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Community Building versus Marketing

I want to highlight the difference between community building and marketing. As a studio with a very active and very strong community, I want to share our approach to what it means to community build, and how marketing simply does not cut it.

I recently held a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) on the Android Gaming subreddit ("I am an Android dev with 4 games with 4.7 or higher stars. AMA"), in which I fielded a lot of questions about how to build a community.  Indie developers asked if we did it with "Lots of marketing? Word of mouth? Promos?"  I saw a disconnect between the idea of community building and marketing and I wanted to highlight how they are different and how to approach the former so that it isn't a lifeless repetition of the latter.

Don't get me wrong - both marketing and community building a very important, each for different reasons. If you are an indie developer, you may not have the budget or ability score big press releases and high power marketing - so pay extra attention to the part about community building.

By Google's definition, marketing is "the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising."  For me, marketing is finding people who haven't heard about a new product and bringing into their attention. You'll also use it to reach repeat customers and help them find your new offerings. It helps you get discovered. This is very important and a key part of success for an indie developer.  

But what is community?  If we look at the physical world, a community is place where you spend time, energy and money.  You often live there, have friends there, and take part in its coming and goings.  You put energy into the community and you get something back - services, a good laugh, friendship, validation. I think most importantly, a community is an interactive, reciprocal experience. 

With these two definitions in hand, the distinction between the two starts to become clear. I would encourage you to think of community building as the process of fostering an ecosystem that invites gamers and fans to join, participate and most importantly stay.  To achieve this, you can't rely on the one-to-many techniques of marketing; you need to dedicate time and energy to one-to-one communication. Dedicate hours to email, Facebook and your own forum. You are community member #1, and you've got to make it a nice place to be.

The hours this takes can be intense (personally, I spend 1-2 hours on community activities daily, I respond to every email personally, and I read every single post on our forum and have 12,257 posts there -- and climbing by the hour). 

  • Be present. You are the game developer, so if you are not in the community, it is missing that special gravity that only you can give it.
  • Be prompt, be polite.  Be snappy in your responses (you will impress fans with a less than 5 minute email response to an issue or request)  
  • If your fans have questions, bug reports, or suggestions then actively engage them in a discussion. Don't rush to end the encounter. You're talking to a potential community member!
  • Share yourself as well as your games. If you are an indie game developer, your fans will be interested in you and your personality and quirks. The strongest bonds in a community are those between friends (excepting family bonds). Make friends.
  • Update your games - at the very least, fix bugs reported by the community and truly consider the suggestions they make. Gamers are very smart people, don't ignore that. This is one of the biggest ways to keep a community engaged.

Are all those hours possibly worth it?  Yes - I think they truly are, for many reasons, but I will list a few here:

  • A healthy and thriving community is full of positive energy. Whatever might be making your day hard (no response from that review site, another email full of hateful things about your game) you too are a member of that community and can rely on their positive energy and support to bolster your spirit. 
  • An active community creates a welcome space for visitors. If the place is fun, they may even stay.  A good community can grow of its own accord.
  • When marketing outreaches convinces someone to try your game, they are a customer. If they like your game, they might become a fan. If they start to get into your community, they might become a super-fan.  If your community rocks, they might become a life-long super-fan.  
  • You can reach a community member quickly, reliably and without cost when it is time to release a new product offering. A vibrant community can give you the guaranteed groundswell to have very good start to any new release.
  • If you are involved in crowdfunding, a community is the backbone, heart, and soul of many crowdfunding campaigns.

I stumbled into this. I am not a marketeer or community builder by trade; I am a developer and an artist in training. How did it happen? Shortly after Trese Brothers released our original game to Android (Star Traders RPG, circa 2011) we received the very first email from a customer. We were ecstatic - someone played the game! Our excitement poured into the response. We started a discussion, went back and forth with the fan about the game and its systems. By now, other emails were coming in, and we treated them with the same level of excitement. People (more than one) were playing! They were making good suggestions and pointing out bugs, and we jumped on implementing them and updating the game.  We started that ball rolling and just never stopped

Four years later, Star Traders RPG has had over a million players, and one of the unique aspects of the Trese Brothers game studio is the strength of our community built around our six games. They have helped us fund one KickStarter and are in process of funding another. 

I wish I had a stop watch that could clock the number of hours that Cory (my brother, and co-founder of Trese Brothers) have spent with our community (RescueTime has helped with the estimates made above). But, if given the option, I wouldn't change our approach. We've put the time and energy in, and the community has given the energy and more back to us. Even calling it an investment sounds wrong - it’s a community, and it’s about reciprocation. I can say that we would not be here today, still making games, if not for the bright lights of our community and all of the friends we have made there.

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