💸 Budgeting to Build Your Community
Let’s talk about what community management REALLY entails for an indie studio (and how to budget for it).
Well, well, well. If it isn’t someone looking for blanket answers to complicated questions. (I’m joking please don’t leave me.)
One of the most misunderstood and *shrug, idk, do whatever* roles in the games industry may be the job of a community manager. As a subset of marketing and especially in the indie space, it can be difficult to understand how to budget for it — whether that’s time, money, or even what tasks to expect.
So this post is going to tackle:
- A general cost overview of marketing
- Marketing versus community management
- Community management budgeting and tasks
This is a post that you need to take with Dead Sea levels of salt as every situation is extremely contextual. The different needs of every game (single player, multiplayer, mobile, premium, genre, etc.) and the needs of every studio (indie, AAA, that in between size nobody seems to agree on a name for) makes creating an overarching post about budgeting for indie games a silly task.
But I’m going to do it anyway. Yay!
How much does marketing cost?
Okay, here’s the first piece of info you’re probably looking for: “How much will this cost?” Hold your breath: I’d estimate overall marketing (including community management) at 25–50% of your production budget. Of course this varies based on the game and production timeline, and 25% is really a bare minimum.
It’s hard to pinpoint how much community management in particular will take from your overall marketing budget, so here’s a brief example of costs that you may run into in your overall marketing plan. This is based on some broad estimates from friendly folks I got quotes from or via my own experience.
FULL-TIME COMMUNITY MANAGER
Salary: $60,000 USD — $90,000 USD
Cost dependent on: Experience and cost of living. However, considering the number of roles many community managers end up filling, they’re often underpaid and undervalued… *glares.* Indie salaries can be quite low but better paid/experienced community jobs can match programmer salaries and run in the six figure end.
Extra: Check out Evva Karr’s anonymous 2021 game salaries for a peek at what some pay rates are.
Cost per trailer: $1000 — $20,000 USD
Cost dependent on: Experience and the amount of work. If you are contacting someone with 5+ years, expect it in the higher end of this range.
Extra: Check out Derek Lieu’s site for trailer tips and a very good newsletter.
BASIC PRESS RELEASE BLAST
Cost per press beat blast: $1000 — $3000 USD
Cost dependent on: The type of press release (e.g. just a basic email out or doing code requests too) and whether or not the agency you’ve contacted has given you an indie rate.
Extra: Resource on video game PR basics with an example press release email by Felicia McEntire. Also some suggestions for indie friendly PR companies I’d recommend: popagenda, Future Friends Games, ICO Partners, Spoke & Wheel.
Cost per booth: ~$3000 USD for a booth + any flights/hotel/food/time lost staffing the booth + demo build time
Cost dependent on: The convention, how large the space is, and whether or not you’re renting equipment. I’ve paid $3500 for a 10x10 booth before. But that’s just the booth space itself! Monitor rental can be around $165.00 per 27" monitor, and $325.00 per 40" monitor. You also need to rent the pole the TVs are on, which can run you about $245.00 each. AND THEN there’s the service and installation fees!
Remember there are lots of hidden costs! For instance, the above items I covered don’t include things like localization, building a website, influencer sponsorships (if that’s something you want), possible newsletter hosting costs, content creation subscriptions (e.g. if you use Photoshop), etc. Remember any content creation and promotional material may need art, which is made by artists! So another hidden cost is an artist’s time as well.
So you can see why it’s a bit hard to make a one-size-fits-all post here! But it’s still helpful to talk about and call out. And when we talk about community management specifically, it’s helpful to see how large a chunk of change that’ll take out of the marketing budget.
Ok, then what is community management?
It’s common for people to combine marketing, customer service, community management, social media management, content creation, production, and press relations into one role. They’re all separate specializations, and it’s akin to hiring an artist that you expect to do animation, marketing art, 2D, concept, graphic design, and UI all in one. It’s possible you can find someone who does that at least vaguely, but that’s a lot of demand for one person.
