Community Management and the New PR

GamePro posted an article yesterday which I consider required reading for anyone who doesn’t feel like they really understand what a “community manager” does. The article can be found here:

The inspiration for this was something that happened to Dan Amrich, a friend of mine who recently became the Social Media Manager at Activision. This is a new position, and watching him as he defines the boundaries of his new role has been a learning experience for me—as I imagine it probably has been for him.

There was a big fuss recently on Develop and Joystiq about some conjecture Dan posted on Facebook regarding the Activision / Infinity Ward lawsuit. Basically he offered some commentary on the lawsuit which was his own personal conjecture, which the news sites interpreted as official statements. Dan quickly posted a clarification on his blog, but I can nonetheless easily imagine the Activision chewing out that I personally conjecture must have occurred—I’ve been on the receiving end of a chewout or two like that myself.

Employing someone like Dan is a very scary decision for most businesses. The purpose of hiring a community representative is to connect directly with your customers, and that means really answering their questions—and not just the easy ones. You need to be genuinely open to customer feedback. Transparency is scary—the closed culture is a tradition that goes all the way back to the beginning of corporate America. There are some things that you don’t talk about. Anything you say can and will be used against you, after all—and the Internet is a wild, vindictive place.

When community management is good, it’s really really good. Seth Killian at Capcom calls it a “superhealthy feedback loop”—the players tell the devs what they’re passionate about, and the devs tell the gamers what they’re passionate about, and everyone is richer for the experience.

But when it’s bad, it’s horrid. The true danger of snafus like this lies in the fact that when the proverbial shit hits the fan, the reaction of the company is frequently one of panic. The first thing a company often does is to tie the community manager’s hands—to lock them down and prevent them from saying anything, for fear of making the situation worse. This is a mistake, just as much as the passengers trying to take the controls away from the pilot when the flight gets turbulent. Crisis situations are a good time to make your expectations of your community team very clear, but the worst thing you can do is lock down your community manager when that happens. Community managers are your first line of defense from PR crises, and heavily restricting their ability to do their job at those critical times is only going to hurt you in the long run.

The fact is, the industry needs community managers. I belong to a generation of gamers that expects to be personally engaged. We’re interested in the companies we patronize, and if we can’t get our information from the source we’ll speculate—and that speculation is often dangerous, both to the company and to the community.

The game industry, perhaps more than any other, is dependent on direct and personal online communication with the customer—and community managers are the people making that connection. We’re still in the early stages of evolution for the community management business, but as time goes on—and as the role of the community manager becomes more clearly defined—more and more companies will be realizing the benefits of a policy of transparency and open communication with their customers. And I, for one, am looking forward to every minute.

Published by Malgayne

Community Manager at Google. Formerly at Sourcebits, Spark Plug Games, Zynga, and I like chiptunes and hefeweizen.

19 thoughts on “Community Management and the New PR

  1. I wonder who tends to initiate the kind of clamp-down you describe. Is it a business decision? Or is it driven by the legal folks (at least, in companies large enough to have legal folks)? I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that I wonder about this sort of thing.

  2. This is a good question. Most of the time when I see it I see it from the outside, at a time when the companies themselves aren’t talking.

    If I had to guess, I would say that it’s a business decision that’d being made in anticipation of what the lawyers will say.

  3. Good service is always a good thing, and that naturally applies to the internet now. Getting to the forums or the like of an online-based company somehow resembles walking into a supermarket. You want to know the help is there when and if you need it – especially when it gets crowded and semi-chaotic.

    Good article :)

  4. To be honest, I really don’t think this is a new thing for anyone that’s familiar with massively multiplayer online games. While it’s nice to see a “top tier” magazine like Gamepro cover the topic, these growing pains that the single player game companies are growing through are the exact same pains that MMO developers went through ten years ago.

