Friday, November 02, 2007

A Clicky Situation

There's a really good discussion occurring on HCRealms at the moment about HeroClix and the role of the company (in this case, WizKids) in outreaching to and interacting with online communities. I made a post over there that I'm particularly proud of and figured it would be worth sharing here:

So I wanted to compose my thoughts on this, because there are some really good conversations going on here that are very similar to a lot of conversations going on in PR in general right now. PR's in an enormous period of change - probably the biggest "revolution" since we started this field. Before, companies used to simply talk to the press, send reporters goodie boxes full of swag and expect to receive good coverage for these "review" products. There was no accountability because the general public never knew that the good review of that new television, or game, or whathaveyou was written because there was now a brand-new, identical television sitting in the reporter's home.

But that's changing. Companies simply can't get away with that anymore for a number of reasons. First, the "mainstream media" is becoming increasingly irrelevant as more and more people are going online for news and information. Trust of the media is at its lowest levels ever. When's the last time you bought something based on a review in a magazine vs. the last time you went online and found reviews of a product on Amazon, or on a community about your product?

Companies are realizing that what the fans think really does matter because it often (not always, but often) reflects concerns of consumers as a whole. If enough people think something sucks, then there's a very good chance that it does in fact suck. In a lot of ways, WizKids was way ahead of the curve on this count. Since leaving, I've worked with companies that either have no clue what's going on online or in some cases don't want to hear what's happening. I've literally had to edit reports because they were "too negative," because the upper management didn't want to hear about the problems online and would prefer to ignore them. I'm not kidding.

So listening to and reading what the community has to say is the first step, and I think WizKids does pretty well on this count. I know Seth reads these forums often - he linked me to this thread, after all - but the next logical step is community interaction. Sure, we know what people are saying, but what can we say back? There is, as hair10 posted, a hell of an opportunity here to talk directly to the people who are buying your stuff. And it's one I was, quite frankly, given free reign to utilize, sometimes with not-so-great consequences. More than once, my foot went firmly in my mouth.

I believe, however, that a few mistakes are worth the overall gain when talking to the online community. Connecting with fans, being honest with them and straightforward (something I always strove for), acknowledging the limits of what you can appropriately tell people but still keeping them "in the loop" for lack of a better term - all these things are extremely important. Coming online to say "no" isn't really conducive to conversation. More importantly, whomever the representative is has to be OK with some back and forth with the community - that is the basis of conversation, after all.

There are limits, of course. There are some things that for whatever reason I couldn't tell you guys, or really you didn't need to know (just because it didn't matter, not because I was trying to keep anyone in the dark.) But overall the interaction is worth it because it builds community, and it doesn't matter where it happens - on WizKids' own forums, here, or another site. A Facebook group maybe, or a group chat on Xbox Live. There's lots of places to hold these conversations, and if you're limiting yourself to one place you're missing a good deal of conversation elsewhere. I myself was guilty of this when we shifted focus entirely to the WizKids forums and left HCRealms out of the loop for a while.

At the risk of this turning into a novel I should probably wrap it up, but I wanted you guys to at least know what was going on a little "behind the scenes" - but more importantly, I want you guys to know that what WizKids did a few years ago really was innovative. Not a lot of game companies (and certainly very few companies overall) do what WizKids did, and I know that there is some very strong resistance to it from people more entrenched in the "traditional" PR of talking to print media and sending people fancy review swag method. There are people who don't realize that those ways are rapidly dying out but simply don't want to change how they operate because change is hard. Anyone who has ever lived through a website changing its template can attest to that.

I don't mean to make excuses and I don't want this to sound like you guys are ungrateful - that's the exact opposite of what I want to communicate. Overall, WizKids should engage with you guys more. Seth does an admirable job, but he is, in the end, a game designer and spends a lot of his time designing games. In an ideal world there should be another "BrotherMagneto," someone who is brand-agnostic (as opposed to a brand manager not versed in communications) who has the time to engage with the community and let you know what's going on. That doesn't mean spilling details on upcoming sets and dials (although that's certainly one of the more fun parts of the job!) but engaging in conversation, listening to what you have to say and offering the company's perspective on things.

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