When it comes to setting goals for a software company, a video game, or a social network, the metrics of success tend to be things like "stickiness" or daily active users, or revenue per user. And that's all fine and good, but let's be real:

The hardest thing to build with your users is plain old love. That's no easy task, but the rewards are huge.

For example, take a look at Animal Jam, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game and social network for kids ages 7-11. It's a property of WildWorks and a partner with National Geographic, and the young user base loves it. That love has led to incredible growth, engagement metrics, and even profitability. Animal Jam is the No. 1 kids social network/gaming platform in the U.S., with more than 45 million registered users who spend more than 74 minutes each play session, on average. And user love has impacted the bottom line too; Animal Jam has increased its revenue 25% year over year since its inception in 2010.

WildWorks CEO Clark Stacey is an expert when it comes to creating power-house children's games; his alma maters Beyond Games and Cobalt Interactive have impressive track records. I chatted with him about what it takes to build a user base that loves you, and he shared six tips.

1. Start with the product

It's probably obvious, but no amount of marketing, community building, or storytelling can save a game that isn't any fun to play. We have lots of different users with different interests--a 7-year-old interacts with the game very differently than a 10-year-old--so it was important to us from the beginning that Animal Jam have both compelling game mechanics and a social layer that lets young players connect and share their accomplishments.

2. Use content to build community

Animal Jam has content coming from two main sources: our in-house team and the players themselves. Not only can players interact with other avatars within the game, but they can also watch videos that teach them about the natural world and encourage them to learn about the environment. Our content also supports real-world causes, like saving polar bears. We also have a blog with in-game hints, contest and event announcements, and answers to common player questions.

But the user-generated content is where the real magic happens. Our community is really active and engaged. Players host their own blogs, they share tips with each other, and they contribute art and essays to our blog. The company also has a few YouTube stars who create homemade videos about the game and its features. We look at this UGC as an indicator of the community's love for the platform and our brand, and we work really hard to foster it with a constant stream of new content.

3. Talk with (and listen to) users, all the time

Part of building brand love is showing our players that they can talk to us. We're engaged in cross-platform conversations. We share pictures and information both in and out of the game. We answer questions quickly and in a way our audience will understand. It's a basic idea, but we always try to keep our audience in mind--a seven-year-old needs a different response than a parent, and we look like a big soulless company if we don't tailor our communications to the audience.

4. Let your users advocate for you

The old saying goes, "Blood makes you related. Loyalty makes you family." This is especially true when it comes to the communities created around certain brands. When users have questions or critics come along, our "family" tends to come to our defense, and those conversations are always more credible than whatever response we'd make ourselves. . That doesn't mean we have a passive approach to crisis communications; rather, we know our audience well enough that in the event of a crisis we know where our audience will make a stand and advocate for us. When our community defends us, it does a lot to win over our detractors, and their own loyalty increases as well.

5. Use marketing tactics that will connect with the user

We're always thinking about what our strongest assets are and how we can use them to win new fans. For instance, in 2015, Animal Jam pursued several licensing partnerships (CPS, Jazwares), to bring our virtual products into the real world. We also created a lot of new marketing art, which the community responded well to, and our conversion rates increased dramatically as a result. That happens because we make sure our marketing materials are tailored to our audience--we know from experience and testing that our audience responds well to bright, colorful, soft-edged images in our game as well as in our marketing collateral.

6. Encourage your audience to give back

The No. 1 reason why people give to charitable causes is because it makes them feel good, and we want to be part of that experience. In some cases, our users are having their first experiences with charitable giving through Animal Jam, and we're always looking for ways to give them opportunities to give back to real-world efforts. One example: Animal Jam provides players opportunities to transfer their virtual currency into real currency to help preserve animals like polar bears, hyenas, big cats, and more. That makes the users feel great about themselves and the time they spend with us, which increases their love of the game and the brand.

Not all of these tips will apply to every brand, but the guidance that Stacey outlined has helped Animal Jam build a loyal, engaged community out of its users through a mix of educational, emotional, and social ties. And isn't that what we all want in the end?

Published on: Feb 4, 2016