Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

What can brands learn from video games when building online communities?

By James Day, Head of Social Media & Player Communications, Jagex

It’s been a bit of a weird year so far. With near-empty commuter trains, face mask fashion, and the dreaded Zoomageddon (quiz, anyone?), adjusting to the ‘new normal’ has been disorientating and disconcerting. What we have learnt through this struggle though is how adaptable human beings are – socially, culturally, or economically – and how by communicating, collaborating and connecting, we can stand strong in the face of adversity.

Which leads us nicely into focusing on communities. Whilst COVID-19 has hit many industries hard, and traditional means of marketing (experiential, OOH) have been in freefall, industries who have focused heavily on building, supporting, and managing communities have thrived as individuals have sought that sense of belonging, they may have been deprived off by lockdown’s restrictions.

Community Management is a multifaceted discipline, featuring different component parts in different businesses. Traditionally a retention-focused mechanism, community management has emerged as an opportunity for companies to encourage long-term loyalty and breed advocacy through communication strategies. In the brave new world we find ourselves in, that can be vital in building the foundations for a successful business.

Community management goes beyond the ‘we’re all in this together’ messaging, it is about walking the walk, and doing so consistently. Through a concerted company focus on building community infrastructure – social media, communication, support, moderation, safety, and influencer management – companies can create both a more actionable insight into their consumer base and humanise their brand through building positive relationships and constructive dialogue with consumers.

The impact of community has been best illustrated in the games industry – with players of all ages and backgrounds finding solace and companionship in virtual worlds. Of the top 40 most-consumed entertainment products during lockdown in the UK, an impressive 21 were video games – ranging from new titles, such as Animal Crossing, to stalwarts such as FIFA 20 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. In the U.S., $5.52bn was spent on video games between March and June – over a 50% increase during the same period in 2019.

Amazon’s gaming live streaming behemoth, Twitch, saw a 56% growth between Q1 and Q2, with a peak of 1.8bn peak hours watched. Similarly, digital communities, in lieu of that sense of belonging normally associated with sports, hobbies, or social events, have become oh-so important for individuals.

At Jagex, we’ve seen a similar positive impact in terms of membership, revenue, and play time across our RuneScape franchise (comprising of flagship MMOs RuneScape and Old School RuneScape). We pride ourselves on being ‘Community Obsessed’ – building, nurturing and supporting both hardcore and seasonal communities to set us up for long-term success. For example, nothing in Old School RuneScape gets added to the game unless 75% of the community approve it.

Our communities on Reddit, Discord, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram exceed 3.5m players, served by a dedicated and talented Community Management team who focus on two-way communication, integrity, and transparency – and nearly half of our entire staff have Jagex-branded social media accounts for this very purpose.

Perhaps the best recent example of how focusing on community can reap dividends is our work supporting the World Health Organisation’s Play Apart Together initiative. To help gamers (and non-gamers) stave off isolation during lockdown through playing games, our three-month campaign focused on providing our community with a series of in-game and out-of-game experiences encouraging collective progress, interaction, and community support.

Our players raised £100k to support our mental health charity partners through in-game activity, content creator relief funds, biweekly live stream events such as pub quizzes and Pictionary, and much more. The end result? Our highest-ever combined membership – the majority of which are still playing months after the most severe lockdown restrictions have been lifted.

Grass roots community initiatives such as these have helped to bring our communities and staff together, amplify our titles to new audiences, and humanise our brands in all-new ways. Building loyalty is the base outcome of community management – however, if done right, the holy grail is advocacy; empowering your customers to influence their nearest and dearest that your product is worth investing their time and money into – thus allowing you to market more effectively, authentically, and cheaply than you would otherwise be able to do.

We can attribute much of the long-term success of RuneScape franchise to brand loyalty – in which players return to the franchise regularly even when it falls out of their regular rotation of games. By giving your community the online tools with which they can communicate and build relationships with both your company and each other, loyalty, long-term engagement and advocacy will breed long-term success.

Whilst this is no overnight success story – we’ve put a lot of time and investment into embedding community at the heart of the company’s ethos and building the online tools to facilitate the community’s sense of belonging – there is no better time to invest in your community infrastructure, as consumers more and more yearn for that sense of being a part of a collective group.