[This post is part of a 4 part series on the key tensions in growing a high quality community-generated content site. It was presented at PubCon, Las Vegas, 2011]
Dan Ariely tells the classic story of mixing social and market contexts. A man finishes Thanksgiving Dinner at his mother-in-law’s house and says “That was fantastic. What do I owe you? $300? No, $400!” In the extreme, market-context norms in a social context can turn a wonderful encounter into an exploitative nightmare.
Ariely also ran experiments demonstrating how people would sometimes happily do tasks for free. But pay them a little bit of money and you change the entire dynamic. Now they’ve gone from enthusiastic team members to low-paid wage earners, and they may become bitter and less efficient.
If it’s bad for volunteer work, it’s even worse for penalties. Freakonomics provides a story of a Haifa day care center that had a problem of a few parents sometimes coming late to pick up their kids. So they imposed a small fine. Completely backfired. Parents came late far more frequently. Coming late was no longer perceived of as being socially inconsiderate. Now it was simply a financial transaction where parents paid for extra service. The day care center removed the fines, but it was too late. They failed to re-establish the social norm that people needed to be considerate and arrive on time.
And yet, people are often motivated by personal rewards. Francois Gossieaux provides one nice solution, from the SAP developer community. As usual, success was born out of learning from failure. They had introduced a points system, which unfortunately changed the dynamic of the community to overly competitive, including many instances of bullying. Their solution? Instead of allowing the points to be exchanged for personal benefits, the points would trigger payments to a children’s charity. It solved the problem. The point system still served as incentive, but instead of encouraging users to sabotage and bully each other it encouraged users to help each other.
While you’re designing your site pay careful attention to the framing and the context. Yochai Benkler tells of a classic experiment where two different groups played two different “versions” of Prisoner’s Dilemma. One was called the Wall Street game. The other was called the Community game. Otherwise the games were identical. Not surprisingly, twice as many people cooperated when it was called the Community game. I love that example because it reminds us of any obvious truth. People look for guidance into what behavior is desired. Tell them that they succeed by being great community members, and that’s often what they’ll be.
Social context still involves reciprocation. It’s just more complex than paying the amount on the price tag.
Mahalo provides a classic example of a failure to use market context to grow community. They tried a revenue share with their content creators. One of the problems that killed them is that the financial value to Mahalo of each individual contribution was so low that essentially they were telling their contributions, “thanks for your hour of work, here’s your nickle.” They tried to portray the reward structure as similar to tickets you used to get in skee-ball or children’s arcade games, that you could exchange for prizes. But it’s not the same. Getting a tiny prize doesn’t turn my skee-ball playing experience from harmless fun into a feeling that I was exploited and unappreciated in a low-paid job. But when I think I spent an hour contributing my heart and soul to a community and they leave a nickle on my nightstand, they’re (unintentionally) telling me what they think I’m worth.
Finally, remember to treat your volunteers like volunteers. AOL recently paid out a $15 million settlement to some of their “volunteers” after AOL repeatedly crossed the lines between what makes a volunteer and what makes an employee. Quick recap there: they demanded their “volunteers” fill out time sheets, get approval for vacation, and complete specific tasks in specific time frames. They let “volunteers” know that the hardest working “volunteers” would be best positioned to get paid positions when those opened up. They also gave the “volunteers” things like business cards and employee discounts. They crossed enough lines between Social & Market context that they earned not only the wrath of the people who used to be their biggest fans and contributors, but they found themselves on very shaky legal grounds regarding minimum-wage laws.
So what can you do?
If you’re building a community site that’s dependent on the goodwill and happiness of volunteers, keep your focus on the social context. Make your volunteers happy within the context of volunteering. Why did your best volunteers come to the site? To engage others? Maybe reciprocate by holding a conference and paying their expenses so they can meet other top volunteers face-to-face. Did they come trying to create something great? Reciprocate by making sure you’re (at least) equally committed to your site’s greatness.
Make their concerns your concerns, and pay attention to them. Are they putting in significant hours helping your site? Make sure your team is putting in significant hours to remove their greatest frustrations in working with your site. Is one of your top volunteers in a walkathon? Sponsor her.
There are a million ways to make your community members feel great or feel like you’re just using them. Find intelligent ways to treat them with the respect and admiration they deserve. And remember to do it within the social context.