Over the next two weeks, Gamasutra will be presenting a series of interviews with community managers from four different companies -- publishers, publisher-owned studios, and independent studios.
As a field that is relatively young and frequently loosely-defined, community has not always gotten the amount of coverage that might be due such an integral part of operating in the modern, interactive world of promotion and communication.
The first interview is with Arne Meyer, self-described "community and PR guy" from Uncharted and Jak & Daxter creator Naughty Dog Studios. A subsidiary of Sony, Naughty Dog retains a strong studio identity and reputation that comes along with the company's track record -- and with that, comes a fan community.
Meyer began working in the games industry at a PR firm working with Microsoft on the launch of the Xbox. After getting involved with community tactics as well as the OurColony alternate-reality game surrounding the launch of Xbox 360, Meyer moved to Seattle to work more closely with Microsoft on community PR.
Following a pre-merger stint at Vivendi, Meyer ended up at Naughty Dog, where he works with Sony on product-facing campaigns and drives the direction of Naughty Dog's community efforts.
In this interview, he speaks on the growing role of community, its broad sphere of influence, and the necessity of facilitating discussion rather than driving a message.
What is a community manager, in your view?
The biggest issue is that it means a lot of things to a lot of people depending on what you do. The commonly-accepted meaning is someone who interacts with the players in public spaces, or within a game if you're an MMO.
I think that's been expanded to involve any sort of direct to consumer PR initiative, like inviting consumers to events or coming up with a broader strategy, as opposed to just the tactical aspect of talking to people. For some people it also means interacting with what PR would call non-top tier online sites, like blogs and fan sites or other media.
How has that expansion affected the role?
In general, the industry is trying to still wrap its head around what bucket community should go under, and whose responsibility it is.
Community is a really catch-all word for a lot of people, and there are a lot of touch points. People are realizing it's not just being on the message boards or being a GM in the game -- it really encompasses every aspect of communication, PR-wise or direct-to-consumer, or even community-specific marketing you could do. Posting any sort of video is a marketing tactic or a PR tactic, but it can involve community and social media as well. Anything that could be more of a direct line to consumer could fall under the community umbrella.
How well-understood is social media? Are companies using it well?
I think the understanding of social media is getting to be very sophisticated. People will see it as the next big thing, but they need to realize it's just one tactic in the overall media strategy. It's still a very important tactic, as that's where a lot of the innovations in communication come from, and it's a very important facet of what you're doing, but you need to take a step back and see that it's just one tool.
You need to keep in mind what you want to achieve, and how you want to interact with your fans -- not just throwing Twitters out there or something like that.
Is there a particular angle to community you've found to be effective?
Answering your question in a very big way, it's really about being part of the conversation, rather than driving the conversation, in an authentic and transparent manner.
Does that ever cause friction with more traditional and entrenched PR and marketing attitudes of controlling the message?
I do think that philosophy runs counter to what's typically considered the PR function, which is controlling the messaging. In the age of social media, everyone in community is starting to learn that you're not really in control of your message. You need to let the consumer run with it. I think that's a little scary for some people, myself included, but that's what it's really about. It's not about controlling the message.
How do you stay effective? Do you try to at least drive the message in some respect?
I don't even think of it in that way, because you really can't control what's being driven, you can just put it out there. I know this sounds really vague, but when you're communicating with the public, as with anything else, you need to be smart, thoughtful, and deliberate. That is the proper way to communicate publicly and be effective.
Are there ways to measure that effectiveness among the community?
There are a lot of ways you can measure what you're doing. The challenge with community, if you take a broader view, is how to measure that effectiveness in terms of what marketers would call conversion or product purchase. That's never a solid line, that's a dotted line. But if we're effective with what we do, there are ways to measure that.
Can you describe any of those?
There are a lot of tools that are available, whether looking at YouTube Insight, or companies and products that measure conversations and buzz on a broad scale and compile that for you. Really, unless you're working with an outside vendor or have an internal analytics team, it's just up to you to compile the data and analyze your results and takeaways. There's no real proprietary way, unless you're a specific metrics firm.
Can you speak on a particularly successful campaign with which you've been involved?
The work we did with Microsoft to build their community for the Xbox was something that has really reaped them benefits in spades. They were a company who was really hungry to take this to the next level -- they built up an internal to work with our external team, and really mapped things out. They basically just had that level of support for everyone internally and externally to do the right thing for community and the products we were representing.
Is your work at Naughty Dog relatively in line with what you've done in the past?
It's been an extension and expansion of my responsibilities from before. I like to feel that in my position, I not only have the ability to think about community, but to make it happen on a budget level, or by acquiring the resources to do so.
Before, I was sort of limited with what was existing within the overall company goals. I like being able to drive what I think will work -- which was really my role at Vivendi also, my stint there was just too short to get it off the ground.
What do you do at Naughty Dog on a day to day basis?
Some of it's fairly boring, but I still interact on the forums using all these social community tactics. I've come up with a community plan and strategy we want to take long term -- in case something bad should ever happen to me, someone else could understand what I was trying to do. I also work with my counterparts at SCEA on the plan for our products, and I focus on what I'm trying to do for the studio itself.
Can it be a challenge to interact with the individual community members themselves? I imagine that could get overwhelming at times.
It definitely is a challenge, a lot of it because of the time management perspective. You could spend your entire life just working in that area and never getting around to everything else you want to do. But it's one of those things -- you're putting yourself out there; you have to have thick skin; you have to accept that there are people who don't like you or your product; you have to not be overly emotional.
It's just like if you're soliciting opinions from your friends -- not everyone is going to like what you do or have your same opinions on art or media or books or anything else. If you take a step back and look at it that way, it will keep everyone a little bit saner.
Do you have any final thoughts for other community managers?
Everyone in a community manager position, or around it, needs to realize this area is where the conversation is going. While there will still be a need to be cautious or thoughtful, hesitating or having trepidation to engage with your consumers is going to be a shortcoming if you don't start thinking about it.