You wrote it. They loved it! Mastering reward and recognition in online communities

tessello Community Engagement Consultant Steph Bright on her recent experience of a new community, and how the value of our contributions encourages positive behaviour

I recently wrote my first review for TripAdvisor. It’s something I’d been meaning to do for a while given that a) poor customer service is one of my biggest bugbears; b) I eat out a lot and c) I’m an avid watcher of The Hotel Inspector (that’s the recipe for a good reviewer, right?) I’d just never get round to it.

Then, on holiday in Madeira I stayed in a stunning new hotel with little to fault, however the few small errors they were making as a new business were so frustrating I felt obliged to offer some constructive feedback.

So, feeling content with my review I hoped the hotel and fellow holiday goers would find my comments useful, I contemplated writing some more reviews, but contemplation never actually turned into realisation, and I went back to work.

Five days later I received an email. The subject line read “You wrote it. They loved it!” Feeling intrigued and charmed by their bait, I opened up the email to be congratulated by a large thumbs-up icon and the message that my review had been voted helpful by another traveller. “Well done!”

I was instantly delighted (yes I know, easily pleased) and planning my next review, which got me thinking; why has the knowledge that I’ve simply written a helpful review made me feel so positive? Not only do I feel good about it, I feel encouraged to write another – exactly the behaviour TripAdvisor wants as a company reliant on the contributions of its community.

They’re not unique to the community-driven approach either. Plenty of online communities are now sustained solely through the voluntary input of members just look at Mumsnet, or giffgaff whose customer service is almost entirely managed by volunteers. But why do they do it, and return to do it again and again?

Are emails of praise enough or do they get cash rewards? Are they also enthused by The Hotel Inspector and do they have jobs? In my job I’m continually searching for ways to engage and increase participation within the social learning communities of our tessello clients, and TripAdvisor have just wooed me with a thumbs-up…

There are clear differences between engaging employees on a social learning platform and a website for sharing worldwide travelling experiences of course, but my experience made me consider the psychology of reward and recognition at play here and whether there could be a simple tactic to apply to any community scenario.

So I broke the experience and behaviours involved down into a few key stages as I saw them:

My barrier of writing that first review was broken by the fact the hotel was new. I guess wanting to be helpful to a new business was therefore my key motivation; it wasn’t actually about the community. And why would it be? I wasn’t part of the community, it hadn’t provided me anything and although I shared the same ethos, I wasn’t yet aligned to it.

The motivations of your community can vary, and understanding that is crucial. TripAdvisor is primarily about the travellers and offering them support, not businesses, yet this is what prompted me. Someone won’t join and participate in your community just because they like what you do, they must find a reason based on their own unique desire to help, to offer advice or contribute in a way that’s personal to them – and this first experience might take time.

This is especially important online where you lack the physical gestures visible in person: online it’s all or nothing. The “You wrote it” email was the moment I received recognition. My contribution was rated helpful by a community member and I was informed by TripAdvisor. My helpfulness – the use value I’d added to the community network – was ultimately the basis for recognition.

What’s important to note here is that TripAdvisor didn’t just tick the box and say “Thanks for contributing” once I’d submitted my review. They waited until my contribution had some clear impact, one which linked to and fulfilled my earlier objective and reason for action – wanting to say something constructive about my fine holiday destination.

Without this link, recognition is empty, making it difficult to encourage someone to contribute again if they’re not really sure of what’s in it for them. That clear connection between my contribution and my fellow user’s positive outcome is crucial.

Oxford Dictionaries defines reward as “A thing given in recognition of service, effort, or achievement” and often implies something material. Bestowing me status within the TripAdvisor community was my reward, in the form of a TripAdvisor Level 1 contributor badge: nothing material in the meaningful sense, simply the invitation into the levels of community status. A step on the ladder.

Should they have given me something material? No, TripAdvisor understands that material incentives don’t work, at least not if you’re aiming to recruit a valuable community member. Sure, if they’d said “Great review here’s £100” I wouldn’t have refused it… but unless I received £100 for every review I doubt I’d continue as my expectations would have been set too high, and my motivation would have been heavily influenced and commodified, as opposed to genuine. The feeling of personal satisfaction and the community capital (social capital within a particular network boundary) was enough to get me in – all triggered by a simple acknowledgement email.

Repetition. Ultimately the objective of reward and recognition is to drive repeat behaviour, and form habits, leading to a community of active contributors. Since joining the TripAdvisor community I’ve now posted two more reviews for restaurants, and am likely to continue – as and when I have time and something valuable to share. I now feel a part of the community because it both appeals to my interests and makes me feel I have something helpful to offer, but isn’t placing psychological pressure on me to contribute again until I have something useful to add. There’s no sense of pressure or coercion, and the TripAdvisor community remains a safe and welcoming space for me.

So what’s more important, reward, or recognition?

Reflecting on each stage, this all translated into one formula, or lesson, that I learnt:

It’s not about the reward. If the recognition has been mastered to understand why someone might have contributed and what they might want to receive from doing so, this itself is the reward. Knowing you’ve been helpful is the reward. Helping someone else is the reward.

If we’re making a contribution, an honest one (because what use is a dishonest one?), we don’t want gifts or money in return, we simply want to be recognised and feel valued for the little things we do.

Communities are made of humans after all, and all it can take is a few simple words.

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