On the first day of the 2007 Austin Game Developers Conference, a panel called "Identifying, Engaging and Empowering Community Influencers" discussed how developers can identify and interact with the most influential and outspoken members in their user communities, and employ those users' star power to their advantage.
The speakers included community relations directors and managers from several companies, including Flying Lab's Troy Hewitt, SOE Austin's EM Stock and SOE Global's Alan Crosby, Blizzard's Paul Della Bitta, CCP's Charles Dane, and Guild Cafe community director Sanya Weathers.
Though these so-called "community influencers" can have either a positive or a negative effect, Hewitt stated, "These are the people who make or break your product."
How to identify these people? Weathers has an idea. "I'm betting my career that guild leaders are the key influencers for the entire industry," she says. "They have certain qualities in common no matter where you find them -- leadership, empathy for what people enjoy and don't enjoy." She also suggested bloggers, essayists, and members of the online press. "You're looking for specific voices," she advises.
"You can find influencers anywhere you have a community that gathers," added CCP's Charles Dane, who manages the EVE Online
community. He noted forums, fansites, and in-game chat in high-traffic areas, especially marketplaces. "You're looking for people who can write succinctly and not just vomit whatever's on their mind," he added.
Once those individuals are identified, though, how to use their influence for the game's good? "One [way] is having a good community manager who's in touch with the community who can identify who your players are listening to," said Crosby. "We run models in-game of communication modes to see who's doing the most talking," he said, but that's not all -- "It's easy to see who has 2000 posts... it's not so easy to see who is that person that, in-game, 2000 people talk to a night," he added.
On the challenge of relating to those community members who weren't fans of the game to begin with, Hewitt said, "Those folks who weren't a fan of your game can quickly become a fan of you if they find out you're listening," -- and act on that information with the development team. "If that person hears you are trying to get a dialogue going, that turns that person into a fan."
"When you're looking for influencers, it's a good idea not to pick fanboys... it's really important to pick people who are critical of your game because they will give you useful information," Della Bitta added.
The panel then discussed how much access influencers should have to staff; after all, giving too much information to selected individuals might appear as favoritism.
"I think a lot of that depends on the development staff you have, the personality of the influencer, and the topic of conversation," Dane said. When developers are working on game balance, for example, access to high-level equipment or a divide between advantaged and disadvantaged players, he added, it's not a good idea to have an overenthusiastic player talking about a relationship with the developers. "Stuff like RP and fiction, I feel like that's an area where an influencer can have more access, because it's generally not as profound an impact down the road," he added.
Either way, Hewitt said, "Five players who are really passionate can skew your perspective," and "really damage the game."
Community influencers do have their dark sides, after all. And what does the panel do when an influencer turns on them?
"Mismanagement of expectations is almost always the cause," Weathers said. "Trace it back and you'll find mismanagement of expectations; people who got a sense of ownership they should never have expected during the beta process."
She continued, "It's never too late to learn out what the expectations are -- 'that was then, this is now'." Rewards are another important way to acknowledge influencers. "Telling someone how great they are and posting their name on the forums is free.. do it!"
She recommended against community managers using private messages, as the users become accustomed to that private communication. She also advised against free accounts, as they generate ongoing expectations and lose their impact in time -- free products or free expansions are a better idea. Programs to incentivize users can collect them all in one place.
Finally, ban the ones who are too bitter -- even better, suspend them for a month. Weathers says this usually is effective in reforming disruptive behavior. After that, Hewitt added, "Don't discuss it. At that point, you're done with that person."
If possible, though, Dane recommended, "Try and catch 'em before
they turn into a fanatic."
Crosby noted some of SOE's tactics -- guild leader special invitations to the EverQuest
Fan Faire, and small game-relevant rewards throughout the year. Hewitt noted that rewarding desirable behavior can help encourage a healthy community, such as when newbies ask questions and influencers assist.
The panel agreed that it's important to shield influencers from burnout -- they may be enthusiastic about the game, but it's inadvisable, of course, to make them feel like it's a second job. Of course, always bringing and elevating new people in the community encourages a continuing vibrance from fresh ideas.
"No matter what your community is, no matter how big it is, people will become influencers," Crosby concluded. "It's your job to harness those people and bring them in and find them."