Skinner introduced us to operant conditioning and the power of variable rewards.
If you push a button and receive a treat, you will push the button a lot.
If you push the button and receive a shock, you will learn to stop pushing the button pretty fast.
Neither of the above are surprising. However, if you push the button and sometimes get a treat, you push the button far more frequently. In fact, you become addicted to it.
Gambling (slot) machines use this frequently. You receive small bonuses among the loses. This keeps you hooked.
E-mail is relatively the same. You push the button and might receive an invitation to speak at an event, a new business deal, a message from a close friend. This makes both behaviours rather addictive.
We can use this same technique in many of our community activities.
First, any gamification benefits work better when they're variable. When you can increase your likelihood of receiving the reward but can't guarantee it.
Second, any recognition should be variable and not dependent upon a specific behaviour being performed. The people that participate the most should have a greater probability of being recognised – but it shouldn't be guaranteed (i.e. if you make 5 contributions per week you will receive recognition).
Third, communications/special benefits from being a member should be variable. Don't use a fixed, regular, schedule for special activities. Make them adhoc. Make them appear on the community without notice.
If you want to master the social science approach to building successful communities, sign up for our Professional Community Management course.
Registration is open now. The course begins on April 28th.