To better map it in our minds, below is the most common form of marketing for indies — digital marketing. In this, you’d categorise your activities into 3 pools: earned, owned, and paid. Community management lives within this and focuses on the “Earned” and “Owned” circles below.
So while marketing and community management are related and often share the same pool of resources, let’s cover the priorities of a community manager.
I’m not here to define the exact lines of what a community manager is — in the indie game space where teams are lean, community management means something different to everyone. But remember that the more tasks piled on to one person, the more likely some (or all) of that work could suffer. (And let’s not forget the suffering of that PERSON, who could end up set up for failure if they’re spread too thin.)
Broadly, this is the difference between marketing and community management:
- Marketing: Focused outwards. Think: “How do you reach as many people as possible? How do you appeal to them? What will grab attention?”
- Community Manager: Focused inwards. Think: “How do we make our current space better? How do we connect our members? How do we continually engage members and make them advocates?”
In a more visual sense, this is what the two fields look like:
A community manager’s job is to connect people to each other in a way that’s beneficial to them. Meanwhile, marketing can be seen as a more one-directional approach, where the aim is to connect a message to people in a way that’s beneficial to them. One of these is not more “superior” to the other, merely different ways of work.
Since I can’t cover every possible configuration of game, studio, and community manager scope, let’s work from a base set of standards. I’ll work from these assumptions:
- Smaller indie studio that may need their community manager to take on multiple roles (like some marketing, social media management, or even PR)
- PC game only
- You don’t have a publisher helping you with marketing or PR
TIME TO TALK COMMUNITY MANAGER BUDGETING
ALRIGHT. Let’s get into two different ways you can budget for community building: either without a community manager, or with one…
Option 1: Solo Developer / No Dedicated Community Manager
One of the most common questions I hear:
Them: “Hi I’m a solo dev/extremely small team and we don’t have a budget to hire anyone else, no one is an expert here, and I have no time to do any community management. How can I build a following?”
I get this sentiment; making a game is hard work by itself! But communities don’t just magically appear with no effort, time, or money put into building them. Betting on gathering a community without putting in work is like counting on winning the lottery.
So here’s my answer: You can’t. At least not very well.
Community is part of your game. Just like programming, sound, graphics, or any other piece of your game. You have to invest SOME sort of resource to make it work.
Don’t have the budget to hire someone else? Fine! You’re going to need to find your own time to:
- create content and post it
- figure out where your audience is
- strategize ways to keep the community engaged during development
- handle forums or customer support
- and more!
Normally spend 8 hours programming? Cool! Plan to shave a couple hours off your programming time to invest into marketing. And I mean that.
It doesn’t need to be intense. I know a lot of people HATE posting online, for whatever reason. But at the very least you need to invest time in a place that would give you visibility and the ability to keep people updated regularly. Remember what we said about spending 25–50% of your production budget on marketing? This can also apply to time. Every hour spent developing the game could use about 15–30 minutes on marketing, at minimum.
It’s like a meal — either you put the time and effort into going grocery shopping, looking up a recipe, and making your dish OR you can go to a restaurant and hire someone to do that for you. One takes time, the other takes money. (I suppose you could get those meal delivery kits? Maybe that’s a good allegory for a part-time community manager.)
The top things I’d focus on if I had to prioritize my community building shenanigans:
- Social media: No need to sign up for every social media platform. Focus on a space that brings you a relative amount of joy, are where people are, and you can keep up with. Good examples of this are Twitter, TikTok, or maybe even Reddit if that’s your favorite. Keep in mind social media tends to be better for retention and engagement, not necessarily discovery outside of your normal bubble.
- Events/features: Especially digital events, since these tend to be a little more budget friendly than physical ones. Keep in mind though that physical events are GREAT for networking with other devs and business contacts. It’s very easy to end up just marketing to other game devs, especially on Twitter, and while that has its own benefits, you want to put effort into finding places OUTSIDE of your normal bubble to get views, and events or store features are best for that.
