Jon gives us five ways that Nintendo can improve its online relationship with its fans.
Regardless of the North American fate of Xenoblade, Pandora's Tower, and The Last Story, the furor surrounding Operation Rainfall has exposed what is perhaps Nintendo's greatest weakness: its lack of meaningful online interaction and communication with its consumers. In this era of social media, viral videos, and up-to-the-minute news, Nintendo's approach to its web presence is conservative to say the least. Here's what I feel the company must change in order to make their fans feel closer to their favorite game company.
Launch a company blog with an honest-to-goodness Community Manager. However you feel about Microsoft and Sony, you can't say that they're out of touch with their audience. Microsoft's Major Nelson (Larry Hyrb) is well-known around the web, and his blog has become a high-profile source for Xbox 360 news. Sony's PlayStation blog takes more of a content-by-committee approach, but it still features daily news updates by various folks up and down the company food chain. These blogs provide a valued sounding board for fans, while also giving moderators the opportunity to wade into the frightening waters of user comments if they so desire.
Nintendo has neither a company blog nor a Community Manager of any sort; the closest thing they have to behind-the-scenes commentary is their Iwata Asks website, which features developer interviews with company president Satoru Iwata. These interviews provide great information to readers, but in the end they represent a highly-controlled one-way exchange of information with about as much personality as a dictionary. They're also incredibly long, verbose, intimidating walls of text that most readers would rather have summarized for them on other websites. Nintendo is a dynamic company doing noteworthy things that people want to hear about, and having a public face – or at least a blog written in a casual, conversational tone – would help greatly. Fans prefer to get their news from real people, as opposed to a heavily-sanitized PR machine.
Put some effort into Twitter. Love it or hate it, Twitter has become a major communication tool. Sony has a Twitter feed featuring the witty observations and boasting of fictional company executive Kevin Butler, as well as PlayStation feeds for their North American, European, and Netherlands branches. Major Nelson has a personal feed that discusses more than just games, and Microsoft has an Xbox feed as well as feeds for technical support and community development.
Unfortunately, Nintendo of America's official feed is about as dry as it comes (and it's doubtful that their Japanese feed is any better). I was excited to start following it when it first appeared, but I dropped it a few days later after realizing that it was nothing more than marketing fluff, hokey user polls, and press release-style news stories. Of course, its overall effectiveness is hampered by the lack of an official blog for it to link to, since most fans use Twitter to keep up with news posts on their favorite corporate sites. Blogs and Twitter work hand-in-hand very nicely, and this marketing dovetail is a huge miss on Nintendo's part.
Streamline and improve their Facebook pages. Facebook is hands-down the de facto social media platform on the planet, with some 750 million users. Sony's PlayStation page has over 16 million likes, while Microsoft's Xbox page has over 10 million. They both prominently feature company news and videos, online store marketing, as well as user posts and conversations. They're slick, polished one-stop Facebook shops for PlayStation and Xbox fans.
Nintendo's Facebook presence is considerably more scattered. There is an official Nintendo page, but since it was created relatively recently (which is strange in itself), it only has 254,000 likes. Their Wii page has less than 2 million likes, and the official Mario page has 3 million; there's also a slew of other franchise pages. All of this shows that Nintendo has a lot of franchises, but really, why fracture your Facebook audience in this manner? What's worse is that searching on "Nintendo" doesn't even take users to their main page like it does for "PlayStation" or "Xbox"; instead, they're taken to Nintendo's Facebook Places check-in entry. Hopefully the creation of a main Nintendo page is a foreshadowing of a streamlining process that's already underway. Unfortunately, Nintendo's pages tend to have content that's just as anemic as their Twitter feeds, so more dynamic content would be helpful as well.
Bring back the official Nintendo forums. Nintendo's official NSider forums were closed "indefinitely" on September 17, 2007, with fans being told the move was part of a website overhaul to support Wii and Nintendo DS. Nintendo of Europe's forums also turned off the lights the following week. That "indefinitely" soon became "permanently", as the message currently displayed at the old Nintendo forum website confirmed a little over a year later. The Nintendo Tech Support forums are all that remain.
Nintendo's suggestion at the time was to "invite [their] fans to build on the spirit of that community by starting their own Nintendo discussion sites". By effectively offloading community-building to their fans, Nintendo splintered their online fanbase and made goodwill-generating events like Camp Hyrule a thing of the past. The importance of these events cannot be understated; several NWR staffers met each other during Camp Hyrule, and every year Nintendo fans looked forward to getting together to celebrate their love of the brand (even if it was only online). In retrospect, the closing of the official Nintendo forums marked the beginning of Nintendo's curious shift away from community cultivation, to its current policy of keepings its fans at arm's length and mostly in the dark.
Be honest with your fans and share news with them, even if it's bad. These days, fans like to be kept up-to-date on what a company is doing and why they're doing it. Nintendo's policy of providing fans with news on a seemingly need-to-know basis causes them to come across as unconcerned and out of touch with their player base. They have always been secretive, and in the fast-moving video game industry that's perfectly understandable (especially with the press, which has often been hostile to Nintendo and its sometimes contrarian business strategies). However, video game fans are an especially enthusiastic and passionate bunch, and sometimes packaging bad news with an explanation can save a company from an internet backlash thanks to rampant speculation.
A perfect example of this approach is Capcom's handling of its decision not to localize Japanese title Ace Attorney Investigations 2. When Capcom fans complained on the company's forums, Senior Vice-President Christian Svensson personally responded in a language that every gamer can understand: sales numbers. When a forum user suggested that Investigations 2 would sell more than Okamiden, he frankly stated:
The costs of localization are higher than the forecasted return. And no, it wouldn't sell more than Okamiden (which has already sold more than the first Investigations).
As far as the internet was concerned, that was that. Nobody could argue with Capcom's logic in this case, and while there has certainly been some grumbling, there was no letter-writing campaign, no Operation Anything, and really no hard feelings. Capcom let their fans know exactly where they stood on the matter and the logic behind their decision, their fans agreed to disagree, and everybody moved on. Nintendo could stand to learn from Capcom's handling of a potentially prickly situation.
There's no reason why Nintendo can't harness the power of its online community for its own good, while also offering its supporters a sense of inclusion in what they do. Few brands are fortunate enough to have such a passionate, knowledgeable, and long-lived fanbase that literally spans generations. However, in order to make this happen they must expend more effort on their social media than they have in many years, and must infuse their web presence with a personality that is sorely lacking. They must attack on all fronts, hitting their web-savvy fanbase where they live – on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and forums – and offer a reasonable measure of transparency across the board.
Ultimately, Nintendo must reach out. The game industry currently exists in North America mostly thanks to their efforts, and along the way they've made many fans because of it. But the most effective methods of interacting with these fans have changed, and Nintendo must change along with them. A renewed dedication to a hands-on approach is the best way to ensure that the storm clouds of Operation Rainfall are nothing more than distant thunder for Nintendo fans everywhere.