    This article only proves that many of these companies really haven’t paid much attention to the MMO gaming front, or at least haven’t looked at the community management side of groups like Sony Online Entertainment, Turbine, or (which is ironic considering they’re owned by one of the largest publishers out there) Mythic. I think it’s ironic that Gamepro continually cites “Major Nelson” as the first one of these sort of people, but that’s just foolhardy.

    Anyway, I *do* think it’s a good article about what community managers do. That said, I think a lot of the current community managers would do well to do a bit of research into past foibles to learn from the mistakes of their more experienced peers. As a community manager, everything you say – even if you clarify that it’s conjecture – will probably be taken as truth. The internet is like grandma’s gossip call chain… by the third time Timmy fell down and broke his leg the message will be construed to “Timmy lost his job and is now filing for unemployment so he can take care of his knocked up girlfriend.”

    I could go on and on about this, but I’ll leave it at that. :)

    1. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this sort of time delay. A few years ago, when I was just starting as community manager at Wowhead, I attended GDC in Austin. At the time I had just started as a community manager, and World of Warcraft was just starting to reach the level of popularity where it warranted discussion in the New York Times, rather than just in gaming magazines—so everybody was talking about the MMO industry, what they were doing right and wrong, and what lessons we could learn. As such there were a TON of community-oriented talks and seminars. In the hopes of learning from some more senior community managers, I attended as many of them as I could schedule.

      I walked away from them a little disappointed. The talks were good, and they said things that made a lot of sense, but they were MMO developers talking about concepts and ideas that MMO fansites like Allakhazam had been doing for years. Just like you’re seeing now, the MMO studios were saying to themselves “hey, this whole ‘interacting with the community idea’ is probably pretty smart. We should do something like that”, when MMO fansites had understood the importance since the beginning.

      Likewise, now that the tremendous financial success of subscription games like WoW has turned the whole industry’s attention towards subscription models, DLCs, and other forms of revenue generation that require long term brand loyalty, non MMO studios are starting to catch up to the community management concepts that MMO studios (who live and die by long term customer loyalty) have known for ages.

  5. Nice article, Casey! Regarding the seemingly over reaction by a Corporate entity, you also have to keep in mind that these companies are publicly traded on the stock market. One slip of ‘insider information’ will land them in major trouble with the SEC. From my own experiences, I’ve seen reactions on these types of scenarios from:

    1) Brand Management/Marketing (usually VP’s clamping down)
    2) Investor Relations going into damage control mode
    3) PR & Community also going into damage control mode
    4) Legal – more damage control
    5) Product Development (i.e. WTF did you release about my game?!?)

    Not really in that order, and sometimes several of them being involved at the same time. There’s a lot at stake when sensitive information is unknowingly released to the public – employees can’t go around airing out a company’s dirty laundry.

    Many years ago, I was on a press tour to the media demoing games with the PR Manager. He was talking loosely to IGN or GameSpot, and mentioning how a recently released title surpassed the 1 million sales mark. He expected that to be a candid conversation, but as soon as we left the building, it was posted online. Our stock jumped (nobody knew how well that title had been selling) and by the time we arrived at our next appointment, he was getting an earful on his cell phone in the parking lot and was told to cancel the rest of his meetings. The next week, he “left the company for personal reasons”.

    It will be interesting to see how companies handle these scenarios in the next few years through their own managed communities.

    1. You make a good point. I think the real challenge here is defining the boundaries of the position. I think because of the relatively untested nature of positions like this (especially at companies like THQ), companies run into problems when community managers don’t know what’s expected of them, and then don’t make their expectations clear to the people they’re communicating with. This is new, and people don’t clearly understand what’s on or off limits yet.

      In the more long term—and I’m speaking off the cuff here, I don’t know the reasoning for the SEC policy on this—I would say that the best solution may be to change the governmental policy on this sort of behavior to allow for more transparency. I think more transparency would be good for Wall Street just as much as it would be for the game industry. :)

  6. Paradoxical as it may sound in this case, transparency is the SEC’s gospel. Since it was formed in response to the Great Depression, the SEC has always had as its guiding philosophy that you can sell any investment opportunity you want to the public, no matter how terrible or risky an investment it may be, so long as you give them all the information they need to make an informed decision (the alternative philosophy, of course, would have been that you can only sell to the public investment opportunities of a certain minimum quality).

