Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Value of Engagement, Part Three: Taking It To the Community

For context, see my first post about the value of both listening and talking to the community and how it differs from traditional PR, and my second on how engaging with blogs is only the first step in online marketing. I concluded with this:

    I have said before we need to figure out "how" to do this - frankly, we know how. It's a challenge dealing with individuals, but that's how you have to do it. It really is throwing out the old rules of engagement (to use CC Chapman's description) and not so much writing a new process as dealing with things on an individual level. You can no longer spam a press release to 500 people, get 100 hits and call it a success. But one good post on a forum related to your target audience, where 500 interested and passionate individuals might see it - now you're cooking with gas.
Engagement of individuals is where this industry is heading, and this is especially important to agencies. I've thought more about what I was asked that initially sparked this entire train of thought. While engaging with blogs is within our area of expertise, engaging with so-called "top tier" blogs isn't much different than engaging with a magazine. By "top tier," I mean the blogs that have grown to begin replacing print media - the Engadgets of the online world. I do not mean this in a negative way; it's the natural progression of things, and a PR professional would be a fool to ignore them. In fact, I've seen people in my agency on the traditional PR side begin taking ownership of outreach to these blogs and relationships with the bloggers/reporters there - which makes perfect sense as well, because talking to these bloggers is a lot more like talking to traditional media, except things happen in "Internet time," something that really requires an entire post of its own to explain.

But going back to the main thrust of the two previous posts, the underlying "thesis" here if you will, its actual individual engagement with community members that offers the potential for the most value. When a blog like Engadget covers something, dozens if not hundreds of other blogs pick it up - and the news often gets posted to specific forums dedicated to whatever the item is. For example, if Engadget covers a new cellphone it's a shoe-in that cellphone enthusiast forums are going to pick up on the post.

So why go on those forums to talk to the community members there, if they're already getting their news (or if you've got an online agency sending them news?) What's the value in that? The answer to that question is what I've been trying to set up - that the value, although somewhat immeasurable by "traditional" means (hits, key message playback, and so forth) lies in the emotional attachment to the brand and the feeling of investment created in the community by such interaction.

What ho! says the traditional marketer? Isn't this also an opportunity to control our message, to disseminate and throttle and control information as well?

Well sure, I suppose. But there's an underlying disparity in how the traditional marketer views information flow and how the new marketers (should) view information flow.
  • Traditional Marketing Wisdom: Engagement is how we control information, revealing only what we want and when we want and not worrying about transparency.
  • New Marketing Wisdom: Engagement is about transparently providing context to information, whether that information has been released by "us" or not.
Transparency has been a major point of discussion in the marketing blogosphere in the past, and something I've weighed in on myself. But "context" is word I've been thinking more about recently. Context implies framing information in a certain way, but in a transparent world context is the next logical step in the sharing process (the "opinion" of the Opinions section, to steal from my first post.) I realize "context" comes close to "influencing information," but that's not the way in which I'm using it. Context should be providing more information to make the information that's out there make sense.

So how does this work exactly? From my own personal experience at WizKids, it involves someone (me) watching forums, answering questions, recognizing when the community may have missed something or simply doesn't understand what you've said for whatever reason, and then trying to address it. But from a professional standpoint I'd like to look at what was originally going to be a couple of examples from the video game world, but has since kind of melded into one big example. Transparency declaration: the examples involve a game that is due to be released on the Xbox 360. I have not worked on the Xbox 360 account officially since the end of June, and the last billable work I did on the account was long before that, but I needed to say it anyway just so there's no confusion.

The game is Fallout 3, and (transparency again) it is a franchise I have been involved with for 10+ years if you count chatting on the Wasteland forums on Prodigy. I wrote the original Fallout PnP back in college, I worked on the d20 Modern translation that will never see the light of day, and I've been involved with the community from a fan's perspective since 1999 at least. And I've posted before about Fallout and the various things Bethesda was and wasn't doing to engage with the community, including the "Community 20 Questions" in that last post.

Engagement. Engagement never changes. Bethesda runs a pretty tight ship on their own site, and they have been focusing the lion's share of their engagement efforts thusfar on both traditional gaming media like Game Informer magazine and gaming-related websites like IGN, Kotaku and so forth. Fallout has a really active fan community - No Mutants Allowed and Duck and Cover being the two largest and most active - that even before Fallout 3 were announced, some eight years after the last Fallout game shipped, were still receiving dozens of posts a day on their forums. Let that sink in: eight years since the last product shipped, and the community was still more active than a good deal of communities dedicated to current games / products. How's that for a dedicated and invested fanbase?

Bethesda's engagement efforts, though, did not include that fanbase - at least initially. The reason they gave, and this is not a bad reason, is that they wanted to focus more on gaming sites and magazines. A company with limited resources needs to choose its battles, and the gaming press can have a major impact on how well your game sells, especially when you're investing a "metric shitton" (official measurement) of money into producing a game. You need to make a profit, so your game needs to sell to a wide audience.

OK, cool, and Bethesda has said they plan to engage with the community at a later date. The "20 Community Questions" were asked and answered. And Bethesda asked the fans themselves "what do you want to see us do to interact with the community moving forward?" But in the midst of all this, some community members decided that the promised future outreach wasn't enough and secured an interview with Pete Hines of Bethesda at the games convention in Leipzig. They did this by "becoming" members of two European gaming sites, and then publishing their interview / demo impressions on No Mutants Allowed, which the Fallout 3 blog reported on as well (along with many other outlets too numerous to link to here.)

