Unlocking the Art of Reward-fare

February 15, 2010

Companies like Foursquare are showing that game mechanics can be an effective stimulus for social networking. @fredwilson recently wrote a post about rewards and monetization that stimulated a sub-discussion in the comment stream about intrinsic versus extrinsic value in rewarded activities:

I’m curious that if by rewarding going to a place that you may also destroy the bond between you and the place? This is well documented in motivational research. Rewards turn the original intrinsic appreciation into an extrinsic work type relationship. Once that happens I wonder if you’ll lose those people as they move on to find something more intrinsically rewarding, something less like work. Rather than a coupon, maybe a reward could be something that deepens the relationship with a venue, something more life affirming? ~ posted by “toddhoff”

Todd’s point is interesting and it got me thinking about the art of rewarding. What is the right way to reward someone? What is the right time? With what? I’m pretty confident that I don’t have the full answers to any of these questions, but yesterday I did stumble upon a rewards system that allowed me to contribute a small hypothesis to the ongoing debate. It just so happens that Todd’s discussion-starter occurred on the same day that GetGlue shot me an email reminding me to come check up on my recommendation stream. When I got there I saw the following internal promotion:

Get Glue Reward

I think that the promotion above is making a key mistake. The reward is unlocked and presented to me a priori, which eliminates the mystery, surprise, voyeur, and self-affirmation associated with winning digital rewards. I hypothesize that for long-term engagement with a service, game or application, non-monetary rewards will be more effective when presented at the time a desired mission is complete, not prior. The mission can be alluded to throughout the process of achieving it, but it isn’t the raison d’etre for the user. For example, just recently I was given the “Photogenic” badge on Foursquare because it just so happens I have visited three venues that have photobooths. This not only came as a pleasant surprise, but it told me something I didn’t necessarily know about myself (I wasn’t even aware that Gallery Bar has a photobooth!). If Foursquare had told me in advance to “Earn the ‘Photogenic’ badge by checking in at just 2 more locations with photobooths” I might have been far less pleased to receive it.

This is only the beginning of the analysis I plan on doing on game mechanics and rewards systems. I don’t pretend to know even close to what there is to know about this topic. All I know is that it is becoming an increasingly important dynamic on the web and way in which companies and brands attempt to engage users in social media. If you have any thoughts, suggestions, or empirical data related to these topics hit me up @mileslennon.


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