    The corollary to that, of course, is that if a company says something, it needs to be true. Saying something that misleads investors is a go-to-jail offense, and it’s not just the people who said it that are on the hook – if your company runs afoul of this law (actually a regulation issued pursuant to authority granted by law) you can’t say, “Oh, we’ve fired the offending CM, so everything’s fine now.”

    So I don’t really think the issue is with SEC policy here – I think it’s that you have community managers whose job description can land the company in serious trouble but not necessarily trained on the risk. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but wouldn’t most community members accept an answer like, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk about that – believe me, I wish I could – because there are certain federal regulations that prohibit it” or even “Hey, there is absolutely no guarantee that what I am about to say is what’s going to happen, but right now we’re thinking about doing XYZ …” There’d be the usual rolling of eyes and gnashing of teeth, but wouldn’t that be a lot better than somebody telling the CM “ZOMG you said what?” followed by total blackout?

  7. It’s so nice being friends with someone who not only knows the community, but also knows the law!

    Yeah, you make a solid point here and it dovetails with what the others have been saying—the real problem is that community managers are being given risky jobs without being trained on what the risks are.

  8. OK! Here I am. I’m fascinated by this, since I’ve been working for the past 6 months as the public face of a museum here in DC and it’s been an interesting ride. What’s interesting in that case speaks to a few of the points above.

    1) engaging the community. A bit disconnect with people on the teams consists of what to post. Mandates came from above that said that our primary goal of working on Twitter on Facebook (for we didn’t have forums or things of that kind to build community, we were solely working through social media. The Museum doesn’t really lend itself to forums anyway) was to drive traffic to the website. While this is an understandable goal, it’s also not a way to keep a community invested in you. Granted, we host quite a few great events (lectures, things of that nature), but if you follow a Twitter that’s just promoting events that are on-site, what good is it if you don’t live there?

    Museums in particular are in a great place with social media / community engagement, because people are invested in museums — this they hold in common, I think, with MMOs. They have previously engaged you, you feel connected, you want to stay in touch, but that organization has to provide content that *keeps* you engaged (like you said above – the key issue of MMOs)

    In my particular case, it meant sharing lots of information about architecture, urbanism, and sustainability, since that was our main audience, and in all honesty, I made an executive decision that more dynamic content would help (and it really does get spread more)

    2) Controversy. I have to say, sometimes it’s hard not to mention something that you know you feel passionate about, but might be a controversial issue. For me, it’s things like design contests/no!spec or tearing down buildings and building LEED-certified ones in their places, and things like that. But you have to restrain yourself, and I think that while a huge part of this is instinctual (which issues will resonate or blow up, for example), ti’s something that could be alleviated by more people behind-the-scenes sharing.

    Someone mentioned this in a comment above, and I completely agree. Look at past failures. Know your limits. Talk with others who have experienced these things, and for goodness sakes have a contingency plan. Talk to the community managers about what responses should be in a “crisis,” but make it a dialogue – they probably know the community’s response better than you – and make sure that happens *before* the shit hits the proverbial fan. Then let them talk.

    Speculation is a minefield, and I think users would be better served by hearing info that’s public. That being said, I’m all for transparency – I think that those looks behind the scenes or attempts to clarify things help build that connection with users/members. I like Eric’s suggestion of really clarifying, though I’d also like to see how that could be implemented.

    1. As far as “how that could be implemented,” take a look at this press release for StarCraft II. This is an official company statement that says, “We are releasing StarCraft II on July 27, 2010.” Now, if you’re a Blizzard investor, or thinking of becoming a Blizzard important, that is really important news to know.

      Now ask yourself this: how can Blizzard be sure?

