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What’s the best way to build community? Delete your forums

By on December 1, 2009
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Forums are nasty, inbred places where aggressive denizens fight hard to keep outsiders at bay. So why do so many games companies believe that community = forum.

Forums seem like a great idea. “Hey, we can offer a place where our customers can talk to us, and to each other. We’ll put it on our website, we’ll make users register with us and hey presto, an instant community.”

But they’re not.

Most forums start happily. A few, engaged, interested users join a forum because they really want to talk to the developers of their favourite game. A genuine dialogue emerges where consumers discuss features and ideas with each other and with the developers. Ideas get shared,

And then it goes wrong.

Clary Shirky credits Geoff Cohen as saying “The likelihood that any unmoderated group will eventually get into a flame-war about whether or not to have a moderator approaches one as time increases.”

Godwin’s Law states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

To put it another way, communities start to bicker, argue and fracture. Moderators can help, but there is a much bigger and insidious point: the treatment of newbies.

The tougher the initiation, the more loyal the group

American fraternities are strange organisations. I don’t understand them. But I know two things about them:

  • Their members are very loyal to them
  • They have horrid initiations (some of them are called “hazing” and are banned in many US states, partly because they have led to fatalities)

But the really interesting fact is this: the more tough and unpleasant the initiation, the more loyal the pledges become to their fraternity.

Researchers call this cognitive dissonance and theorise that the reason is that once you have voluntarily put yourself through such an evil initiation, you’re damned if you’re going to admit that it was a ridiculous mistake. Nope, you have to continue making the fraternity a core part of your life, otherwise you have to admit that you’ve been a Grade A doofus. And no-one likes doing that.

More than that, no-one is going to let new members into the group without making them go through a similarly unpleasant experience. To do so would devalue their own experience, so it won’t happen.

But forums aren’t fraternities

Forums start out nicely. The early members have an “Initiation” that simply consists of being there from the beginning. They feel that they contributed to the growth of the forum.

Then someone turns up and innocently asks “Hey, I’m new here, how do you play.”

And they unleash a tide of vitriol that is shocking to behold.

“RTFM”. “n00b”. “Search the forum before posting”. “You haven’t earned the right to post here”.

The crowd unite to dissuade new members from joining unless they are brave enough to get through the initiation process. Which involves being flamed and attacked for being new until they’ve earned their stripes.

And that, dear games companies, is your community: a group which will only continue to be cohesive if it makes it difficult and challenging for newcomers to join.

That’s not my definition of a community.

Is that all that’s wrong with forums

Not even slightly. Off the top of my head:

  • Forums require you to register before you can comment. In this era of Facebook Connect, Twitter, Disqus and OpenID, it is getting harder than ever to make users register. And asking them to register simply to comment on a forum is a very slim incentive
  • Forums are unstructured.On a busy forum, there is no way of keeping track of which threads matter. On some online games I’ve played, keeping up with what’s happening in the forums can take more time than playing the game
  • Company announcements disappear. It is hard to separate critical information from the company from personal discussions driven by your users.
  • Forums are ugly. That may just be personal view, but I have yet to see a forum that is easy to navigate, easy to search or pretty to look at.

 

So what’s the solution?

Community is made up of so many different elements. Different tools are better for different purposes. Forums remain, unfortunately, the best medium for allowing users to talk to each other. But they are terrible for letting the company talk to its customers, for marketing the company or product, for attracting new users or for allowing users to share content with their friends. So the solution is to treat the forums as a tiny part of your community.

  • A blog is the ideal medium for communicating company strategy, product launches and new features to consumers. The benefits are huge:
    • All key announcements can be found in one place. They don’t get cluttered by forum dross
    • Gamers can comment directly on the posts. (Blogs without comments enabled are pointless.)
    • Press and other commentators can find your announcements easily.
    • URLS are easy to share and are usually search engine friendly.
  • Twitter enables rapid dissemination of thoughts and ideas. If your product breaks down, Tweet it. Tell everyone what’s happening and when it will be resolved. Announce new products through Twitter and it will be re-tweeted rapidly. But be honest, be personal, be real.
  • Facebook is still struggling to make Fan Pages work. But it can be useful as a rapid way of collecting a user base you can speak to, without them having to register with you. Facebook is likely to keep improving Fan Pages to make them more useful to companies and their customers, so I expect them to become even more important over time.
  • YouTube is often dismissed but it is a key community as well as a marketing channel. It offers subscriptions, comments, channels and video replies. Games companies, which often have great video assets, are naturally suited to this environment. Build content, share it, communicate with your fans, cross-promote it.
  • Listening: That’s an important part of community. I think it’s very hard to listen in a forum – there’s too much shouting. But these other environments are easier to track and follow, and senior management should use them to listen.