The language used in the post on the Fallout 3 blog is telling: the two reporters / community members were "intrepid ninjas," and their operation was, in the words of Fallout community manager Matt "Gstaff" Grandstaff, "Very sneaky indeed." It's important to note that Brother None, in announcing the interview, doesn't use language to denote that he was being sneaky at all - but he does note (quite importantly) that while he and the other community member were allowed into a demo, a NMA member who registered as a member of NMA was not.

There's a lot of things to learn here, not the least of which is: in an information vacuum, community members can go to great lengths to get information being kept from them - and to actively seek out engagement with company representatives. Brother None and the NMA crew were certainly within their rights to do this, just as Bethesda is within their rights to react to it in any way they choose (and it seems that the interview kind of forced Bethesda's hand on community interaction, which in my opinion is not a bad thing - see an interview with Pete Hines about community for more information.) Another thing that one must keep in mind is that even members of the most traditional media can be bloggers, and what appears on a personal blog is not subject to the same standards as a press site, let alone a traditional media publication. Rather than rattle off a list, I will simply mention that to my knowledge no blogger or community member has been successfully sued for libel or slander over something written on the Internet (feel free to correct me in the comments if I'm wrong, and I'll update.) Even though a community member may be a reporter (or in my case, a marketing stooge) they're still community members with opinions, passions and a love for the product.

It's clear that Bethesda is doing a lot of things right insofar as community interaction. Proof positive of this is their dedicated Fallout Community Manager, Matt "Gstaff" Grandstaff. One of the most impressive online gaming-related campaigns I've seen recently was the frenzy whipped up by 2K for BioShock, and I'm not the only one: the Hollywood Reporter did a great article on it. Money quote, as quoted on the Fallout 3 blog:
    “As with, say, science fiction movies or other genres that are considered ‘cool,’ fans tend to look at marketers as ‘clueless suits’ who hype everything,” says Bass. “We knew we needed to be careful to do things in a way that was cool … not to build hype but to build buzz. Especially when we started marketing the game two years before it was finished. I mean, how do you go out on the E3 floor and say you’ve got one of the greatest games ever made when there’s nothing for anyone to see or play?”

    Rather than label “BioShock” as “the next big thing,” Bass decided to create a Web site into which he could keep releasing assets to show — not to tell — how good the game would be.
Bass makes a very important distinction between hype and buzz, and one that will probably be the subject of a future post. Hype is something that builds expectations. Buzz is something that builds awareness. And the tricky thing about expectations, especially in the gaming space, is that they're very easy to create and very hard to live up to. When you create buzz, you accomplish your goal (selling more units) while still keeping the trust of the community because expectations aren't out of control. By all counts, BioShock was a great success and even though there were some hiccups around launch time they seem to have been ironed out and the community is that much stronger for it.

Neither Fallout 3 nor BioShock would be driving the kind of buzz they're driving (and drove) simply by engaging with blogs. Both stores - one evolving, one almost over - are examples of interacting with the community as individuals, and the "value" is clear. You can begin to win over a negative community, and you can create the kind of buzz that turns a hard-to-sell game into a success.

I will be the first to admit that this strategy won't work in all cases. If you're selling dishwasher soap, chances are there isn't an invested community out there interested in discussing dishwasher soap. But there very likely is a community out there that's passionate about some aspect of your product (maybe your soap is good for the environment, or fights germs better than other soaps), and finding those communities is the key.

Which brings me to the end of this series of posts. I've thought of some other things I want to talk about, but they will be more appropriate in other places.

And if you read this far, I'll give you a cookie.

1 comment:

tbeekers said...

I don't get it.

No, honestly, I read all three posts (cookie!) and get your argument, but I'm not getting your examples.

The example of how to do modern community management and PR "right" is BioShock, and going strong at 1.5 million sales, it's shown to have worked.

Bethesda is showing that old-skool PR marketing, hype-through-magazine, will still work. Oblivion did have some amount of community interaction and buzz-creation, but it wasn't really significant compared to the other marketing.

And there's there real puzzling bit. How is Bethesda doing it "right"? They're doing exactly, and I do mean exactly, what you advice PR people not to do in your first posts. They made their press packets, they sent them out, and they're getting their hyped-up posts, on over a 100 sites and magazines that I've seen.

It's all cut and jib stuff. In the meantime, the community FAQ is the only bit of real interaction given, and it was indirect and slowed down, and failed to create any significant buzz anywhere (it had only about 400 posts on their forum, compared to, say, the 800+ posts on NMA's preview).

Matt Grandstaff, the community manager, doesn't actually do anything. He hasn't contacted NMA or DaC, he hasn't registered or starting posting there, all he does is announce the PR buzz things to the community, posting about previews on their forums.

For Frith's sake, I had to mail him to introduce myself to him. He's a community manager, and one of the most well-known faces of the community he manages had to mail him to introduce himself.

That's not getting it right. That's exactly the opposite of getting it right. Bethesda is doing everything wrong, and after the enormous wave of hype stimulated by their press event and E3, you can visibly see the tide turning on a lot of forums. This game is getting a lot of negative word of mouth, a lot, and significantly outside of the "reactionist" communities, the positive word of mouth restricted to console sites and forums.

Seriously, how's that getting it right?

Brother None