      I don’t mean mostly, everyday sure. I mean all the way sure, you’re-going-to-jail-if-for-any-reason-at-all-this-game-is-not-released-on-July-27-2010 sure.

      The answer is, Blizzard cannot be that sure. But they don’t have to be as long as they clarify that even though they sound really sure, in reality they’re speculating. So focus on the small print at the bottom of the press release. That is where Blizzard says, in effect, “Although we are planning on releasing StarCraft II on July 27, 2010, it is always possible that we won’t.”

      That small print may seem kind of daunting (small print always seems daunting, no matter what it says), but it’s not expressing a complicated thought. It’s just expressing an uncomplicated thought very thoroughly. I’m betting a competent CM could make his community understand that these are the ground rules, if only he was told that he had to.

  9. You know I was really hoping you’d post on this thread. I was thinking of writing a post myself on how community management as a discipline can be used outside of the gaming industry, but I realized that you knew so much more on the subject than I do, I’d be better off just asking you. :)

  10. Practicing that restraint and keeping things quiet when you would want nothing more than to “spill the beans” is probably a good challenge to a great many people. Whether or not people who share that trait go into roles such as CM, etc. I don’t know. I for one am definitely really passionate about many things and sometimes get tired of being unable to express myself. On a social networking site such as Facebook, etc. one may naturally feel a little more open about things. It’s a site with their friends and family, but yes their moves are watched and taken carved in stone. I can see how it could happen.

    The whole idea behind community managers is novel. Communication is key and as I always say, “Better to know what one is dealing with than sit in fear and worry of the unknown.” To that point, transparency is definitely a great thing. I must say the points made about the SEC where misleading information, etc. is concerned seems necessary to me.

    I know community managers have their hands full. It’s no easy task, that’s for sure. Thank goodness we have them, though. The good ones I’ve become friendly with always seem to know what’s best and if they don’t, they know how to find out. :P

  11. Since the theme of the comments appears to be “let’s show the exact way in which this relates to issues that we more regularly deal with”, I shall have to contribute.

    In order to get money out of business people (this isn’t really a “games” thing, so much as a “publicly traded company” thing, I’d say), it needs to be clear that this has a reasonable chance of increasing the profits of the company. As someone who’s been beating the “story in games” horse to death for a while, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that pocket strings, especially to hire salaried employees, are super strict unless the “Hire -> -> -> -> Profit” line is super clear. If we need someone to program a game (or another programmer cause we’re behind) before we can sell it, that’s crystal clear. If we need someone to help consult on a game’s story… well, lots of games have bad stories, but they sell anyway, so why couldn’t ours be like that?

    Likewise, the line between “maintaining a good image” and actual shareholder profit is similarly unclear, so getting people to pay people to do so is a little difficult.

    And when someone finally begrudgingly admits that it might be necessary, then begins the uphill battle of “Actually, maybe the first QA guy to walk into your office might not have the skills to do said job, because yes, it is actually a skill that can be developed”.

    This is one of the reasons I like Seth Godin so much. He understands and is very vocal that this kind of bottom line thinking, while potentially sustainable, is not the way that business must go in the 21st century.

    1. I recognize I say this not being as enmeshed in this particular culture, but I feel like despite some companies who do sacrifice story, there have been games recently that have been doing well – and they’ve been games with compelling stories.

      Fallout 3, Dragon Age, Portal, Fable II, Assassin’s Creed II, Bioshock — these are a slew of really great games that have people behind them making that commitment to story. While I agree that there should be more games like these, I don’t think it’s been a “begrudging” acceptance that things other than the fact it’s a game make something sell.

      Think too about the fact that these companies are building customer loyalty over time – we trust that Valve games will be good, because we have a history of playing good Valve games. It’s not that Valve isn’t concerned with profit (they are) but they’re also seeing the benefits of profit over time by creating loyal customers.

      Seth Godin is great, but for goodness sakes, everyone’s reading him. What else is new? To that end, who’s taking action from that?

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