Marketing’s main goal will almost always be acquisition. That is, speaking to an OUTSIDE audience. Customer Service typically speaks to an internal audience, the players, but almost always in a one-on-one, case by case basis.
The Community Manager speaks to internal and external audiences, and almost always in a “one-to-many” dynamic. Whether this is by simply posting on a message board or by providing interviews with media, the Community Manager role will always have the aspect of spokesperson to it.
While marketing and community share many of the same goals and community can, at times, overlap with marketing, they are quite different. The main focus of marketing is the recruitment of new customers (acquisition) while the focal point for community is in the retention of those customers. This is not to say that community does not help acquire new customers because we do in more of grass-root and viral marketing stratagems. In the end, both are working towards the betterment of the product but through means that are normally quite different.
As it does with marketing, the community management field does share some of the same goals as the customer service field but it is not the same. A customer service specialist is there to individually assist and guide a customer when they are running into difficulties with the specified product. This could be due to a software bug or even a misunderstanding by the end user on how something should function.
While the management of communities does sometimes involve assisting customers, it is usually by informing large segments of the community at a time instead of treating each customer individually.
You can say this about most departments within a company in relation to the community team. In fact, Danielle Vanderlip gave a great visual example when discussing this very topic just recently. The community team should be the hub of a wheel; attached to it are the spokes that lead to all the other departments. Information flows throughout the hub to all the other parts and without it, the wheel does not turn. That is how important it is for all departments to work together as a team; to understand and support each other.
What are advantages and disadvantages of a Community Manager being employed directly by a developer, being employed by a publisher directly, or being employed by that publisher’s marketing department? Should a Community Manager’s role be marketing or editorial led?
In my opinion the CMs role is mainly editorial led but touches marketing quite often. As the CM you are directly at the player base giving you an insight into what players think and what their needs are which can be very useful for the marketing department. So I think this is a big advantage for a CM working directly for the developer instead of working for the publisher. On the contrary it can also be a disadvantage if you are too closely involved with the project as it tends to blind you from the wider picture.
While each reporting structure has its advantages and disadvantages, ultimately I don’t think it matters who the Community Team reports to. I do think it’s ideal to have the Community Team work in the same office as the development team, but beyond that, who signs their paycheck or who they report to shouldn’t matter. I’ve worked for publishers and developers, and reported to development teams, operations teams, and marketing and I’ve found that as long as the Community Team’s role is well defined and they have a strong executive manager who understands what they do and can champion their efforts they can do their jobs effectively regardless. The more important issue in my opinion is to make sure the other departments buy into the Community Team’s role and include them in the decision making process.
A Community Manager or Community Relations department can “live” almost anywhere in the corporate structure and there are benefits and drawbacks to just about any given situation. However, it is crucial that the Community Manager have strong ties to the development team of any product.
The nature of the company, be it developer or publisher, is also an important factor in this question. Is it a multi-product company? In that case, there are significant advantages to a unified Community Relations department, though it is always important to have Community Managers in close contact with the development team. I call this a “Federal” model, where Community Managers report to a Community Director (or higher), but also are strongly integrated into their relevant product team.
Is there just one product in the company? In that case, it is typically useful to have the Community function as part of development or Marketing, as long as they are an integral part of the overall team. That is the most important aspect of Community Relations in the overall product structure.
Whether a Community Manager’s role is “marketing” or “editorial” focused is a moot question, as the role should always have a healthy dose of both areas. And, as an aside, the Community team must always maintain close ties to the web team, if they are not one in the same.
The advantages and disadvantages are entirely circumstantial. The roles of publisher and developer across the industry are about as standard as the role of community manager is (i.e. not very), so there is no way to answer that fairly. Naturally, it is easier to address those topics related to those functions carried out under the same roof you work under, but I don’t think that says anything especially interesting about community relations.
I think that most divisions in community relations are artificial and counterproductive. I’ll reiterate the concepts that I listed above: engagement, participation and service. That’s what you should be working toward, no matter who you work for.
How should the Community Manager and a game’s development staff interact in terms of feedback loops? What has and hasn’t worked for you?
I haven’t been working as a CM for a publisher, so I can only give an insight for working as a CM for a developer. Taking part in the daily stand-up meetings plus the review and kick-off meetings in which the previous development progress is being presented and discussed and the next tasks are determined, provides quite a substantial pool of information to work with. Besides that any upcoming matters can be easily discussed in standard meetings.
The Community Team should be involved with just about every decision that will affect customers. This includes design decisions, customer support, service changes, and a host of other things. That’s not to say community drives these decisions. They don’t. But they’re on the front lines of the service and they know the players and the issues they may have with decisions better than anyone else in the company. Having them in these meetings is a great way to plan for player responses to changes in the game or service, make changes to decisions before they cause a problem, and work on messaging for issues that may be controversial.
The earlier Community is involved in the decision making process (even if as nothing more than an observer, but better as an active participant) the more effective they will be in communicating to the players and the press. If your Community Team understands the reasons behind a decision, what lead to it, the alternative ideas that were suggested but dismissed, and other aspects of the process they will be well equipped to create and execute an effective communication plan. There is no better way to achieve that than to have them present during the process.
If the community team isn’t in these meetings, you’re missing a huge opportunity and opening the door to negative reactions that many times can be avoided. It takes a lot more work to put out a fire than it does to prevent it in the first place and likewise, a good communication plan can turn a good decision into a great one.
Because of the Community Manager’s frequent and typical responsibility in messaging new initiatives, updates, plans, etc., it is crucial for them to be as in-the-loop as possible on all decisions that will affect the current playerbase, interested potential players the media and/ or the public.
