Take a look at forums, blogs, fansites, in-game - the gaming industry is full of outspoken individuals, and I'm not talking developers and community managers. Many of our most important community members are people just like you: guild leaders, bloggers, tireless fansite workers, and just friendly, charismatic in-game chatters. And lately, the gaming industry (now I am talking developers and community managers) is starting to notice and appreciate the importance of those community influencers.
Today at the Austin Game Developer's Conference, EM Stock (Senior Community Manager, SOE Austin) moderated the Identifying Engaging and Empowering Community Influencers panel. Panel members Sonya Weathers (Director of Community, Guild Café), Charles Dane (Community Manger, CCP Games), Troy Hewitt (Director of Community Relations, Flying Lab Software), Sean Dahlberg (Community Manager, Shadowbane), Paul Della Bitta (Sr. Community Manager, Blizzard Entertainment), and Alan Crosby (Director of Global Community Relations, SOE) discussed the topic of community influencers, and methods they use to identify, engage, and empower them.
The first question posed to the panel: How do you define a community influencer?
According to Sonya, influencers display a variety of qualities, including leadership skills, empathy, and the will and ability to "herd cats" - for her, guild leaders fit the bill! She also looks to bloggers, press, and fan media; anyone with a specific, interesting voice. Alan also points out that 2nd or 3rd in-command guild officers are often more guild-glue than even the leader.
"You can find influencers anywhere a community gathers," adds Charles. This can be on the forums, or in-game chat. Influencers are often found in high traffic areas, such as markets, global chats, etc. Paul points out that there's a big difference between an influencer and the over contributor: an influencer has quality, helpful, and succinct information. An over contributor might contribute a 40 page design document on a feature they think your game is lacking, but that's not really helpful.
Next question: How do you enlist these influencers, once they've been identified?
This, according to Alan, is in the hands of a good community manager; once they've found the voices that users listen to, it's a community manager's job to make contact with that person.
Of course, not all influencers are fans, and Paul points out that "fanboi" influencers are often blind to valuable feedback. Non-fan influencers are actually Troy's favorite - "I get the best information from those. Some are insane and have unreal expectations, but others give important criticism." Even if a user is not a fan of the game, listening to them can make them a fan of you, Troy points out, just for listening.
EM next asked the panel, how much access should the influencers have to staff?
Paul and Troy point out that there are lots of issues related to this; if you give or take too much feedback from influencers, other users will feel that you're playing favorites. This brings us to another issue - will the community feel that taking influencer input is playing "favorites"? Sean thinks it can all be handled by open communication. "Let people know," he said, and don't just rely on one influencer. Have multiple influencers, and bring new ones in over time.
Then there's the question - what's in it for the influencers? Alan gives us the SOE model: SOE has about 30 influencers that we bring to San Diego once a year, to meet and talk to the developers and community managers about things they see, want, like, or dislike. These influencers only get 2 years in a row, tops, and they make an effort to rotate these people in and out.
Many of the panelists also admitted to giving out goodies - expansions, beta access, novelties, you name it. Troy told a great story about an event that took place on the POTBS forums: a lot of new users were asking the same questions, and the older users were starting to rag on them. One older user helped a newbie out and Troy sent him a t-shirt. When he later met him at a con, the user was so happy to meet Troy and so proud that he got the shirt.
As fun as free swag and access to the devs might sound, this is a tough job and the influencers earn their perks through hard work and dedication, both after recognition and to gain that recognition in the first place. The panel talked about influencer burnout, and how to avoid it: give them breaks, rotate them in and out, give them perks, etc.