Tag Archives: Gamification

The true meaning of points

Community reputation points are pointless if the community does not buy into their value. As a community manager, it is your job to discover the values that create that buy-in.

I’ve written at length now about how online reputation and rewards work to motivate contributions from your community. But before you rush to create a sophisticated system with bells, whistles, points, and badges, you need to make sure that they will be in tune with the values of your community. Why is that? Because if they aren’t, people won’t care about them, or worse, will take it as a sign that you are out of touch (which frankly, you would be).

A good online reputation and reward management system would reflect what matters to your community members, and merely* capture and quantify that value in the form of online reputation.

Let me give you an example scenario to illustrate the point.

Points are awarded every time a community member shares a forum post via social media. When rolled out to the community platform, Community 1 sees a spike in sharing activity and rise in SEO relevance. Community 2 does not see a measurable traffic increase, and the function is barely used; in addition an angry thread is started by a super-user about how instead of rolling out useless junk Company 2 should better fix existing bugs in the system.

So what went wrong with Community 2 and why was there such a backlash? We know that this can work, and we have seen examples of that in action. Then why is the manager of Community 2 being flamed for doing what is considered to be an industry best practice?

The (sometimes infuriating) answer to this question is that nothing is inherently wrong with this logic, until you put it in the context of your community. So let’s examine our two communities a little closer.

Community 1 is maintained by a software company which offers mobile productivity apps for smartphones. Their community forum is open for anyone to read, and only registered users can contribute. Discussions revolve around integrating the user’s existing services (such as calendars, email, exchange directory, etc.) with the apps as well as troubleshooting. By encouraging sharing of helpful Q&A threads, the community now is more visible on social media, reaching more users, as well as attracting new customers. This extra cross-linking also helps the community’s pages to be displayed higher on the search results page, allowing users with problems to find a solution sooner.

Community 2 is run by a home security company, which offers both software and hardware solutions. The forum is only accessible to verified customers, and closely moderated. Product support is strictly confidential, and forum discussions focus on best practices and special cases. Social sharing may lead to broken links and login prompts in the best case, and to confidentiality breach (if someone decided to quote part of the shared content) in the worst. Encouraging social sharing by points rewards will predictably not go over well, since this is not an activity that serves the values of the given community.

So in short: think before you reward. If you are unclear on what your community values, figure that out first. You are the one being paid the proverbial big bucks to help the community thrive, so do your homework, lest you look silly later on.


* “Merely” in this context doesn’t imply that it’s going to be simple or easy. It implies however that the points system is an add-on to the value system inherent in your community, and cannot function without it.

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Don’t gamify. Engage!

Don’t try to game your users into doing something you want. Instead, use meaningful achievement tracking to encourage community contribution and motivate personal growth.

Forum points are great as a motivator for some folks, particularly the ones who are good at answering questions. However leaderboards can also be extremely demotivating for newcomers. Someone just joining your community may see the huge gap between their reputation level and that of a seasoned participant as an insurmountable obstacle. This leaves you in a little bit of a bind: how to keep your top contributors motivated while also encouraging participation from new members?

It is tricky, if all you can track are forum interactions, and you can resort to using “top 10” lists for the hour or the day to give everyone a chance to see their name in the lights. Sure. That will work for some people: namely the same ones who were motivated by the points all along. They are the ones who already spend hours on the forum, ready to pounce on an unanswered question. Maybe an improved points system will reach a broader mass of them, but they do not make up the majority. This is why I believe that any points-based system will forever be lacking effectiveness.

It’s not all about points.

Let me rephrase that: It’s not at all about points. Points are just an easy way out. Quick, and seemingly fair. But does your community truly exist on the Q&A forums? What about bloggers, user group leads, dedicated customers who take your training and achieve professional certifications? What about makers of video tutorials, and curators of compatibility lists? How many points do they earn if they don’t post in the forum? Zero.

Is their contribution any less valuable? Or as their points status indicates, completely devoid of value? No.

So what do you do? How do you capture all the other stuff that is not just a Q&A binary?

It will take work. Years, probably, and still you’ll never be done.

And it will take support and buy-in from groups in your organization that you may never worked with before. Such as channel marketing and training. So this is not for the faint-hearted.

Tell you the truth, I have yet to finish building such a platform in the wild, but inside my head, it would look something like this:

  1. Create a system that captures behaviours online. Some automatically, and some, you should be able to capture manually. Each behaviour that you capture can be called an achievement, and you can view it as a LEGO block that you can make other things from.
    Example: Post on your blog about Linux. OR Give a presentation at your user group meeting.
  2. Those other things can be called quests or missions or whatever you like. You get to write the rules how each of these quests is completed: ten of the same achievement, or maybe any combination of ten achievements from the same “family” that fit together well.
    Example: Post about Linux once every month for 12 months completes the “Blogger” quest. OR Five blog posts, one magazine article, two public presentations, and a podcast complete the “Public Figure” quest.
  3. Make it more of an honor system than a rigid bureaucracy. Allow people to claim achievements, and periodically/sporadically audit. Community is good at sensing BS, so rely on self-policing and moderators more than bureaucratic enforcement, and you’ll be golden.
    Example: Allow me to claim my “blog post” achievement by simply logging in and submitting the blog post URL. Issue the achievement badge immediately, but also list the event in the activity feed for all to see. Have a red flag or other abuse reporting functionality built in, so that others can report fraudsters.
  4. Start with a small, well-defined scope. Don’t forget the forums! Find a way to translate all those points earned daily into achievements, so that everyone can benefit. Thankfully, forums already capture a lot of data, so just come up with a balanced system where forum activity won’t drown out the rest — because it’s that “rest” that you’re really creating the system for (see opening paragraphs).
  5. Once everyone is on board, and obligatory bugs, quirks, and ruffled feathers have been dealt with (remember, you are unseating the reigning elite here, so be prepared), you can begin adding achievements that are traditionally not viewed as “community” or “social-media” like. Professional training and certifications are an example. Same can be done for partner training and certified system integrators. You will find that many of these programs are very similar to a quest in your system. It may take completion of a number or classes and an exam to become a certified partner. In many cases, there is already a system tracking it, so what you’ll do is integrate it with your system, in a way that makes sense.
    This is a really tricky part, and will require that you work together and get buy-in from people who you may not usually work with. If your company is large, there will be many more players involved, and progress will be slow, but in the end, you will have a system of achievement and recognition that will capture more than just forum posts, and will therefore reward and elevate people who contribute to your community in a variety of different ways. And we all love variety, right?

One day, somewhere, I want a chance to build such a thing, and then my joy will be great. Until then, it’s going to remain a vision for me to aspire to with all the community work I do: build each piece in such a way that were there a chance to expand it into this sort of an all-encompassing rewards system, it would naturally fit. If nothing else, it ensures that I never lose sight of the big picture and the overarching goal of running a community program.

In closing, this is more of a visionary post than the usual hands-on guides that I have been posting here. I promise that the next one will be practical again.

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Filed under Advanced, Community management, Reputation