Additionally, it is very important for Community Relations to know about impending plans / issues while there is still a chance for modifications based on feedback. It is pointless and counterproductive to make a habit of presenting your Community team with fait accomplis.
On the other side of the coin, it is important that the Community Manager establish regular and productive reporting processes that give the development team and the rest of the company an accurate picture of what the state of the community is. This should be done at least once a week, preferably more, and could be in a variety of formats. It’s crucial to include as many metrics as possible, such as topics of interest, number of forum posts, any relevant media / fansite initiatives, etc.
The Community Team is one of the best sources for knowing how the game is being played as opposed as how it was designed to be played. When the development team creates designs, programs features, or creates in-game assets, they have a goal as to how these will be used. The moment it is in the hands of the player, though, these can be used in various ways that were not imagined or intended by the development staff. Being in touch with the playerbase on the level it is, the community team is privy to how the game is being played by various groups more so than any other section of the development team and can bring that wealth of knowledge to the rest of the team.
In addition, the community team is usually on the “front line” and will know of players concerns and issues before most other members. These are the individuals whom the playerbase as a whole comes to have a great connection with and will share information they may not with “Developer X” that they hardly know.
The community team is an integral part of the development process and should have a voice in decisions the same as the design, programming, art, Q&A, and other teams. At the same time, the community team should be relaying information they have gathered and presenting that to the rest of the team in a variety of methods; from reports to divulging informative (or funny) occurrences in scrum meetings. One of the best practices I have found is just making sure the rest of the team is informed well before I release anything new; even if it does not directly pertain to their section.
How has Community Management evolved in the game industry over the last 10 years – what are the best and worst things that have happened to evolve the role?
I’ve been working as a CM for only a few years, but what I have noticed is that in most people’s minds the CM is still only seen as the “guy / gal moderating the forums and talking to the players”. The position of CM is only gradually receiving the acceptance and respect that it should actually receive.
Best: Community Managers are being hired earlier and earlier in the development process. Ten years ago, they were hired when the game went live or right before. Soon after that they were hired right before beta started. Later they were hired about a year or more before beta. And now in some cases they are hired as some of the earliest members of the team. It’s great to see developers realize the importance of having a community manager, even before they have a community. Planning takes time and how you develop your community in the earliest days sets the tone for every following milestone. Community Relations still needs to be involved more in the process however, but this trend is a great sign.
Worst: Community has moved away from taking responsibility for acquisition, or rather, they’re asked less and less to focus on it. I’ve often heard people say that Community is responsible for retention and Marketing and PR are responsible for acquisition. This is a mistake. The most influential person in a potential customer’s decision to purchase a game is a friend who is currently playing the game and nobody has more influence with those playing the game than the Community Team. Asking your Community Team to only be responsible for retention is asking them to only do half their job. They should work closely with Marketing and be equally responsible for acquisition.
Some of the Best Things: Community Relations is widely recognized as a necessary function in game development and management. More and more highly-qualified and dedicated individuals are being hired into Community Relations that might not have been recognized in other areas of the game industry. Some best practices are being developed, as the Community professionals themselves have begun to view their roles as something specific and definable in corporate structures.
Increasingly, Community Managers are performing vital and valuable tasks outside of the liaison role, such as Beta Management, event planning and execution and grassroots / viral awareness campaigns.
Some of the Worst Things: Community Relations departments still have significant identity problems within most companies. Anytime you have to continually and repeatedly explain what you do, there are going to be issues!
Community Managers still don’t, for the most part, cover what their peers do outside the game industry, such as organizing local outreach, charity participation by the company, etc. You know… Community Relations.
Community Managers tend to lack significant, dedicated representation in the upper tiers of company management, especially in larger organizations. This lack of representation can be detrimental to the mission of Community Relations when controversial or wide-ranging initiatives are formulated and/or implemented.
Initiatives that are formulated inside Community Relations departments sometimes have significant difficulties being implemented due to lack of “hard” resources, such as web development and graphics capabilities. The lack of executive champions can compound this problem, leaving good ideas and initiatives on the table for lack of implementation.
I’ve been working in the community management field for almost seven and a half years now and it’s astounding to see the changes within in it during this short span of time. The field has been around for a long time outside of the game industry but within the last decade. Where once it was a one-way street that mostly did forum administration, community management has evolved into a liaison between the playerbase and development teams that develops strategies for strengthening and building the communities, tracks feedback, manages functions (such as tournaments, events, etc), and even creates assets such as interviews, podcasts, and product updates… and sometimes we administer forums.
One of the issues that are still being dealt with to this day, though, is that it is such a new position in game development and it is continually evolving and maturing. A lot of what has been and is still being learned within the field is through trial and error. Also, unlike being a designer or programmer or basically any other section of the development team, community management practices, procedures, and responsibilities differ from company to company.
Those are the main reasons I originally founded the Community Managers Group (CMG). It is a place where professionals within the community management field have an opportunity to relate their knowledge and experiences to one another. The CMG fosters collaboration through conversations, connections and shared knowledge and, in turn, we create a better-informed society by collaborating with each other.
Best: The best thing is that the worst things have already happened. Colossal mistakes have been made in the past, and we’ve learned, developers and publishers have learned and communities have learned. Sure, that’s a big blanket statement, but it’s important. Most of us had little or no precedent to draw upon when we started in the field. We’re through that learning phase, and community is much more effective for it. Phase 3 is profit!
Worst: Our progress has been slow in terms of defining our field and edifying it into a recognizable career discipline. We still don’t have easily understood or descriptive titles and roles; for example, community manager often doesn’t actually entail management functions, and I am still waiting for somebody to explain to me what community specialist is supposed to mean. It’s an obstacle to doing your job effectively and to getting reasonable and realistic goals from your management.