I touched on this topic in my last column for MMORPG (the which came across as comedy, I hope, but I meant every word), but this morning I’ve read two stories where fairly large companies were just Not Getting It. So I thought I’d growl a little more.
At MMORPG, I said: “Some are very casual, and take a “we’re all just players together” approach. Others are very formal, with a top down approach. That’s not the same as bad communication, mind you. It’s really an issue of tone. I tell clients and employers that they can choose whatever tone they want, and that there are pros and cons to both. The only bad choice is to try and blend the two.”
The reason it’s a bad choice is because you can’t have it both ways. You’re screwing with people’s expectations when you do that, and that goes to the heart of what good community management is all about.
The top-down communication style is just that, a style. You can have very good communication with that style, with regular (predictable) updates and lots of accurate and timely information. You don’t build a lot of relationships that way, and some players (especially those trained by other companies to feel entitled to more direct involvement) will hate you. Not to put TOO fine a point on that, but… so? Most players have relationships with their families, their friends, and their cats. They don’t want one with you, and they think the people who do are weird. As long as you communicate clearly, often, and with basic respect for their intelligence, most players will just accept it as how you do business.
And when you say “here is the decision we’ve made, the end,” people will for the most part accept it. Unless it’s really stupid, in which case they’ll leave – but without the same levels of argument and internet drama as a more involved community.
So, yeah, I see the advantages to the top down approach. I see why managers, particularly the autocratic types, adore it. I just don’t like it. It goes contrary to my entire philosophy of community building, which is focused on relationship building.
Most players aren’t looking for a relationship, and as I’ve said before, my duty to them is to keep from screwing up my game to cater to the vocal minority. The players who DO want to feel like they’re part of things are influencers and evangelizers. This is why my style tends to take me to startups. Without a pile of hundred dollar bills filling my spare Olympic swimming pool to fund my outreach campaign, the company needs the connections to these key customers.
I also believe that a virtual world is not a product in the sense that a single player game is a product. It’s an experience, one shaped largely by the community. The relationships I build aren’t just between the company and the players, but between the players themselves. Without a sense of investment, people play an MMO and drift away. Relationships equal retention.
But the downside is the sense of personal investment leads people to want more decision making authority than they have. At the end of the day, a small handful of people make the decisions. At a company that values their community relationships, I’m usually consulted… but I’ve never been the one to make the final call. I tell employers they need to make decisions based on community, CS, and metrics (“what people are actually doing, as opposed to what they say they are doing”).
Anyway, a community that feels invested is much more prone to uproar than a community that is used to being told what they’re going to get. If you want the good things about relationship-based community management, you accept the inevitable uproar and you find ways to make that work in your favor (hint – lots of energy to be harnessed, there).
If you emphasize the community building, or give the impression that the community is central to your strategy, you have no right to expect that community to roll over and accept your pronouncements – and you write your announcements with a lot of thought put into the tone.