Here are the results of a relatively simple experiment.
A client was launching a new community.
They disagreed with us on what would motivate people. So we ran an experiment with 147 prospective members. We split them into two groups.
The first group were invited to become founding members of the new, exclusive, community. To join, they had to be approved through an application process. They took a quasi-pledge to contribute great content every week, interview the top people in their field, and get 5 people to join. If they didn't do this, they would be removed.
Let's call this the 'work hard' group.
The second group were invited to become founding members of the new, exclusive, community. If they joined, they would get a free book, discounts on the client's products and services, and a free product that had around $15 value.
Let's call this the 'get freebies' group.
Rational economic theory would predict that the get freebies appeal should be more successful than work hard appeal.
Of course, that's not what happened.
The work hards had a 50% conversion rate, with 28 of the members still actively participating after the first month.
The get freebies had a 19% conversion rate, with just 2 members actively participating after the first month.
How can we explain this?
When you think of founding anything, what do you think of?
It probably conjures images of bold pioneers building houses, digging ditches, planting seeds, banding together to create something special.
This is what prospective members are buying into when they agree to found a community. They wanted to work hard to create something special. By incentivising the act of founding with freebies, you're undermining the term.
This is why you have to be VERY careful about the motivations you use.
Another example is a word like exclusive. If we say it's exclusive, you have to pay, and you get a free book, we find the conversion rates are lower than if it's just exclusive and paid.
Why? Because you change the formula.
In the first instance we understand 'money = exclusivity + book'. We don't know what exclusivity is worth, but we know what a book is worth. The cost of a book is around $15 to $20. That's now the anchor price you've created for exclusivity. Not many people care about a $15 to $20 freebie.
However, in the second instance, it's 'money = exclusive'. That exclusivity is whatever exclusivity means to that individual person. It might remind them of times when they were accepted into an exclusive group, or times when they were rejected from an exclusive group. Either way, it presents a huge psychological reward far in excess of a $15 to $20 book.
The experiment didn't just show that the wording you use has a huge impact upon whether people join and participate (although it does!). It shows that the specific motivation you attach a behaviour to really, really, matters. When you start dangling incentives around motivational appeals you can easily undermine the appeal itself.
Or take the headline of this post. I'm confident it will be my most visited post of the week, possibly the month.
Because people want the challenge of guessing between two appeals. They want to feel smart. If the post had been titled "Free Advice on Motivational Appeals" or "Be Careful About Using Incentives, Motivational Appeal Advice" it wouldn't attract the same people.
The specific appeal of the headline is people to get challenge themselves. That's more motivating than passively consuming more free information.
It's not rational. At least not in the economic sense. But it is important to understand how people interpret the words you use and adjust your messages accordingly.
On October 29th to 30th, the world's top 250 community professionals are going to SPRINT in San Francisco. Will you be one of them?