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Managers discussing community member motivation

What Three Things Motivate Community Members?

What can you do to create loyal members? Learn more about providing the right rewards and the importance of building a community.

How do you create loyal users? That’s the million dollar question (or $245 billion if you’re Facebook).

Last year, I read this TechCrunch article about how to create loyal users in today’s sea of options. A big piece of the puzzle is gamification, and I was impressed with the way the article boiled it down using real life examples. Gamification can get complicated, but the author simplified the main points into these three buckets: rewards (the right rewards), frequency and the importance of building a community of people whose opinion we care about.

The Right Rewards

I’ve written about gamification — and even shamification — in private online communities and think it can be a powerful motivator to drive engagement. Many platforms use some type of gamification; people like badges, and many are motivated by engagement points and a leader board. But not just any rewards work. That’s why the right rewards are crucial.

Have you ever heard of Mahalo? Probably not; they’re a failed community. They didn’t understand how important the right rewards were. They rewarded people with money for answering questions. Money isn’t motivating in the right way — extrinsic rewards don’t always work, and it didn’t build loyalty or a sense of community for Mahalo. There was a disconnect. Only the person answering got money — not the asker — and it would take days before that person would receive money. It didn’t motivate people to ask questions frequently, and their engagement never took off.

Now, have you ever heard of Quora? Chances are yes — it’s a very successful community where people ask and answer questions. But the rewards aren’t real — they’re just points. Everyone starts off with 500 points, and you can earn more points if people ‘upvote’ an answer (indicating it’s the best). If you are a thought leader or expert, people can even pay you points to answer a question. Why is that model successful? These are intrinsic rewards — they’re not monetary or even physical, but they make you feel good and important.

Social acceptance is a strong motivator for community participation — will people agree my post was helpful and see me as an expert? There are still people motivated by seeing their name at the top of the leader board, but others are more motivated by the ego boost of becoming a big fish, intellectually speaking, in a relatively small pond. It’s a lot easier to stand out as a thought leader in a private niche community than on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, where you’re competing with the whole world.

ASAE’s Collaborate is a great example of a community where this type of motivation is very apparent. Consultants and thought leaders within the association space frequently contribute and put a lot of effort into maintaining a regular presence on that community. They’re motivated because they know their worth and importance.

Frequency Builds Habits

Making community a habit is critical for success. In a private community, daily digests and email notification features are a good place to start. Look at the popularity and longevity of listservs, especially within the association community — a perfect example of a technology becoming a habit people are hooked on. Listservs aren’t sexy — they’re clunky and fill up users’ inboxes with tons of messages. But that frequency is exactly what makes them so addictive, even if a user only reads on a daily basis and rarely, if ever, chimes in.

When it comes to building a successful community, that same daily (or more frequent) touchpoint is essential for hooking users. This is exactly why I recommend community managers auto-subscribe their members to the daily digest email notification. It can annoy some at first, but we’ve seen it play out thousands of times: notifications enable a private community to go from being an isolated island to a daily habit for users. Keep in mind the members’ perception of the email they receive from the community is very different from a traditional marketing email. This is an email from their peers (albeit, facilitated by your organization) and doesn’t have the same top-down feeling marketing emails can have.

A Community of Respected Peers

LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter may have millions of users. But private, niche communities have an advantage when it comes to motivating users who care about the respect of peers within their profession or topic of interest. While those same users may tweet or blog on LinkedIn, chances are those efforts go mostly unnoticed — it’s like adding a drop of water to an ocean of content. The bottom line is public social networks like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook are about volume, not about promoting individuals. Over time, individuals are less motivated to contribute thoughtful content on those platforms because their pieces probably won’t get noticed by anyone relevant amidst that sea of content.. But in a private community of peers they respect, who work in a similar field or who share interests, their content is a lot more likely to get noticed — and get noticed by people who matter.

Fitting together the puzzle pieces

The TechCrunch article I linked to at the top is a little over a year old. What do you think happened to Jelly? The app is still around and in use, but it’s widely seen as a failure — barely anyone downloads it anymore.

What happened?

They didn’t connect all the puzzle pieces. It’s important to remember you need all three buckets above if gamification is going to work. The overall concept of Jelly was a good idea, but they didn’t figure out a rewards system that encouraged people to ask questions. In the end, they had the same problem as Mahalo — people were ready to answer questions, but nobody answered. It was faster to go to Google. There wasn’t any frequency or habit building bringing people back.

How does your community avoid this fate? Give engagement points for both answering and asking questions. Create an “upvoting” system like Quora’s to sift the best answers to the top and create a little competition. Finally, if you foster a community of peers who respect each other, they’d rather ask questions on your site rather than a search engine, because they trust your members more.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2013 has been updated for accuracy, relevance and freshness.


Andy Steggles

Andy co-founded Higher Logic with a mission to transform and disrupt the B2B group collaboration software market. He now serves on its Board of Directors, with a specific focus on M&A and other strategic growth initiatives.