The Hard Stuff

by Matt on March 26, 2014

in Grassroots Gaming

Ben Horowitz' book The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a must read for anyone interested in improving themselves. Horowitz is a great writer, but aside from that, he presents his insights in an actionable way.

I get frustrated with advice that centers on what to do when things go well. How to be a good Community Manager. How to build a great company. How to hire fantastic people. How to recruit power users. Too often this advice doesn't go deep enough.

The hard thing about advice
We all plan to be awesome. I can tell you "hire problem solvers," and share the interview questions we use to select for them. But what happens when the rockstar you recruited stops performing? What about when a key community member starts acting out?

What happens when your product fails? How do you sunset a product in a respectful way? How do you proceed once you realize the problem isn't how you're onboaring new community members - it's that nobody cares about your product?

Horowitz tackles that by surfacing a whole blog genre that deserves a place next to "How to ____" and "7 things about ____". It centers around actionable advice that guides you through dips, valleys and WFIO.

The hard thing about ____

I want to write these posts:

  • The hard thing about sunsetting
  • The hard thing about hiring
  • The hard thing about power users
  • The hard thing about executive buy in
  • The hard thing about reporting
  • The hard thing about UGC
  • The hard thing about choosing a platform
  • The hard thing about scaling the team
  • The hard thing about moving team members to new projects
  • The hard thing about inviting feedback
  • The hard thing about firing
  • The hard thing about awesome customer support
  • The hard thing about scalable customer support
  • The hard thing about privacy
  • The hard thing about promotions
  • The hard thing about job titles
  • The hard thing about volunteers
  • The hard thing about meetups and conventions
  • The hard thing about performance reviews
  • The hard thing about 1:1s
  • The hard thing about writing job descriptions
  • The hard thing about hiring entry level positions
  • The hard thing about writing interview questions
  • The hard thing about setting your own goals
  • The hard thing about being your own manager
  • The hard thing about 3rd party partners
  • The hard thing about working with big brands
  • The hard thing about working with nonexistant brands

And more. But please beat me to it.

The best thing about hard things
Hard stuff is where you create value. As Jimmy Dugan (aka Tom Hanks) said, hard is what makes it great.


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Photo Credit: EduardoEquis, via Flickr

Community Managers are lucky: we’re still defining our job descriptions. At the same time, a company that finds itself with a clutch of Community Managers eventually runs into the problem of where to put them. Is Community its own department? How does it relate to Support? Should it be a part of Marketing?

The answer differs depending on the company and how community benefits their products. One trend I’ve noticed runs through the video game industry: a department dubbed Player Experience.

“Player Experience” in the Games Industry

A quick glance at Linkedin shows Ubisoft, Kabam and ngmoco:) carrying the Player Experience banner. While I’m not familiar with their org structures or strategies, my understanding for at least some of these companies is that Community Manager folds into the Player Experience umbrella, along with customer support. This makes a ton of sense for a video game company, where a player community can make up a key part of the game. When you build a product around guilds and masterpieces, incorporating Community into the game creates a competitive advantage.

Not to mention an awesome product.

Riot Games, developer of League of Legends, has a Director of Player Experience and diverse Community-related job titles. Riot lists Player Support and Community as separate teams, but the signal is clear: the player’s experience outside of the game is as important as inside the game.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Steve Mescon, their Director of Player Experience, once worked for Zappos – one of the first companies to frame customer service as a marketing investment.

How Community Titles and Team Names Shift

A few years ago, when I first joined RockYou as a Community Manager, the team was brand new. It worked in parallel to a Customer Support team that already sported lots of agents. Eventually, RockYou merged the Support and Community teams, and in the process changed the Community Manager title to “Community Advocate.”

The thought process was both teams worked heavily with players and shared many goals. For a new Community team that hadn’t yet differentiated the forums from a help desk, the job description closely followed Support. In fact, at first, the largest difference was medium. One worked on forums, the other on email.

This jump happens to game companies once their Community and/or Support teams hit a certain size. You merge the 1:1 interactions for Support with the Many:Many interactions in Community, framing both as a player-focused interaction that bolsters the product.

In other cases, the Community or Support team will go through mitosis. It grows, takes on new responsibilities, then breaks off into new teams that all work towards the common mission of delighting the end user.

