I recently had time to interview Eric Nielsen, the director of Social Media and Communities at VMware. Eric has responsibility for the external community of VMware which has about two million people. My conversation with him was focused on this as well as the integration of gamification into his communities.

David Coleman: How big is your online community now?

Eric Nielsen: We have about 300 different communities, so we have some overlap, we have about 2 million members, but we think about 300,000 is overlap

David: Last time we talked your external communities were built on a very customized version of Jive, and you were looking at upgrading to the current version?

Eric: Yes, we did that. It was a big job going from Jive 1.X to Jive 4, and in the last year we have upgraded to Jive 5, which is the current version, it only took us 6 months to go from 4 to 5. Data migration was easy, and we did it ourselves. Jive has done a much better architecture, most of the customizations are abstracted out, so when you upgrade you don't have to mess with the customizations.

David: You talked earlier about adding gamification to your communities?

Eric: There is some gamification in Jive already, they have levels and badges, you can name them whatever you want. We called ours: beginner, intermediate, expert, genius, and you got points for answering questions correctly, submitting questions, posting in Jive forums, you get weekly points, we have a leader board posted on the front page, weekly leaders, and it is already in the Jive platform.

But the problem is they are discussing VMware in other places. Most discussions have been on Twitter, more social interactions. More people are blogging and micro blogging, and moving away from having general conversations inside the Jive platform, and holding them on Facebook and other social networks.

We needed a gamification model that would work within all of those other channels, meaning we had to choose a vendor or build it ourselves, and we really did not want to build it (it is not the business we are in). Google has an open API for gamification, badges, I think it is called "open badge" or Google Badge. But we found it not to be ready for prime time yet, they have a lot of people working on it, but no one has built any big game platforms.

So we started to look at vendors that had it on their roadmap to integrate with Google's game API, so that down the road if we want to integrate with that, we can. Looking for something with an open source model is what drove us to Badgeville and Bunchball, the two vendors that had game APIs and systems, with different levels of solutions. That we could determine how much engineering effort we want to put into it, and budget.

David: What are you trying to accomplish with gamification or game mechanics? What made you even think of game mechanics? How did you decide that you wanted to change behavior?

Eric: What we looked at was what kind of point system we wanted to use to reward people. From a marketing perspective we wanted to reward our high achievers in the communities for doing productive behavior to our customer space.

David: In my experience, different roles respond better to different rewards. For example sales people are very competitive and money rewards seem to work pretty well with them, but not very well with software developers. They seem to want peer recognition, people using their software, access to expertise or specific data, or a cool assignment.

Eric: Absolutely, we wanted to track what people were doing, and what we were rewarding people for specific behaviors, but getting a bulk point system in place was the first step, so we could measure how much people were doing. We also use tools like SNA (social network analysis), but we also began running trials around the points which kind of gives us a social analytics system based on points.

We could have done that with Adobe’s Omniture, or others that track analytics like Radian6 (now owned by Salesforce.com), but we look at it that the point system on the MTM which has been very successful, and they were actually engaged because they can see how much they did compared to everyone else, which is a good motivator. We want to deal with more complex rewards in the future.

I had some experience with this at Sun Microsystems (now part of Oracle). What we did was give you points for things that you did, pens were 5, for 20 points you got a hat, 50 points you get a t-shirt, etc. If you were really good and got lots of points over a long time (2-3 years) you could get a leather jacket. The whole process was very successful.

Now Badgeville and others have ways to do auto-fulfillment, you just set the process up and let it run. I just have to write them a big check every once in a while to pay for the stuff people won. Multiple tiers of these point system works, but I would not call that gamification. The points and rewards are part of game mechanics.

The next step up is gamification. There was a gamification effort at EMC (parent company of VMware), internal contest between sales teams, with different products getting different points, and it was very successful, and they could contribute millions of dollars of revenue to it. They used Badgeville also, so we had some exposure from EMC.

David: What other options are you looking at with gamification?

Eric: Throw in team play, team rewards, much like Duke University did where the reward was plane tickets to see Duke Basketball team play in China, and you get to be with the team during that. For us if you get to a specific team level and a badge you get invited to a specific event at VMWorld (invitee only) to meet some of the key people.

Interview took place on August 10, 2012.

Editor's Note: To read more by David Coleman why not start with The Challenges of the Social Enterprise