- Press outreach (when relevant): Building your network of press and influencers is good, as not only does it give you legitimacy and some discovery, but helps with something a lot of indies tend to forget : SEO. Don’t forget to create good press assets like screenshots and a trailer.
Of course, saying you should do these things is easier said than done. If you’d like some suggestions on where to find how-tos (not all necessarily just community management related sorry), then I’d recommend:
- Checking out my site. I post all my knowledge articles there! I’d particularly recommend my $0 Marketing Game Guide, Scrappy Social Media Management, and Personal Game Community Career Resources in this case.
- How To Market a Game always has some great tips on games marketing in general
- The GDC Vault and filtering by Community Management or Business/Marketing often yields some solid results
- People Powered book. Not games specific and more business-y, but a good explanation of the value proposition of communities and advice.
- Buzzing Communities book. Not games specific and a teeny bit outdated, but if you’re looking for a basic overview of what this job is, it’s a solid read.
If you’d rather focus your energy on other places, don’t forget many different places offer indie friendly marketing, community, or press help. Asking for a quote never hurts!
Option 2: Hiring a Community Manager
Congratulations, you’ve decided to invest in a community manager!
When should they be brought on?
You’ll need give time for anyone your bring on to get acclimated and generate ideas around your game. Plan to onboard them at least six months before your launch or large marketing beat, but preferably as early as possible — keep in mind this puts them more or less in a sales position, rather than a community building position. Even six months is will make some community managers grit their teeth!
My better recommendation: have someone community or marketing focused at the very start of your prototype. They’ll be able to provide suggestions to make your game community friendly, be able to capture its appeal, and contribute to all the lovely benefits of “marketing-first” game development.
What will they do?
When it comes to assigning tasks, start by asking yourself:
- What do you currently do?
- What do you enjoy doing?
- What do you not enjoy doing/what drains you?
- Where are your gaps in knowledge?
Keep in mind again that the “community manager” title isn’t a catch-all job. It usually means at least some social media management, but it all depends on your needs. Community managers are about connecting people to each other, so hiring PR/marketing folks is still a valid spend for that mass market value.
A community manager is dedicated to setting up your studio for the long term, fostering a community behind not only your game, but your overall studio brand, credibility, trust, awareness, and long term engagement.
To give you a sense of some of the things you might have a community person take on, here’s a non-exhaustive list of things I’ve mainly done for Innersloth as a Community Director and a very VERY rough estimate of the percentage of time spent on it, assuming this is a typical 40 hour work week, no weekends (lololololol). Take what you will!
Time percentage: 25%
- Ensuring content, activities, and marketing is in line with studio values, guidelines and personality
- Measuring success and ensuring the game’s marketing is performing well, or noting any drops and why
- Ensuring product pages are kept up to date and/or are consistent
- Strategizing campaigns for sustained and increased brand awareness
- Working with the team to define the studio’s business strategy and ensuring our activities are in line with that
- Monitoring competitor activities to measure their impact and influence
e.g. Checking out any other multiplayer social deduction games
- Working with external partners on marketing beats, content, and asset approvals
e.g. Collaborations with other studios, merch, or third party platforms
- Spearhead marketing strategy for any content launches
e.g. Dreaming up a Direct-style Cosmicube/Roles announcement
Social Media Management
Time percentage: 20%
- Creating content, generating ideas, tracking and scheduling optimal dates for content/announcements, and ensuring content is relevant, engaging, and posted on a regular basis
- Working with artists to create content for social
- Planning and executing social media and communication campaigns
Community Management & Upkeep
Time percentage: 30%
- Interacting with players, influencers, partners, and the public
- Monitoring conversations and events to ensure the studio is participating and represented appropriately
- Monitoring the interaction level, volume, and tone with the community and identifying the appropriate methods of communication style
- Note influencers and trends within the community, and dreaming up ways to highlight members of our community
- Community sentiment and checking up on our reviews. Are they going down? Why? Can we improve them? What are the pain points?
