You might think that huge video game companies have it easy where social is concerned. After all, many of their users aren’t just customers — they’re fans. Whether they’re fans of the company, the game franchise, or individual developers, a game company’s fans can make for a dedicated customer base. Any company would be thrilled to have dedicated customers like that, but when we look at Blizzard Entertainment and Riot Games, we see that fostering those communities is a lofty task.

However, these dedicated fan bases require dedicated social attention, and large game companies — especially those who want to keep players around to pay subscription fees or buy digital goods well beyond an initial game purchase — devote plenty of attention to keeping those fans engaged and happy.

Not only will you see game companies announcing their latest product offerings on social channels, you’ll find a constant stream of news about product updates, new services, previews, and highlights from the fan community. Games with larger, more dedicated fan bases are likely to have followers that crave — and get — tons of social interaction, with the easy ability to chat with a game’s staff through social channels.

This is a large social undertaking, but it can produce some equally large results. Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft game, launched in 2004, has an active player base of over seven million subscribers — each paying around $15 a month to play. Looking at World of Warcraft‘s social profile, you’ll find 482,000 Twitter followers and 5.5 million Likes on Facebook.

Riot Games’ League of Legends has an even more impressive social footprint. Launched in 2009, this free to play game has 67 million people logging on monthly — and plenty of those players wind up spending on virtual items to enhance their gameplay. The company has just over 1 million Twitter followers and 9.5 million Likes on Facebook. Keeping those fans active and engaged isn’t just a marketing expense — it’s a business imperative that keeps these games running.

While your business may not be managing a community with millions of users, there’s no reason you can’t look at how Blizzard and Riot manage their massive communities — and learn a bit about how to build and manage your own fan base in the process.

Great Content Is Crucial

With so many active users, keeping followers engaged has to go beyond posting product announcements and even answering customer questions. Both of these companies are active on multiple social platforms multiple times a day and in addition to run of the mill social marketing and promotion efforts, they create and share a lot of original content.

World of Warcraft has a web series called Azeroth Choppers which features the a team designing and building real life motorcycles that will eventually appear in the game world; offering in-depth previews of upcoming content with insight into the design process; and “dev watercooler” articles, where development staff discuss game design decisions in depth.

League of Legends highlights the game strategies of top players with blog posts and video; posts detailed writeups about the development process; and covers the professional gaming scene with writeups about pro teams and tournaments. And of course both social presences pay close attention to their fan community, sharing fan content on social channels and encouraging discussion.

Social activity goes beyond a single primary account, however — for both games, many individual employees, including community managers and development staff, have their own social accounts that fans can follow and interact with. For serious fans, this is where some of the most interesting social interaction happens, since developers often hold impromptu question and answer sessions that can address details that are important to players but were too minor to be discussed in marketing materials. Getting employees beyond social staff involved in social networking not only expands social reach, but it also offers in-depth interaction opportunities that fans will appreciate.

Your Fans Aren’t Always Your Biggest Fans

Having dedicated fans isn’t necessarily a sure-fire ticket to social success, because your biggest fans can also be your biggest critics. When fans don’t care for changes you’ve announced, they can be very vocal about it — and the longer they’ve been a fan, the more likely they are to feel entitled to be listened to.

So how does a company manage unhappy fans? Clear communication is the first response — and one reason you see both World of Warcraft and League of Legends posting a good deal of content where development staff explains game changes and design decisions. Fans who aren’t surprised by changes are less likely to respond with anger, and explaining the reasoning behind changes can defuse community outrage before it has a chance to start.

For poorly behaving players, League of Legends even has a Tribunal system that allows players to vote on how other players will be punished for poor in-game behavior — and handing this kind of power over to the player base can side-step complaints about how the company treats the players.

Still, any company working with fans can expect some negativity — and fans picking out the company or specific employees to blame for unpopular decisions. World of Warcraft frequently ran into this problem with Lead System Designer Greg Street, who was one of the most active staff members communicating with the game community. Because of Street’s visibility, he often shouldered the blame for unpopular design decisions regardless of whether or not he was involved in making them.

Blizzard has addressed this by getting more staff involved on social channels — at present, nearly 40 Blizzard staffers are active on Twitter, which gives more than one face to the development team and makes it difficult for fans to target their anger at any one staff member.

No matter what your social goals, giving your fans more community and more content will keep them around — and it’s it’s a social tactic that both Blizzard and Riot have built gaming empires on.

[Image credit: multiplay]