Framing a Community-Driven Department

For video game companies, reframing Community as a carefully curated and nurtured “Player Experience” makes the department more flexible. It can then incorporate Support, framing it as a chance for building customer loyalty and evangelizing players. It can also incorporate blogging, social media content creation and UGC initiatives.

I respect this framing because it assigns ownership of the player’s enjoyment.  More importantly, it gives the department a mission. You’re responsible for creating a powerful experience.

Sometimes this will be a case of Not using the Z word. Companies may avoid a “Customer Support” title because it’s not seen as glamorous, preferring instead to call it “User Relations,” “Champion,” or, to the frustration of job searchers, “Community Manager.”

This is why the most important question you can ask during a job interview is “where does the Community Manager sit?”

Of course, you don’t have to call the department Player Experience. What’s important is that the team spends time defining that common cause.


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We’re smack in the midst of the thirteenth season of National Novel Writing Month, an online writing community based on a simple (if daunting) goal: 50,000 words in one month. That’s almost 1,700 words per day, and even disciplined aspiring writers can struggle to hit 500. What makes Nanowrimo possible and fun is its thriving community, both online and offline. That’s where Sarah Mackey, Nanowrimo’s official Community Liason, comes in.

After participating in an internship with the Office of Letters and Light (Nanowrimo’s parent company), Sarah eventually came on as a full-time employee. Since then she’s actively helped grow Nanowrimo’s community, posting to the blog, videos, Facebook, and more. Nanowrimo’s grown from just a handful of writers to hundreds of thousands, many of them connected through the Internet. Sarah helps make that happen.

She generously agreed to answer a few questions for us. Read on to hear her take on community building, Nanowrimo’s history, productivity, working remotely, and how to motivate writers to get across the 50,000-word finish line.

1. First some background: how did you originally find out about Nanowrimo?

I heard about NaNoWriMo on an online message board I frequented back in 2002. It seems like a life time ago now! I started writing again in 2001 after a long hiatus, so it was perfectly timed to get me a little more committed to writing regularly. I recruited several of my friends, and the rest is history. I’ve won every year since!

2. Apart from size, how does today’s Nanowrimo community look different than when you first started?

The thing that’s most remarkable about it is the changes in technology since 2002. Back then, laptops were hot commodities and much less common than they are now, so when you went into a coffee shop to work on your novel with a couple of friends, yours was the only computer in the whole place. Now, you’re lucky if you can find a free plug. I didn’t have my own laptop then, so I borrowed my Dad’s when I went out to write. I think it was 5 or 6 years old at the time and it weighed a ton. Now when I go to write-ins, the folks without laptops are the exception, and there’s this amazing range of technology - some people even write on their cell phones!

The online community has changed so much since then as well. In 2002, it was much more unusual to be part of a web-based community, and people were far more skeptical about meeting up with groups you met on the internet. I feel like in the 10 years since, the internet has become far more mainstream. We’ve also got so many more ways to connect now - in 2002, it was all based around the website, but now we’ve got Facebook, Twitter, all kinds of other ways that we communicate with participants and the participants communicate with each other.

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Mario Marathon Banner

An annual event going back to 2008, the Mario Marathon is an amazing example of building a community through word of mouth, relentless promotion and clever interactions with fans. It’s one of the earliest examples of a gaming marathon benefitting charity, which involves streaming gamers playing the games to a live audience over the course of several days.

The team of Mario Marathon volunteers has done an impressive job growing their community each year - no easy task considering the long downtime between each event. The Mario Marathon has reached over 500,000 gamers to date, and through them raised over $125,000 for Child’s Play.

Following our recent experiment in online charity gaming, we reached out to Mario Marathon co-founder Brian “Shirt Guy” Brinegar to learn more about how it’s done. Read on for his insights on community building and how to motivate members for a common good.
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Watch live video from UTD Zac’s Livestream on

UPDATE 3/27: All done! Original details of the marathon are still available below.

Huge thanks to everyone who participated. Special shout-outs go to the r/pokemon Reddit community and to Both communities were hugely supportive in the chat.

The final playtimes were:

  • Pokémon Blue: 8:30
  • Pokémon Gold: 4:39
  • Pokémon Sapphire: 11:57
  • Pokémon Diamond/Pearl: Roughly 11 hours. Had to be cut short due to an unfortunate software crash during the E4.
  • Pokémon Black: 5:57
  • Total time: ~42:10

As of the end of the marathon, you all helped raise $385 for Japan. Thank you so much again to everyone who donated, and to everyone who helped spread the word.

