Video games have the most devoted following of any entertainment medium. Gamers queue for days to pick up new blockbusters at launch. They furiously defend their favourite games from criticism. And they don’t just want to talk with developers and publishers – they want to get involved.
Such passion is great for the industry. Word of mouth rallies fellow fans to support each new release and their feedback, both positive and negative, can be invaluable. But the ardour of the enthusiasts holds a greater potential.Rising Star’s head of digital communications Tristram Defries says: “Traditional marketing and PR is vital when releasing a game but you can’t communicate with people in the same way you can working with the gaming community. It’s the best way to learn what our potential market are looking for and what games we can bring to the UK.”
Activity through forums, Facebook, Twitter and even the consoles themselves creates a direct link from company to consumer. The trick is to ensure the link works both ways.“Gaming is built on a foundation of user interaction – when you perform an action, you expect a reaction,” says Daniel Maher, Xbox Live Editor for Microsoft Europe and co-host on Xbox Live show SentUAMessage. “That’s the principle we apply to Inside Xbox. Our fans aren’t the passive sort – when they’re not gaming, they’re constantly on the hunt for new information, or communicating with each other via Xbox Live and other social networks.”
These networks have significantly expanded the scope of community management. No longer are firms dealing only with traditional message boards, which require time, money and maintenance to run. Instead the hard work is handled by Twitter and Facebook, making it easier to interact with millions at no extra cost. Except effort.
Nick Price, community manager at Hitman developer IO Interactive, adds: “Using tools that are free is obviously a bonus but we often look to deliver something extra like apps for Facebook. This can cost money, but it’s the same sort of investment as marketing. We see our community as a long-term investment.”
And crucially, it’s important to remember that the community has invested just as much emotion into games as the publishers.“We should always care what gamers think of the game they’ve bought,” says Codemasters’ digital marketing director Lizzie Wilding. “A lot of time, money and emotional vested interest goes into playing the game, and so to allow anyone to get involved with that through community and social media is very valuable.”
Maher warns that companies treating social media as free advertising are doing themselves a disservice: “If you’re planning to use it as a cheap substitute for a press release, ad banner or mini-site, the majority of gamers will cry foul pretty quickly and your stock among fans will plummet accordingly.”The emphasis, then, should be on actually socialising with the fans. In this way, a more personal bond can be developed – one that must be tended to on at least a daily basis.
Price says: “It’s important to constantly interact as that’s a part of human nature. We have to nurse our community, to ensure we have a steady and engaged fanbase, one which will share their excitement with a wider group.”
THE AMBASSADOR’S RECEPTION
Efficient community management can mold gamers into consumer ambassadors, fans that will readily promote and champion upcoming titles to their peers. These emissaries can often spread a publisher’s message to people that are beyond their reach, such as relatives and other non-gamers.
“People will always tell friends and family about a show they’ve seen, an album they’ve heard or a game they’ve played, and it’ll always have some degree of influence on their own purchasing decisions and those of whoever they decide to tell,” explains Maher.
“Consumer ‘ambassadors’ do precisely the same thing to a wider audience and they’re often already respected for their opinions based on the popularity of blogs, Twitter following, and so on.”
Sun adds: “The whole social networking experience has changed the users’ behaviour. Most internet users trust what is recommended by friends on Twitter and Facebook, rather than going to browse sites for find new information. If the ambassador is doing a good job, the audience would ask and consider their opinion more than the others.”
Defries agrees: “I think they can be very effective. There’s a big difference between us promoting a product and a consumer recommending it to acquaintances. At the heart of it there is an issue of trust – consumers are more inclined to follow a friend’s recommendation than a salesman’s.”
However, Maher observes that some consumer ambassadors do not bend as many ears as they would have you believe.
“Within gaming, I think there are very few people who could claim to wield such power, although various blog and fansite owners have convinced naive publishers they do,” he says. “They will have some impact on sales and downloads, but I don’t know how you measure the number of people directly influenced to part with their cash by these folk.”