Community management operates by a golden — if unwritten — rule: give to your members long before you plan to ask for anything in return. 

At the end of the day, community building is about making your members feel like they’re better people for having been part of your community. 

But how do you accomplish that? 

You do it one day at a time, with the right rewards in place that resonate with your members. 

Lay Your Community's Foundation with a Rewards System

Setting up rewards for your members with this in mind creates a strong community foundation. It creates trust, makes members feel they matter, and ensures that your community does not feel transactional (i.e. members come en masse to the community, get what they need and never return to create continual business value).

Rewarding members is not just about directly motivating members to increase participation. It’s about affirming their actions and solidifying their identities in the community in a way that may indirectly motivate them to participate in the long run. 

So how do you reward members of your community? Let’s break down the right way and the wrong way to reward members. 

When Extrinsic Rewards Don't Work

Extrinsic rewards are tangible, like swag and badges. 

They can without doubt motivate members to take action, but they are not infinitely scalable. When managers use extrinsic rewards as a crutch to kickstart communities, this causes problems in community building and often leads to stagnation and dead ends.  

Why? 

If you remove an in-place extrinsic reward that was responsible for your members’ identity and actions in the community, your members’ behavior will come to a screeching halt. 

To use an example from behavioral psychology: Pavlov’s dog learned to salivate when a bell was rung, but the dog would not salivate if that bell was not rung. 

Extrinsic rewards are like that bell. Removing them can have disastrous consequences if they’ve become entrenched in your community structure.

In a previous role, I worked to revive a community of over 20,000 members who had been motivated through gift cards to create user-generated content. We eventually reduced the amount of rewards given out and activity plummeted. 

When this occurs, you have to work hard to foster intrinsic rewards to keep the remaining members engaged (more on this in the next section). 

When Extrinsic Rewards Do Work

Extrinsic rewards can and do work, however, when given at random and when they are not given as a crutch to kickstart activity, but rather as a tangible enforcement of social identity. 

For example:

  • Giving away T-shirts or other swag to your most engaged members. They can then represent your brand more widely and the T-shirt will hold significance for them
  • Badges and gamification systems in a community of already-engaged users or users who are motivated for reasons outside of badges alone
  • Sending handwritten thank you cards to thank a member after they’ve engaged.

Intrinsic Rewards

Intrinsic rewards motivate members to participate without any outside, tangible returns. For instance, people can be rewarded to participate in a community in order to:

  • Increase their personal and professional profile
  • Help others
  • Feel connected to something larger than themselves
  • Feel heard, seen and understood
  • Feel they have a sense of freedom, accomplishment and autonomy

These deep-seated feelings are essential to our humanity, and when you can appeal to these desires, you’re building something of lasting value. 

Community managers have many, many ways to reward members intrinsically, including:

  • Increase their profile: Inviting VIP members to a reception to rub elbows with community leaders, add members to a small beta group where they have access to your team and to influencers, thank members publicly, highlight their work in public forums
  • Helping others: Thanking members verbally for their contribution, creating leaderboards not focused on competition between members but rather on how much the collective group has helped others, sharing big wins with members
  • Feel connected to something larger than themselves: Creating newsletters or other regular updates that remind people of their collective progress toward goals, celebrating major milestones like anniversaries, goals hit or projects completed
  • Feel heard, seen, understood: Ensuring every comment gets a reply in your community, hosting regular calls to listen to member feedback and ideas
  • Feel they have a sense of freedom, accomplishment and autonomy: Handing over key responsibilities to members through effectively-run volunteer programs (like distributed meet-ups, expert member programs, AMAs, running actual subsets of the community)

How Do You Know You’ve Found the Right Rewards? 

Test one reward at a time. See how it moves the needle in your community. Are you keeping your most engaged members over time? And are you adding numbers to that list? And finally, do you see an increase in the quality of their engagement? 

If so, you’ve found a reward you should stick with. 

As Michael Wu, Chief Scientist of Lithium points out, motivation and reward are not the same thing. You can’t “make” your members participate in your community through rewards alone. 

But you can understand the link between reward and motivation for your ideal members. You can systematically ensure that the rewards you offer are meaningful to those ideal members so that you are more likely to motivate the right members to take the right actions and build a stronger business case for your community as a result. 

Title image Matt Jones