- Understanding the traits, communication style, and preferences of the community
- In-game community improvement
- Writing and ensuring relevant information gets pushed to community platforms on a regular basis — forums, website, blog, social media, in-game patch notes
- Being the contact and in between person for mods, the dev team, and players
Reporting and Analytics
Time percentage: 15%
- Create sentiment reports from new launches, working directly with the dev team to provide suggestions for future improvement
- Tracking traffic and interactions, such as likes, comments, and shares
- Conglomerating key information from social networks to provide feedback to the team on future decisions. This includes being able to understand and sift through what is just loud, what is plentiful but ultimately not urgent, and understanding what the actual key issues are.
- Gathering information from the community as requested from the development team
Influencer & Press Relations
Time percentage: 5%
- Answering press questions and/or forwarding them to the appropriate parties
- Events and stream appearances
- Emailing press about new features and news coming to the game
- Working with influencers and providing support or passing on any opportunities that I’m approached with to them
- Approving/fielding influencers, events, and related when it comes to using the game
Time percentage: 5%
- Crisis communications
- Player support escalations/ban appeals
- Fielding random business requests
- Figuring out Discord bots lol
- Sometimes just showing up for any cool community activities that are happening as an Innersloth representative
Every game and studio’s needs are different, so this doesn’t accurately reflect the work I’ve done in every studio!
Also — as I know I’ve said many times before AND WILL SAY AGAIN: this is too much for one person and not indicative of a pure community management job! I’ve been slowly growing my team (hi Krys!) to help me out, and even now a lot of these tasks are done in collaboration with some great partners like Robot Teddy, Dual Wield Studio, and more.
A Note on Part-Time Community Managers
Speaking of expectations… let’s briefly talk about part-time community managers: they tend to go over hours trying to integrate themselves within the community. (Okay lots of community managers do that, but it’s especially pervasive in part-timers.)
I’ve known MANY part-time community managers who go over time without letting the studio know. Building community often hinges upon being present and integrated in a space, so setting clear expectations with flexibility based on the work is important. You may say “only work 1 hour on Discord”, but any community manager knows that if there’s a fire going on, you can’t just ignore it because your 1 hour is up. Ignoring it creates community debt, negative sentiments, and distrust. (Not to mention the amount of personal guilt for the CM!)
This is not to say you can’t ask for help on tasks that may spill over normal working hours sometimes, but just keep this in mind when delegating tasks. Every community manager has different work preferences, so it’s good to be honest and upfront about expectations with each other, and how you can create a schedule that works for the both of you.
Also, most of the time people looking for part-time community managers want someone who is already experienced; experienced CMs tend to have full-time positions already elsewhere because of how taxing and invasive this job can be, so asking one to join you on the side can be a hard sell.
As a personal note, I started off in the space as a part-time community manager with the possibility of it turning into a full-time role. I accepted because the studio (hi Kitfox!) went out of their way to find another studio that was looking for a part-time community manager, and gave me benefits.
But Wait, Do I REALLY Need a Community Manager?
We’ve heard the stories of games blowing up with little to no marketing put in on their end. This is great! How exciting this can happen! But more often than not there is hidden marketing in it, or the case of this happening is extremely rare. Like I mentioned before: betting on this happening is like betting on the lottery. Even with Among Us’ sudden blow up, the work the 3 original Innersloths made into getting it in front of as many eyes as possible and continually working on its visibility as well as its development helped.
Community managers, marketers, and social media managers are not miracle workers. No one is. It’s not a guarantee your game will take off with the best marketing, but you’re certainly giving it a much better shot if you do factor it in!
In the end, having a community manager will add years to your life, water your crops, cure your acne, and is an overall benefit towards your time, energy, and long term goals as a studio.
Okay fine some of that might’ve been a bit of a biased statement, maybe. Possibly. The science is out.
Figuring out what’s possible for you as an indie studio is a whole other ball game, but I hope this helped clarify what a community manager can do, how to incorporate community building into your work, and the rough costs in both time and money when it comes to this.
Good luck out there!