Future and challenges of community management
There have been a few very interesting blog posts in the last weeks after a IGN Vault post by our estimated former colleague Richard Weil (now Community Director for Cartoon Network’s Fusion Fall) discussing the future of the community management profession.
The debate is extremely interesting, so we just wanted to reflect on it and think out loud on where we think OCR (Online Community Relations) is going in the online games industry.
Generally we agree with all the points made – yes, OCR is in its infancy and needs to evolve. But so are most of the “traditionnal” MMO development and publishing functions today. As Sanya rightly points, community is at the center of these functions and is thus the most pressed to change.
What is community management, where is it now?
In the traditional game business acceptance, the OCR is responsible for ensuring communication between the MMO operator (which can be different from the developer, in which case she has to interact with both of them, but can represent only one) and the player base. The OCR is being responsible for monitoring and moderating player boards, transmitting messages from the company, be the official point of contact for fansites, organise contests and in-game and IRL events for the community. They are the voice of the company towards players, and the voice of players towards the company, and also expected to be the online gaming equivalent of a summer camp counselor. In traditional MMO publishing, the OCR is a famous figure that many players know by their nickname or real name, admired / hated by “their” community members and ruling over “their” boards.
This view is challenged by several evolutions in the games themselves and in the internet in general:
-Fragmentation : Long is gone the time when official boards where the major means of communication between the players and the operator. First reason is that, as community specialist Jeremy Preacher wrote about recently, forums don’t scale so well and tend to lose efficiency over a certain size. They also have a high barrier to entry that skews them towards the hardcore “vocal minority” . The second reason is general fragmentation of the internet : today, the communication is much more scattered between generic social networks, Twitter, YouTube, specific communities channels (often guilds that are no longer tied to a game and have developed a meta-community around them), fansites communities, gaming-dedicated social tools like Steam, Xfire, Raptr, PlayXpert… Users very often use several of these channels under different profiles. Community professionals today have to deal with a myriad of sub-communities scattered in different places, composed of loosely connected individuals using different identities. Such a wide network of player discussions and feedback can’t be managed in the same way that the previous formula allowed. There has even been a “trend” recently to bypass the official forums altogether when setting up community plans : if not enough resources can be devoted to the internal centralised tools (which are costly to maintain) , the profession seems to increasingly assume that it is better to have none at all and focus on growing the external tools.
-Globalization : It is increasingly difficult to adopt the one- size- fits- all approach where the game’s “main” territory (generally the US) sets the tone for the other languages’ communities. In the same way that media fragmentation makes the community more diverse and shape-shifting, managing different local communities necessitates a rare mix of independence and coordination, and above all good processes.
- Metrics : the player messages are no longer the only feedback that the operators are interested in : most companies are setting up metrics and actually look closely at players’ behaviour, not only at what the “vocal minority” says, as it encompasses a larger base, and also as what people express and do can be different (even for the vocal minority). As a result, the traditional “community reports” from official centralized channels are increasingly an additional contextual, qualitative explanation to gameplay and business quantitative metrics dissecated by stats-savvy data analysts.
- Community empowerment and systemization : With the rise of user-generated content, players are more and more empowered to make their own decisions in-game, creating and sharing material and events, self-ranking and self-reporting them, or electing councils of players like in EVE Online. Again, this makes the role of the community manager different, from micro-management to orchestration and high level management of these processes and systems. A bigger part of the dialog is occurring player-to-player now.
- Community development : as Richard points out, OCRs have limited usefulness if they are brought late and are just expected to maintain an existing community. There is a lot that can be done to develop a community from very early on, involving community professionals in the game and service design, starting early relationships with network hubs and guild leaders, etc. This step is essential, as the early community very often sets the tone for the future.
As brands and companies outside of the games industry are increasingly realizing that traditional broadcast marketing is coming to an end and making community management one of their core activities , online games operators will have to think hard about the role of community if they want to retain talent and players.