Community managers are the very definition of a paradox. They're some of the most public faces of the game, yet their role is often least understood. They serve many masters -- developers, players, marketing, press -- and are beholden to all of them at once. They're often on the blunt end of unrestrained love and unfathomable anger. No matter what they are, one thing is for sure: their job rocks.
At least, according to a CM panel at PAX East entitled "Community Managers: More than Forum Monkeys." In it, five CMs from various studios shared just what goes on with their job, what limits they deal with, and what are the highs and lows of working in the public limelight 24/7. Meghan Rodberg (Turbine), Aaron Trites (Harmonix), Morgan Romine (Frag Dolls), Jess Folsom (Bioware Austin) and Linda Carlson (Sony Online Entertainment) spent a candid hour with an audience pulling back some of the mystique and misconceptions of their positions as supposed monkey tamers.
Hit the jump to read about the inner workings of these fabulous five community managers.
The first question concerned the origin story of these forum superheroes, and the answers were as surprising as they were diverse. Morgan got into the position after being a guild leader in Shadowbane, using online connections to net her a real world job. On the other end is Aaron, who worked in a comic book store before leveraging contacts in real life to land him a CM position. Linda used herself as an example of how atypical CM backgrounds tend to be, as she worked in both livestock and tourism before moving to the US and eventually discovering MMOs and her future job.
When pressed to give details on what their job description covered, Aaron put it deliciously: "We keep our fingers in a lot of pies."
Bakery services aside, it turns out that forums are a small -- but essential -- part of what they do on a daily basis. Other tasks include handling customer service, writing messages, attending community events in person, talking in chat rooms, going to conventions and bar nights to represent the company, handling social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, doing interviews for dev diaries, organizing player guides, making sure the website looks nice for new players, sponsoring in-game events, running promotions and recording podcasts.
"That's what appeals to people getting into community management, is it's one of the most diverse job positions you could have," said Linda.
CMs are the liaison between players, marketing, developers and press, which Linda admits can be "a very delicate balance at times." Meghan noted that they have to balance their responsibilities with marketing, but prefer to be the ones communicating with the players overall. Community managers are the advocates for the community, but even so, they must use common sense to filter through forums and other avenues of player feedback to gain an accurate understanding of player mood and topical issues.
Do they report the tone of the forums to the company? Yes. While marketing departments talk in numbers, CMs don't always use that metric for their reports. While they draw player responses and feedback from forums, they know that's not where all the players are, and not where all the happy players are, and adjust their reports accordingly.
Mad Skillz, Yo
"Gaming community management has grown into a field all of its own," said Meghan. As such, CMs are expected to come to the job with a host of practical people skills, as well as a few unorthodox traits.
So what is the most important skill that every CM should master? "PATIENCE!" the panel cried out together and laughed. Player emotions can get very passionate and heated at times, and a patient ear and response is essential to keep things sensible and sane. Especially, as the panel noted, when you're dealing with death threats because a player's chosen class got nerfed. "You can't totally ignore [the frustrated players], which I think is tempting," Morgan said.
If patience is the number one skill, communication was right on its heels. "The ability to communicate effectively to different audiences is very important," said Linda. "How you communicate with your dev team, with the playerbase, with the press when you're talking to them. Communication skills, both written and oral, are paramount to the abilities of a CM."
Other necessary CM skills include the ability to have empathy for all sides of the conversation, being able to multitask, and a capacity for honesty. "The community is really smart," Aaron said, "and they have a built-in BS detector when we're talking marketing to you or talking down to you." As such, CMs need to be as honest as possible with the playerbase, a luxury they enjoy that marketing often cannot.
A warm, friendly personality doesn't hurt either. Linda said, "We do encourage our community managers to be very, very human and mingle with the players. It's really important to form those personal relationships."
Being at the front lines of communication brings with it a whole host of pitfalls and problems, the first of which -- oddly enough -- is getting too close to the community. Community managers aren't out to make friends and do anything it takes to make everyone like them, as there needs to be a line where a professional position gets too unprofessional.
"Timing is a big issue," Aaron also pointed out. "Knowing when to say something is as important as how."
Jess perhaps nailed the biggest issue that CMs grapple with on a daily basis: "Absolutely everything you say online is taken as that company's voice." Anything a CM puts online, whether it's on the official company website or their own Twitter feed, is taken as THE voice of the company. Linda backed this up: "Once you're in community management, you're public property. You're a minor celebrity."
Another pitfall is the ever-present specter of burnout, as CMs want to succeed and are often driven to work hard. This may take over their personal lives, resulting in unfortunate errors and the need to step back once in a while.
Finally, it's sometimes tricky to balance one's personal voice vs. official voice. Generally, it's okay to interject into off-topic conversations on the forums, but too much can be detrimental. Some of the panel's CMs said that they go so far as to have two separate Twitter accounts, one for work and one for their personal use, but even so they have to be careful what they say online at all times.
Perks of the Position
So why do they do it? Why risk being hated just because you have to deliver bad news, or worry about saying the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time? Are CMs masochists and adrenaline junkies?
Actually, it turns out that they're just really passionate about games in general, especially when those days roll around that their job helps to make their game better. If a CM is able to take constructive feedback from a player to the devs, and the devs act on it, the CM has the joyous task of reporting back to the players that positive change is on the way.
Other perks include meeting fans at trade shows, working on a game that's actually done instead of still in development, being a gateway to behind the scenes stuff, inspiring fans to be involved in the industry, and -- of course -- the awesome responsibility of wielding the BANHAMMER (although, as the CMs were quick to note, bans are a "last result," usually coming after warnings, discussions and short suspensions).
Linda chimed in: "No two days are the same, and we are never ever bored!"
Future CMs in Training
Community management isn't for everyone, but the panel said that it was an attainable goal if people had the passion and drive to do it. In fact, one's background doesn't matter as much as their current abilities and future desires, as CMs come from all sorts of backgrounds. The main job description just requires a desire to communicate and make the game better by helping both players and devs.
Of course, some past positions do give you a leg up on what CMs deal with on a daily basis. Customer service jobs teach people how to deal with difficult people and situations with respect. Public relations teams teach you what to say and not to say at the right time. Even past positions as fansite administrators and guild leaders help to train future CMs in organizational and people skills.
If someone wants to become a CM, wishful thinking won't make it happen -- the panel urged hopefuls to just get out there, get involved, get networked, and put in extra effort.