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 reward system in place that resonates with your community members.

Lay Your Community’s Foundation with a Rewards System

Do your members come en masse to your community, get what they need, and never return to create continual business value? Setting up thoughtful rewards for your community members creates a strong foundation. It creates trust, makes members feel they matter, and ensures that your community does not feel transactional.

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.

CMX Engagement Cycle
Rewards are a key piece of your members’ engagement, solidifying their identity in the community and fueling deeper participation over time

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 either physically tangible, like swag or gifts, or digitally transferred, like a badge or points on a profile page.

Extrinsic rewards can without a doubt motivate members to take action, but they mean nothing without an intrinsic reward attached to them (and, in the case, of tangible rewards, are not infinitely scalable). When community professionals use extrinsic rewards as a crutch to kickstart communities, this causes problems in community building and often leads to stagnation and dead ends.

This is because 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’s 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. The secret to success was accepting that we’d lose a good portion of our members who were not there for the right reasons and being at-the-ready with clear communication about what to expect next and how to grow the community from a stronger, intrinsically-motivated base.

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).

Giving away free stuff does not make loyal customers — or community members. The identification with the brand or community must already be there.

When Extrinsic Rewards Do Work

Extrinsic rewards can and do work, however, when given at random (as in the Hook framework) and when they are not given as a crutch to kickstart activity, but rather as a tool to enforce social identity. The identity cannot come from the item itself.

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.

Editor’s Note: A modified version of this article originally appeared on CMS Wire in September 2016.