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AGDC Panel Discussion: Community 101

MMORPG.com's Community Manager, Laura Genender, attended one of the AGDC panels headed by: Cindy Bowens, past Community Manager for Sigil and current Consultant for Seashadow Consulting; Craig Dalrymple, Community Relations Manager for EverQuest II and today's panel moderator; Kelly Knox, past Community Manager for Lineage II and current Community Manager for Sony Online Entertainment; Victor Wachter, Online Community Relations Manager for Cryptic Studios; and Sanya Weathers, Director of Community for Guild Café.

Just think of it as an "anything I ever wanted to know about Community Managers article!

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One of my favorite topics at this year's AGDC had to be all of the great community panels - not only is it my job, but it's a growing role in the evolution of our industry! In the panel, Community Management 101, we hear from some of the best minds in the business about what, why, and who does the community management for our games and websites.

The four person panel sported some long time community managers: Cindy Bowens, past community manager for Sigil and current consultant for Seashadow Consulting; Craig Dalrymple, community relations manager for EverQuest II and today's panel moderator; Kelly Knox, past community manager for Lineage II and current community manager for Sony Online Entertainment; Victor Wachter, Online Community Relations Manager for Cryptic Studios; and Sanya Weathers, Director of Community for Guild Café.

What makes a good Community Manager?

Sanya jokingly replied, "Don't hire people like us!" On a more serious note - you are looking for someone with no ego, a sense of humor, a genuine desire to serve, and someone who is articulate enough to reach their community in a professional and legible manner. "I tend to think that girls do it easier," Sonya remarks - this is one of the few departments where ladies represent a majority.

Kelly adds that you want someone who "won't take the bait." When working with volatile forums and (sometimes) angry emails, a Community Manager needs to keep their cool. Kelly also looks for impeccable writing skills and a whole lot of patience.

To Victor, it's vitally important to have a strong sense of judgment - sometimes "best for the company" is not "best for the players," or vice versa. The Community Manager has to be able to present the situation to both times in a non-aggressive way.

Cindy agrees with the above points, but adds in that a Community Manager needs to have a thick skin. CMs are the people who receive the angry emails from players who want more information, fewer rules, different rules, face-time with the devs, etc.

When do you hire a Community Managers?

AGDC is a developer conference, and part of this panel was geared toward audience developers. With Community being such a new field, some developers do not see why they need a CM, or what a CM will need from them.

All of the panelists gave the first bit of advice: Think about community before launch. Cindy advises that it is never too early; she was hired at Sigil before Vanguard was even announced. Again, all panelists agreed that the CM should be in place at least a year before launch. Victor has always come in with under a year left, and it has always been rough.

Sanya says that CMs are vital for designing community interfaces like a customer service interface or a guild tool, etc. What do CMs have to do with guild tools, you might wonder? "Guilds are the point," says Sonya, sharing some of her research. "People who belong to a guild or organized group of people play 6 to 8 months longer. People will stay no matter what if they have a community," And while Sonya doesn't think this excuses poor game development, it will keep your community together while you fix it.

What tools do Community Managers need from games?

This question was like asking the panelists what they want for Christmas - feedback tracking, a method of communicating downtime and patches, official forums (though Sonya disagrees), a clear set of policies and procedures, and clear communication within the company.

So, how do you become a Community Manager?

Play games! Kelly recommends that all Community Managers be avid gamers, so they know and understand what players are talking about on the forums, on fansites, etc. Community Managers spend a lot of time interacting with the public, as well as the company interior. The CM needs to know the game and the people who play it.

Victor and Cindy advise perspective CMs to do something that "gets attention" - work on a website, a fansite, a blog; become a community pillar, and show that you can handle the center of the whirlwind.

The next section of the panel was geared toward current Community Managers. Once you have become a CM...

How do you identify your community?

Victor states that each game has two communities: the community you would get anyway, and the community that a CM wants to have. For example, let's look at an IP game: Marvel will get Marvel readers who already play MMOs without much work, but you want more than that. A CM has to reach out to MMOers who don't read Marvel, or Marvel readers who haven't tried an MMO before. CMs have to research those communities, and figure out what they need.

Cindy, who has not worked on an IP game, has used different strategies in the past: she reached out to fansites, and into other communities. Blizzard used a similar technique for the opening of WoW: they targeted the big EQ guild leaders.

This does not necessarily mean that IP games are more simple - in fact, they have to deal with a whole new can of worms: community expectations of the world. Victor states that when dealing with community expectations, it's important to know the IP and to know what the community expects. He uses Marvel as an example again: Cryptic employers are required to read it all, and they hope to get 95% right. That being said, it's the CM's job to explain why the last 5% is wrong, whether it was on purpose or because of game mechanics.

How do you identify your community influencers?

A community influencer is someone who has the ear of the community in an unofficial capacity. This doesn't necessarily mean they are loud and opinionated - they are listened to, rather than just heard. You can read more about them here. Our panelists were asked how they found these influencers, and how they stayed in contact with them.

Sanya had the most amusing - and probably most truthful - method of finding influencers. "The internet," she said. Several of the panelists agreed that guild leaders are often excellent influencers, but Cindy made sure to give further classification: a guild leader of 1000 people, who never raid together and rarely talk, is less effective than a guild leader of 20 to 50 close members who raid together, hunt together, and spend time together.

To stay in contact with her influencers, Cindy gives them direct access to her, including her cell phone information. While there is a definite advantage in letting trusted, mature people have contact to a CM at all times, Sanya flat out called Cindy crazy (in a playful way, of course!). This, says Sanya, is one of the flaws of community management: CMs let their work follow them home. Cindy counters, though, that she has never had an influencer abuse her trust.

How do you deal with the developers?

Handling the community is only half the battle - the developers, in a way, are an additional responsibility of the CM. For example, developers have the habit of making promises on the forums before being given the go to share certain information. Sometimes, they just get carried away and start theorizing - and then six months later, when players ask where X is...

With Sigil, Cindy made every new developer sit down for a 30 minute talk about avoiding problems. Victor tries to keep the developers off the boards altogether, but when you just can't stop them, the key is to have policies in place. As an additional incentive to stay away from the boards, Victor is putting together a "List of Cautionary Tales" about developers who lost their jobs or were humiliated by things they said in public. Sanya adds ominously that the developers who want to post rarely want to do it for a good reason.

Closing Advice

So what's the closing advice from our panelists? Sanya came prepared with a list of "five things you can do to F up community management."

  1. Don't treat players like sales units.
  2. Don't treat players like friends.
  3. Don't act like the forum voice is the majority voice...
  4. ...Don't ignore the forum voice, though!
  5. and most importantly, don't spout out about dates or features!

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