Monday, 12 January 2015

Community Engagement

So you’re part of / organise a community of gamers and want to increase the profile of your community or indeed you’re a game store owner who wants to reach a new audience.  How do you do that exactly?

I related in a previous post about Growing The Dice Pool about introducing new people to the hobby. Where that post stopped though is where this one starts – community engagement.
It’s all around us really, the community I mean.  Clubs, societies, community groups, libraries, schools and it’s really just about contacting them and giving them a reason to want to be involved in what you do.  Of course if you’re a community and not a store then you probably want to engage with any local stores too!

For the most part though there are some things you need to consider before you invest time in community engagement.

1 Are you prepared to sell the hobby to someone who knows nothing about it?
2 Are you and your community ready for a new influx of people? Or counter to that the potential for the community to splinter as it grows?

If these are all fine with you then the first point to consider is who to engage with and why.

Group?
Who are they?
What’s in it for them?
Clubs
This would include Scout groups, Girl Guide groups, Boys Brigade and other similar bodies. 
Clubs are always looking for new and different things for their members to do. Especially when there are merit badges involved and indeed if they’re aligned with Duke Of Edinburgh Award skills (of which tabletop games qualify).
Societies
Local community societies like Sci-Fi / Fantasy fiction groups, Science groups, Storytelling groups, Comic Book / Graphic Novel discussion groups and more of that ilk
These can be group that have synergies with a tabletop community, that’s not to say there will be direct cross over but there are synergies so there may be interest, particularly in board games, across each of these groups.  Plus those synergies work both ways so there may be benefits to those groups from your existing community.
Libraries
In many areas these are becoming more than just the simple book lending service that many people still associate with a library.  In the UK we’re not quite blessed with the exposure that games have in the American Library Association libraries but that may simply be a matter of time.
Footfall is the main benefit for a library. If you’re there then you’re likely to take advantage of the services they offer.
Some libraries also have space available for events whether that be meeting room or break out spaces. Yes you do have to watch noise levels but they’re generally approachable.
Schools
I’m primarily aiming this at Secondary schools as with Primaries the age tends to be leaning towards the too young level, your mileage may vary though as from 8 onwards (P4) there are many good games out there.
Social engagement is a strong part of school life. Disaffected and dis-connected social groups for kids/teens is something that schools generally are unable to tackle unless a teacher is prepared to volunteer to organise something themselves.  Indeed your local school may have such a community and if so that’s worth engaging with.  Games do have educational value especially in literacy and numeracy (hence their inclusion in Duke Of Edinburgh award) but I personally believe that the primary benefit is the social inclusion element.
Stores
These aren’t just the specialist retailer who sells tabletop games, these can be stores that stock a limited range of games (e.g. Waterstones) but the core thing is that they have a product range that appeals to your community.
Customers, pretty simple really.  This can become a “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back” relationship with the store sending customers to your community for play and you sending people back to them as customers.
There is a fine balancing act here though as many of the newer stores that are popping up have game space as part of their business model so it’s important (as a community member I mean) to understand that whilst there will be crossover there will also be competition between your community and the store-based community.  There are ways to ensure that this is a complementary relationship though.

So it’s all well and good having a table breaking these things down isn’t it but how do you actually engage with these groups?

There’s really only 1 good answer to this – In Person.

Ok so usually you can’t just turn up and speak to people about this sort of thing but in many respects doing it in person is the only way to engage properly.  Also you can’t really expect to engage with ALL of the target groups at once, indeed picking a few targets and building those relationship first can help when it comes to engaging with other groups.

To soften the engagement you probably want to think of it as something like this -

Engage – First Impression
Follow Up – Second Impression
Establish – Third Impression and Agree what the relationship is and deliver on that
Sustain – Fourth and subsequent Impression

Engage – This is probably best in writing whether that be via email or a letter.  Obviously if you are able to do this in person then that would make sense but even then the pitch should be the same.  The purpose of this is to primarily say hello and let the contact know that you’re interested in building some sort of partnership and what the benefit to them is.  This is not where you go on about how awesome this partnership will be for your community, it’s about selling the partnership to the contact on the basis on what it will do for them.  As part of the “Hello” it’s best to include some contact details, best times for them to contact you but also primarily to ask them when the best time for you contact them is.  Keep the communication channels open by giving the contact something to respond to so long as it’s not 20 questions…

Follow Up – So you’ve done the initial “Hello”, now you need to follow up on that.  In today’s world most people are so busy doing stuff that they probably don't have time to worry about your community.  Yes that may be shocking but in reality this is as much about reminding them that you exist and that you were in touch.  This one is best done in person, either face-to-face or over the phone.  That’s not to say you can’t do a follow up via email or letter but if you want people to pay attention to you then you the direct route is often the only route.  This is where your sales pitch has to be refined, but mostly it is also a chance for you to ask them questions about other community groups they interact with and as such understand why they should want to interact with your group too.

Establish – Ok so you’re going to have varying levels of results with those you contact.  Some of that will be down to their interest levels and some of that will be down to whether they’ve even read your email…  Once you’ve got someone to speak to though you need to make the most of it.  This can take a variety of forms, whether that be you doing a demonstration or a talk or something like that about the hobby to the contact and anyone else that might be curious at their end.  Invariably this is on their “turf” as it were and you need to be sure before hand what you’re going to do/say.  I would almost suggest treating it like an interview but that’s way too formal.  Once they’ve agreed to do something more then agree the terms of what that "something" is.
E.g. Is it a monthly visit to the group to focus on a different type of game?
Once you have that agreement then it’s all about delivering on that, under the expectation that they will reciprocate by promoting and encouraging their member/staff/pupils/whatever to join in and hopefully become members of your community.

Sustain – So this is really just about keeping things going and building momentum.  As I say above if you foster a strong relationship with 1 group then use that to your advantage with all future engagements.  There is a word of warning here though.  As you build relationships you’re going to find that a critical mass may form around available time to sustain those relationships.  This is a good thing and a bad thing as what you want to avoid is that this becomes too much to handle.  Of course you can spread the load with others inside the community you’re trying to promote (and I would encourage that strongly) but you have to be mindful that this is essentially a formal relationship that you’re creating with another group.

So there’s one group category that I’ve not touched on.  The general public.
Obviously you can’t really contact them to Engage etc and there is very little in the way of formalising any kind of approach here.

Gaming in public though is at times a very cool thing to do and I would encourage people to do that in whatever way they so choose however, I would suggest that you be mindful that playing games in a public setting does have it’s own challenges.  Not least of which is space but most of all it’s about behavioural challenges and I don’t just mean of the gamers playing the games.
That aside having played games in public on many many occasions I can happily report that it’s a good thing, although the strike rate of gaining new gamers is very low.  Targeting your audience through groups is not only easier, it’s also more likely to result in success.

Hopefully there's something useful in what I've posted above, indeed if you think I've missed anything or need to expand further on any area then please let me know.