The Austin Game Developers Conference is finishing up, and from it comes Gamasutra's intriguing account of the session on Engaging and Empowering Community Influencers. In gaming, especially MMOs (massively multiplayer online games, like World of Warcraft), the social component--supported by bulletin boards, community sites, and in-game social areas--plays a major role in how the game is perceived, and, by extension, its success. The players who talk to the most other players are often more influential than those with the highest scores, and game design firms are starting to consciously cultivate and support their influence.
There are some obvious ties to the role of "community" in museums. Recently, some museums have launched initiatives to rebrand as community spaces, acknowledging and attempting to harness the positive social energy around visitation. Notably, the Brooklyn Museum's heavy involvment with social networking sites like MySpace has extended the idea that museums are sites for discussion. And even museums that don't have online social presences are sites for discussion, whether on TripAdvisor, Yelp, or other forums for opinion about cultural attractions.
As this evolution progresses, it may be worthwhile for museums to turn to gaming and consider the ways that game designers treat their players. Traditionally, game designers thought of players as consumers, and were uninterested in their social discusions, forums, etc. around gameplay. Now, designers realize the power of such forums to influence the game's success, and are employing "community managers" to work with and in those forums.
An easy place to start is the web: get out there and see what people are already saying about your museum. Search for your institution of TripAdvisor (for reviews), on Technorati (for blog mentions), on Flickr (for photos), or on YouTube (for rare but coveted visitor-generated videos). Read the comments. You'll quickly see that a conversation is happening about your institution--and you do not control it. But that doesn't mean you can't be a part of it, either by actively inserting your voice, supporting discussion on your own site (a la Brooklyn Museum), or, in the model of the game designers, trying to steer it.
How do these game companies steer the discussion? It's a three step process.
First, the community managers identify and reach out to "community influencers"--everyday players whose voices are particularly clear, persuasive, and insightful. Most of these people have enough vested interest in the game--either because they love or hate it--that a solicitation from the game production company to get involved is met with positive response. Who are these influencers? People with "leadership, empathy for what people like and don’t like, ability to sooth ruffled feathers, articulate." Critical people are sought after; "yes men" are not as useful as those who have clearly articulated issues with the game. Note that these people are selected, not self-selected. These aren't the people who tell the museum about their visit via program surveys or comment cards; they are the people who tell their friends about their visit. It takes staff time to break into these communities, but it means that the sample is not based on people with visions of grandeur or "yes" folks. Their interest is in the game, not the influence.
Second, the community managers give these influencers special responsibilities and perks. In many cases, the responsibilities are direct extensions of things the players were already doing--offering critique of issues and suggestions for new features, supporting newbie experiences, rallying people around certain elements of the game. The perks include access to information about the game, praise and fame within the forums, and occasional freebies and in-game rewards. Note that these influencers are not formally hired; they do not have contracts (though many sign NDAs). They are being supported as goodwill volunteers, not hired as corporate shills.
Third, the game designers use the influencers' feedback to change the course of the game. This is the most important point, both for the influencers and the designers. If the community managers just made influencers feel good about their involvement, they'd be marketers, not community managers. The point is that the designers actually believe that they can learn something from these influential, thoughtful players. When the designers make changes based on their learnings, they have a readymade audience of influencers who will test, support, and distribute information about the changes. The influencers become part of the design experience--not in a heavy or disruptive way, but in a supportive and provocative one.
Could museums do this? Sure. Some already do. It requires relying not on the self-selected group of influencers (i.e. members/donors), but on the people who use the museum most frequently, most thoughtfully, and most socially. Right now, it's hard to do step 1 (identifying), because in many cases museums aren't aware of where influencers are making themselves known.
So get online and start looking for and reaching out to your influencers. Or, start at home on the museum floor. Influencers ask insightful questions at programs, bring rowdy crowds through exhibits, and hang out in the cafe and on the museum steps. They complain and criticize and don't let the museum take the easy way out. They delight and share and are perplexed and want to talk about it. This often happens in a lovely way in children's museums, where there are many heavy repeat visitors, kids who have a good understanding of what works and doesn't on the floor. I once worked at a tiny museum where each week a boy would come in and give us a tour of what he did and didn't like. He was a great and honest evaluator, and he loved his role as an influencer.
Once identified, acknowledging and supporting influencers can be a wonderful way to get new programs or experimental projects rolling. Community development doesn't have to rest solely on staff's shoulders--getting the community involved should, after all, be about them. What's going on in your museum? How do or could you support your community influencers?