 

So should I really delete my forums?

Forums are a place for the hardcore. The most loyal fans, who are usually also your most misguided and least profitable. The ones who think that their demands are the most important, because they care so much. The ones you should rarely listen to as you develop your product for a larger audience.

So yes, you should consider deleting your forums. But if you don’t, remember that a forum is a closed shop with incentives to keep newcomers out. It is not a community.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • Phaethon

    Definitely. But speaking from observations of large forums and how little staff can moderate, control or provide for them yet they still hang around, it's because of the loudness of the members. There's a group of people who are well tempered and rational, who won't jump on someone for their opinion, and might not even bring up when they are blatantly wrong. But those type of people will always be outmatched by the loudness of others, and those louder types trigger a chain reaction which is met by similar types.

    Polls are an excellent way of gauging all active participants. More anonymous ways such as surveys like you at Goozex do is another way as well. But at the end of the day, if you're a company that has no qualms about strictness or merit of discussion and have a product to sell, you don't mind letting the loudness of your community work for you rather than leveling it out.

  • Phaethon,
    For us it is the opposite. We know the vast majority of our members are the quiet type and on the forums are lurkers. I believe that to be true for most any organization, community, company. And the truth is, you have to balance the wants of the vocal minority with the wants of the silent majority. Problem: how do you know what the silent majority wants? There are ways and one of them is polls on your forums. We get far more votes on the poll than posts on the thread. That's just one tactic, and there are others.

  • Phaethon

    Unorganized forums are definitely a mar against any company's online image, but it doesn't mean that they aren't effective. I'm of the opinion that there are more loud people than quiet people, and loud people tend to attract other loud people. Quiet people tend not to attract anyone. Quiet people can't hear them, loud people can't hear them. To a company a rabble of teenagers who are willing to argue and defend their products is just the type of thing they want to increase.

    Games like Halo are known for having a lot of 9 year olds online, and simply because I won't engage in their forums doesn't mean I won't partake in the gaming experience. When looking at it like that, a bunch of loud people spreading loudness and getting more loud people wouldn't necessarily be something you'd want to moderate. They're growing your product. It's why I believe sites like Gamespot and IGN are really loose with their moderation. That and when you have that many loud people, you're going to do a better job with headphones than yelling “QUIET!”

    But there are some forums like NeoGAF I believe have a well tempered group of individuals and they have a very good moderating staff. I believe it honestly depends on what you want your forum to be and the type of people you want there.

  • When we started the company we made it a big priority to get forums up and running in a way that retained the look and feel of our game trading site. Once it was launched we made it a point for the founders to be on there on a regular basis. Conscious to making the new member feel welcomed we have done two things: 1) give mod power to those to members that are extremely friendly 2) maintain open channels for new members to contact the founders whenever they feel not welcomed. I would say that for three years now we have had for the most part a peaceful forum community that does have some cliques, but no serious barriers to entry for the new members who want to participate or lurk.

    Regarding your solutions:
    Blog — who has the time to keep it fresh? Instead we support a member driven blog site by supplying them games to review and whatever else they need to keep the blog fresh
    Twitter — great and we use it a lot, but can't capture dialogue the same way a forum can
    Facebook — we haven't bothered with the Fan Page as we see it taking up resources with very little return — we have turned the keys to our FB group over to a few members to manage.
    Youtube — Yes we have a channel, but you need to promote it. So we recently gave an enthusiastic member some expensive video capturing/editing gear so they post new content
    Listening — that's the majority of what we do on our forums. Polls work great there too.

    I wouldn't advise any startup to ignore the power of the forums. The trick is you have to personally invest your time into it to keep it straight and true. If you set it and forget it, then it will turn on you quickly.