Two weeks ago, the gaming firm ArenaNet launched one of the most highly-anticipated video game titles in years, Guild Wars 2. In what has now become an increasingly unsurprising trend in online games, player response was quite overwhelming and so many people bought the game that the company actually had to stop selling the game online in order to cope with the demand. Yet, the surprising reality wasn't that that Guild Wars 2 over 400,000 concurrent pre-order players before the game was publicly launched, but that ArenaNet closed its official forums and instead directed users to its Guild Wars 2 subreddit to engage community members. In short, ArenaNet felt it could better engage users by disabling its online community gathering space (its forums) in favor of a third-party social media platform.
The decision was startling and, in the gaming industry, without broad precedent: most online gaming firms tend to approach the question of community building and audience engagement through a shared lens. But the two goals, while deeply intertwined, are in fact two separate branches of the same overarching strategy.
Building Online Communities
In the earliest days of the web, the phrase "Content is King" was used to promote a general maxim that the quality of the works that were being published generally determined the popularity of a website. This was true, with one notable caveat: popularity did not always surface the highest quality content, and so firms like The Mining Co. (later About.com) made a living out of trying to qualify search results, before search engines like Google had more sophisticated algorithms that could return more relevant results from gigantic indices.
Clay Shirky rightly points out in his book, Cognitive Surplus, that the past decade has witnessed a transformation of the broad online demographic of typical website users - from one that is primarily consumptive of content to one that instead is energized by interacting and contributing to content. This has had startling implications for what it means to build an online community - previously, a small number of users would create content and generate a large following. This model drove many of the online communities that emerged in the wake of the first social networks: popular blogs and thriving online forums were generally dependent upon charismatic personalities that contributed higher quality content. But in the aftermath of the social web - where people are motivated less by following a popular content publisher and instead excited more about sharing and repurposing content for their friends and contacts to see - online communities are built around lots of users creating content in a system that allows for well-organized browsing, sharing, and distribution. In these communities, niche topics thrive and people self-qualify content by the manner in which they tag and re-purpose the content. From YouTube channels to Amazon reviews and wishlists, users flock to communities where they can experience the content on their own terms, self-organize into groups of interested participants, and contribute to the emerging dialogue in a very well-defined, meaningful way.
The Basics of Engagement
But not everyone could - or should - be singularly focused on just building their online community. Communities, by and large, are easily misunderstood, and over time, needlessly feared. The term "Community" can be a frightening one for two reasons: firstly, communities exist beyond the sphere of publishers' ability to strictly define them; and, secondly, the very existence of communities rightly implies a degree of responsibility and accountability to a constituency. Audiences have specific needs and wants of an organization when they visit their website, and how you interact with that audience determines by and large what that audience is likely to do with the content that you provide them. Succeed in providing what your community needs and wants and they will reward you with traffic, meaningful contributions, and an environment where you can project your message across the collective digital footprint of a network of people that far exceeds the aggregate sum of its parts. Fail to meet their requirements and expectations, and your users will stop caring about your site, consigning it to the oblivion of irrelevance as your traffic withers and dies.
Behind the high risks and proportionate rewards inherent in the interaction with a community is a model of Engagement. If a Community is the engine of the vehicle that is your website, consider Engagement the steering wheel: by providing users clear pathways to satisfy their needs and wants, challenge and reward themselves on your website, and contribute content and actions to your website's mission and goals, content producers and web teams can organize the efforts of their community members while simultaneously ordering website participants, even if they cannot dictate the exact composition of that community. This provides publishers with a crucial scalpel that can shape the outlines of interaction with a community, and an Engagement Model is a strategic framework through which one can conceive of how a community is organized by the different levels of commitment that users have to the organization and its work.
You're probably remembering how I mentioned that both Community-Building and Engagement are intertwined; building a community without also deploying an approach (the engagement model) and resources (people and ideas) to nurture and foster the community is a recipe for disaster. I've previously written about the problems with commenting, and any feature of the website that is interactive in nature has to have a clearly defined purpose. Communities function best when they are served with high performing functions that speak to their needs, and just asking users to "share some thoughts" is an invitation for unpredictable consequences. Further, when one conflates the idea of organizing a community and managing communication, you risk losing out on an essential strategic advantage by treating the two behaviors quite separately.
The Gaming Industry has a well-storied past of appointing Community Managers who try to do all things at once, often times with conflicting or conflated ends. It's tempting to just shut down either community or engagement in favor of the other, but the risks of damaging the organization's brand are quite high. When online gaming was still in its relative infancy, Sony Online Entertainment ("SOE") was overwhelmed with posts and threads from Internet users on the official forums for its massively multiplayer online game, EverQuest, and so it elected one day to simply shut down its forums and put up a read-only blog to have unidirectional communication. The move, over a decade ago, sparked a visceral backlash of disapproval from users, and though SOE later back-tracked, it never regained the confidence of its playerbase to be trusted with the role of being the convening space of its online community. A seemingly simple action was proven myopic and incisive in its revealing of the lack of strategic planning by SOE's community management team.
By contrast, ArenaNet took great care in deliberately re-routing traffic from its forums to Reddit, offering its community members a clear pathway for bi-directional communication while the company could leverage multiple channels to get its message out - including social media and the game itself. Its decision was admittedly calculated: ArenaNet's Community Team lead, Regina Buenaobra, remarked that they didn't have the resources to moderate official forums, but wanted to engage with the community on specific channels for very intentional purposes: Reddit for soliciting feedback and user input, Twitter for broadcasting announcements, and the game client for escalations to end-users. The end result was a sneak-peak, for at least a week, into a well thought-out multi-channel communication effort that had engagement at its core while preserving the integrity of the community and its ability to interact with the organization. It was also a courageous admission that few organizations want to make: they couldn't properly offer users what they would expect of a typical official online forum experience, and so, they created tools that they knew they could service and support.
That's quite a refreshing departure from the industry's typical (and failing) proposition of Field of Dreams' approach "if you build it, they will come." By avoiding the temptation of creating features and functionality for a need that may not be properly serviced, ArenaNet could focus on carefully planning and releasing tools that it knew it could support. Swarmed with hundreds of thousands of anxious players days before launch, Guild Wars 2 was then able to sustain the millions of customers that needed to have clear channels and pathways for communication while also enjoying the game. Balancing one's community-building efforts with the need to engage audiences online requires a careful strategy and cautious consideration of the people involved. Understanding needs, and classifying those needs into a model that the organization can service proves an indispensable method in guiding and shaping how people interact. And while unprecedented and unusual, ArenaNet's efforts to close its official forums (which it later-reopened just last week) and routing its users to a third-party service to better structure communication and interaction revealed some no-nonsense, purpose-driven planning on the part of the firm.