A few years ago, a major global technology company decided to go green, and really turned off its user community.
For years, the chachke at the company’s annual conference filled dumpsters. Buttons, cups, badges, highligher sets, USB drives were casually thrown out or over-bought. To save money and reduce waste, this company decided to end the chachke.
But users rebelled.
Workshop and breakout attendance plummeted. Not only that, participants expressed their disappointment live over Twitter, Slashdot, and Stack Overflow.
The company, trying to do good, faced a PR crisis.
Subtraction By Subtraction
What happens when you take away extrinsic motivators, like badges or points, in a virtual system, or buttons and pins at a conference?
For years, scientists have shown that the introduction of extrinsic rewards–points, cash, badges, etc.–can deter desired behavior. Other studies have contradicted this theory.
Recently, researchers Jennifer Thom, David R. Millen, and Joan DiMicco of IBM took a new approach to studying the effect of external rewards in social networks. Instead of adding points and badges, they took them away.
Their results show that external motivators play a big role in participation in some social networking systems:
The removal of the points system made a significant negative impact on the user activity of the site, and our analysis suggests that contribution of content significantly decreased after the deactivation of the points system.
Why Badges Work
Our tech company failed to grasp the meaning and use of their chachke by the participants. The company looked at the stuff as marketing give-aways. Certainly, the user community looked at much of the material as junk–it ended up in the conference center’s dumpsters.
But the users viewed certain chachke differently.
Each breakout session and workshop produced unique buttons and pins as marketing items to remind attendees of that department’s particular value or products. Attendees considered them status symbols of the number of workshops attended. Button collections served as a visible scorecard: the one with the most buttons wins.
In other words, the company’s user community considered each button and pin a badge of honor. When the company removed the badges, the community felt betrayed.
Watch What You Take Away
People keep score, and tribes develop customs. When you take way the points, badges, or rewards that your users value, you reduce their desire to participate. This applies to both employees, as the IBM study shows, and customers, as the tech company learned.
More imporantly, consider the value of game mechanics in designing any experience or system. As the IBM researchers point out:
the complete discontinuation of a game-like capability should not be taken lightly, as they do seem to motivate participation within a social system even for a short period of time.
As social games work their way into the enterprise and into consumer loyalty programs, the importance of knowing your “players” — whether employees, customers, or channel partners — is more important than ever.
Even more important, though, is understanding how people are playing your game.
Read the IBM Paper: