Are Implicit Rewards killing your online community?

Walk of Fame

An online content manager who does not understand all the reward systems at play can lose control of the forum and the commercial focus.  Lose focus and lose the client.

We all dream of setting up that killer online community for a client.  Cold customers wander in, discuss some things in the forum, suddenly realise how great the client product is and become brand ambassadors.  It’s a nice dream, and if only life were that simple.

In truth if a forum is too product focused it turns away the kind of people who spend a lot of time in forums.  If it is not product focused at all then there is no benefit to the client.  Getting the balance right is certainly a challenge.

In order to get contributors to enter the forum, and to post to it, you must reward them.  There are two types of reward systems, Explicit Rewards and Implicit Rewards.

Explicit Rewards are the ones we set up with our client.  They can be things with monetary value like competition prizes, promotions, coupons etc.  They can also be non-monetary rewards that we set up on the forum.  Best post of the week.  Top contributor.  Bronze/Silver/Gold star member.

Implicit Rewards are harder to identify and measure.  In general what implicit rewards lead to is fame.  You need to know what it is that generates likes, shares, helpful votes etc for posts on your site.  What is the dynamic at play, and what does this say about your site and your product?

For illustration I use two examples, Amazon books and TripAdvisor Accomodation/Restaurants.

Book lovers are always looking for their next read.  I am a “heavy user” of books so I know exactly what I am talking about here.  If I am finishing a book and don’t have the next one lined up I begin to feel exposed, nervous, itchy.  Many heavy readers maintain a TBR “Pile”  literally a stack of 5 to 10 books in the corner of a room lined up ready to be read.  Feeding the TBR pile is an important activity.

Book lovers are very interested in recommendations from other book lovers.  For this reason Amazon is a gem.  You can get lots of recommendations on books from people who like the kind of books that you like.  If I read a positive recommendation for a book and decide to buy it I will give a “like” to the recommendation.  If someone writes a negative book review I may avoid that book, but I am unlikely to “like” the recommendation.

The implicit reward system at play amongst Amazon.Com reviewers is that you achieve more “Fame” from positive reviews than you do for negative ones.  Reviewing is a competition.  There are lots of reviewers out there who want to be in the “Top 100” or “Top 1000” reviewer list.  The ranking is explicit.  How you improve your ranking is implicit.  Competitive reviewers who are out for glory quickly learn to review only in a positive way.  This is not bad for Amazon.  More positive reviews will generate more book sales.

TripAdvisor is different.  There is a tradition in the media of writing colourful scathing reviews of bad holiday or dining experiences.  There is pleasure to be derived from reading a truly awful restaurant review in your Sunday Newspaper from the comfort of your couch, with your coffee in your hand.  It is a form of entertainment which has leaked onto TripAdvisor.

There is an old customer service maxim that a satisfied customer will tell 3 friends and a dissatisfied one will tell 20.  TripAdvisor has become a sounding bell for dissatisfied customers.  As they depart a hotel in anger at the service level, or the food quality, you will often hear them fire their Parthian Shot.  “I’m going to put this on TripAdvisor”.

The implicit reward system for TripAdvisor is inherently negative.  The more negative your review, and the more colourfully you express the experience, the greater is your level of attention.  Fame comes from being nasty.  TripAdvisor is not a hotel or a restaurant.  They do not suffer from a poor review.  If anything it attracts more users to the site.  If you are booking your annual holiday you want to peek behind the curtain of the hotel you are staying in to see if the worst is acceptable to you.  Also Forewarned is Forearmed.  You can avoid the noisy room beside the elevator, or the one above the nightclub.

When you are setting up your own discussion forum you need to understand the implicit mechanisms at play.  How do your contributors become famous on your site?  What does this do to, or say about your product?

Copyright D. Clancy (2014)

Donal Clancy is a digital strategist and communications planner.  He set up Ireland’s first postgraduate University course in Digital Marketing in DCU.

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