The fundraising page will continue to be available for the next few weeks. If you would like to donate, visit

Grats everyone!

Original post:

>> Participate in the Pokémon Marathon for Charity

Some good friends of mine are currently undergoing a weekend Marathon of all 5 generations of Pokémon games, all in the name of raising money for victims of the Japan Earthquake. @JasonThinks, the generous mastermind behind the event, asked if I would be interested in taking on one of the games, and if they could use Wavedash as a landing spot. Of course I said of course. And so, the great Pokémarathon is underway!

How does a gaming Marathon help the victims?

Charity gaming marathons have been growing in popularity for the last several years, ranging from fan-run to quite extravagant. The goal is to pick popular and/or nostalgia-laden games that gamers would enjoy watching played live. This usually involves a series or genre, such as “all Zelda games.” While watching, viewers have the opportunity to donate to that marathon’s cause. It’s a wonderful grassroots gaming phenomenon that has a real impact on the world.

Sounds nice. What are you marathoning exactly?

We’re attempting to run through the 5 primary Pokémon games by Sunday night.

  • Pokémon Blue (Done in 8:30!)
  • Pokémon Gold (Done in 4:39!)
  • Pokémon Sapphire (Done in 11:57!)
  • Pokémon Diamond/Pearl (Done, minus the E4 due to a software crash, in 11 hours)
  • Pokémon Black (Done in 5:57!)
    Total time: ~41:30

Who are you donating to?

The Pokémarathon is driving donations to Mercy Corps, a non-profit currently running several online benefits for Japan. It’s easy to set up a donation page, so individual fundraisers don’t need to mess with Paypal, pledges or transactions. Their widgets and share features take care of it for you.

For more information about where donations to MercyCorps go, visit their Japan Earthquake Relief homepage.

How do I watch? And how do I donate?

You can watch, chat and donate at the following page:

If you would like to donate directly, you can use the widget currently sitting in the sidebar.

Our heart goes out to the victims and their families. Hopefully we gamers can continue to band together and provide assistance. Thanks to Jason, UTDZac and the rest of the crew for putting this event together, and thank you to everyone participating in the chat.



Three things I learned this week:

  1. Always have an exit strategy, no matter how small your community initiative is. For example: “email poll results to project manager at 6pm, then close the thread.”
  2. Facebook Fan Page posts that use the word “vs” get shared far less.
  3. People would much rather hear about 50% of a feature now than 100% of a feature later.

Something I said this week that was wrong, wrong, wrong:

“Nah, we don’t need to make an official poll. The thread itself certainly won’t get more than 50 replies.”

Something I look forward to saying next week:

“Ahh, now hashtags make complete sense.”



Make Yourself Available

by Matt on January 17, 2011

in Grassroots Gaming

Let People Talk To You At Parties

You’re at a party and a stranger smiles at you. What do you do?

You smile back. Maybe you say hi. Maybe you wink. Then you introduce yourself and shake their hand. You present some acknowledgement that opens the connection. Then you both move on - it’s a party, after all.

The amazing part comes later in the party. Even if you went there without knowing anyone, so long as you return every smile, you can walk up to those people at any time and strike up a conversation. Even better: they will walk up to you and strike up a conversation.

Building an online community works the same way.

One of the most important tools in a Community Manager’s kit is availability. This is what makes you different from the marketing department. It’s what separates you from being strictly customer service. It transforms you into QA’s secret weapon.

When people talk to you, talk to them.

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{ 0 comments } is the latest buzz in an industry that is all about buzz. Everyone’s talking about the Q&A site, including community and social media managers – who are always looking to strike oil in an emerging platform. I took a stab at it, and I’m impressed.

Which surprised me, because I don’t care about Q&A sites. Well, I didn’t.

Yahoo Answers is more fun to troll than it is to use. Formspring is very popular, thanks to its emphasis on blog and Twitter integration, but to me, it always looked like an ego stroker rather than an actual tool. Wiki Answers is just… a mess.

When I signed up for Quora, two things happened that immediately communicated what the site is about. This is the holy grail of design: for your users’ first experience with the product to tell them exactly why it’s useful.

Show, Don’t Tell

First up: when you log into Quora after making an account, the question promoted to the top of your home page is “How do I get started using Quora?”

