Startups: Evaluate Gamification Lest You Piss Off Your Users!

Gamification methodologies such as “Leaderboard”, “Reputation”, “Badges”, “Rewards” and “Points” are very commonly implemented by startups just to encourage certain user behavior,virality, & increase activity – but not all users respond to these techniques homogeneously.

Gamify at your own peril!

Most of the time, these so called incentives deliver undue results to startups; they are like slow poison – kill user growth; you won’t even know the cause of your user’s dissatisfaction and disengagement;

Many wrong incentives happen to right users.

Let your product and its features become inherent rewards and badges for its users.
Let your user community organize around who gets benefited by the ecosystem and who gets sidelined rather than you implementing fake badges and fluffy leader boards. 
For example, on Quora, many reputed and highly successful entrepreneurs and thought leaders volunteer their time and effort in enriching the content for millions of its users.
None of the “who is who” who are active on Quora take such a keen interest and effort in contributing to the community just to get Quora Credits. They don’t do it for tangible or intangible rewards. They are motivated by aspects of social norms and in creating communal good that helps everyone. With any kind of rewards or incentives – especially tangible – these same individuals will not show similar commitment and passion in using Quora. Most of the influencers who are active on Quora don’t seem to be on Mahalo even with tangible rewards like tipping for your answers (sometimes up to $100).
If that is case with tangible rewards, do you think they would actually get motivated by leaderboards, points and credits?
Lets take Twitter as another example. Look at the behavior patters of highest influencers, thought leaders and game changers. If you study those Twitter accounts, few things are very consistent -
  • These individuals have huge twitter followers. They don’t have followers because they are actively using Twitter. They have followers because of what they have done outside/before Twitter ever came into being. For example Beyoncé Knowles has over 5 millions followers but she has only tweeted once so far. J.K. Rowling Twitter has over 1 million followers but she has sent less than 20 tweets.
  • These game changers are not motivated by # of followers they can gain in Twitter. In fact some of them don’t even know that they have a huge following on Twitter.
  • People who follow them – follow them for that one rare opportunity to hear what they are going to say. Millions of followers follow these “no tweet game changers” because of what they have done outside the Twitter sphere.
In the interest of higher user activity and in the name of gamification if Twitter forced its users to take an active role in their platform – by making all its users to “tweet”, Twitter would lose 50% of its user base, especially most of the “no tweet game changers”.
Twitter allows its community of users to inherently reward and gain value from other users while still not forcing any particular behavior on them.
User behavior accountability is very important for all startups and exposing/displaying some of that data with the community has many benefits to the startup as well as to the community.
Exposed user behavior data should actual benefit the community rather than spam, distract and pollute the environment.
Examples of such pollution including publishing user activity to everyone in your community and share with all social networks without explicit permission from your users.
On the other hand, there is a role for sharing some of the user behavior and profile data. For example Twitter exposes other user’s # of Followers, # of Tweets and other valuable information. Similarly Quora exposes # of Followers, # of Questions and # of Answers. Such data is useful for following reasons -
  • Ability for active users to get/gain more visibility.
  • Ability for other users to gain from people who are contributing to the ecosystem.
Neither Quora nor Twitter expose/display user data that humiliates or insults any particular user in front of the community. Not only that they never package or repurpose such data to show in a different form like leader board or badges.
Finally they never deprive their users of certain functionality because of such untoward activity. Remember this – when you limit product functionality based on user behavior, realize that many genuine/valuable users might get pulled in this group and that might piss off genuine users who could have otherwise become long term users.
In summary before you define your rewards, reputation points, leaderboards, badges, and or leverage user behavioral data, think of the following -
  • Do Not force yours to “act” certain way to increase virality of your user base or promote your brand or increase activity in your platform. I am not saying a rule less community. Criteria for rules should not be to promote your brand(aka virality) and increase fake activity in your platform.
  • When exposing your user activity to other users, in the interest of virality, please keep in mind of your user’s privacy. Most common of these is activity feeds and time lines which are common place in most of the consumer apps/platforms.
  • Most of the virtual denizens do not need policing – most of the communities figure out a way to reward right behavior without the platform provider needing to police by fake incentives/rewards/leader board. Baring criminal and grossly unsavory situations, most of the time, this rule of thumb applies. Let your community deal with it.
  • Not all your users will respond to incentives with same interest. Your incentives, tangible or intangible will dictate the type of users you will attract in the long run.
  • Once again, your product, product benefits, its features, the value created by your users to other users should be the core incentives and motivators.
  • Never ever tie your “product feature” access to user behavior data. I would use this as a general rule excluding exceptions/fringe cases/unique circumstances.

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  • Satyajeet Shahade

    Cool stuff and relevant for HootBoard right now. You mentioned Quora – Was wondering what you think about the fact that a user needs 50 or so points to post a question. This kinda counters some of your thoughts about. 

  • vsistla

    Very good point. While the intensions behind Quora’s team are to create a higher pool of “qualified” users – which lead to “qualified conversations”, such “forced actions” could lead to their down fall in the long run. 

    In general, I endorse user accountability for accountability sake rather than basing them on motives that are centered around your business objectives and goals. 

    Consumer Internet is yet to find the “safe accountability” formula.