The first question you see in Quora

This elegant introduction is the most valuable kind of tutorial. You learn how to use the product by using it, rather than through a separate “lesson,” video, or About page. The first question has everything Quora’s social mechanics are built on: following, voting, and suggesting.

Compare that to Wiki Answers, which overwhelms you with posts (my home page had the gem “How much formula 8 lb baby“), and thrusts the “ask a question” bar in your face with no explanation.

What is that? What’s the difference between “All Sources,” “Community Q&A,” and “Reference Topics?”

Assume nobody will ever read your “About” page, and that everyone will skip your tutorial. Show them, don’t tell them.

Then the ground shook

Ok, so I got how Quora worked. You could follow people. You could vote up answers. You could subscribe, filter and tag. But why should I care?

That’s when my desk neighbor turned to me and asked, “Hey, did you just feel an Earthquake?

I hadn’t – I’m a Texas boy, and would have jumped out the window at the first sign of the floor moving. (Perhaps not an advisable earthquake survival strategy.) I turned to Twitter, XKCD-style, and only saw tweets consisting of “Earthquake!!!” and “Woah, did anyone else feel that?” I turned to Facebook, and saw similar claims.

I refreshed Quora, and at the very top of my feed was the question: Was there an earthquake in the SF Bay Area the afternoon of January 7, 2011? The first answer had links to the official USGS earthquake tracking service, details on the location and severity, a Google Maps screenshot of the epicenters, and a collection of reports from Mountain View, Palo Alto, San Jose, San Mateo and San Francisco.

Quora is significantly better than Facebook at predicting what questions interest me. At the time of the earthquake, Facebook’s suggested questions for me were “What’s a good place to take a sewing class in SF?”, “What are your favorite Restaurants in Redwood City?”, and “Why do have nipples?”

Maybe it was luck, but I’m impressed. Quora immediately demonstrated its value, and now I’m eagerly exploring other ways it can be useful.

On a completely unrelated note, feel free to follow me on Quora. I’m currently exploring the Community Management, Social Media and Video Gaming sections, and I’m sure I’ll venture into more.


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And we’re back!

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks for me. I recently landed a gig as an online community manager for a prominent social gaming company. More on that later, but the short version has me living in San Francisco and kick-starting an exciting new career. Good times!

As a result of this long job hunt, I’ve been through a lot of job interviews. Some good, some bad. With the economy as rough as it is, and considering how competitive both the video game and social media industries can be, even a great interview often ends with “good luck in your search.”

But this post isn’t about how to land any community manager job (check out Blaise’s fantastic article for help on that front.) It’s about how to figure out if that specific position is right for you.

Nearly all interviewers will end with “So, do you have any questions for me?” Once you’ve finished impressing them with your savvy, well-informed questions about their products and company history, make sure you ask:

Where does the online community manager sit?

Will you be sitting with the engineers, the marketing team, or the customer support team? Or another team entirely? Because of the jack-of-all-trades nature of community management, and because many companies are hiring one for the first time, every organization has a different view on the CM’s role. The physical place that you sit gives you a great snapshot of what your primary tasks will be.

If you’re sitting with the engineers, your primary task is probably to engage with your members and relay bugs that the community finds. With marketing, you’ll be more focused on blogger outreach, social media and community involvement. Of course, you’ll probably be doing all of this regardless, just in different proportions.

The good news is, community management is such an encompassing role that once you get in the door, you can mold it into your ideal mix of abilities. All you have to do is be awesome at it.

Find out where your chair is, and you’ll learn a lot more than if you asked “so tell me about the position.”



Last week I attended a presentation by Shama Kabani as part of a lecture series put on by the Dallas chapter of Social Media Club (and also featuring a fantastic talk by the inimitable Eric Swayne). Shama is the president of the Dallas-based online marketing firm Marketing Zen Group and author of The Zen of Social Media Marketing.

Shama’s presentation was loaded with wisdom for exciting a social media following. The most important takeaway: people use social media to show off their identity. Keeping up with friends is nice. Sharing photos is cool. But showing yourself is what it’s all about. Any brand trying to build a community must first figure out how people will incorporate that brand into their online identities. (Social game developers know it’s also the secret to selling virtual goods.)

To accomplish this, Shama coined the ACT model for social media marketing — Attract, Convert, Transform. And it’s a great way to look at online community building.

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