I recently read this TechCrunch article about what motivates technology users to become loyal users of any one platform in today's sea of software platforms. The article offers the following three tips to anyone building a private online community: rewards (the right rewards), frequency and the importance of building a community of peers whose opinion we care about.
The article frames these tips around Biz Stone's new startup, Jelly, but I think these tips are all equally applicable to organizations building private online communities.
The Right Rewards
I've written before about gamification - and even shamification - in private online communities. I've seen this across hundreds of communities: people like badges and many are motivated by engagement points in hopes of making it to the leader board. But the TechCrunch article brings up another good point about motivation: that variable rewards (I'll have to write a future post about variable rewards) and social motivation are powerful motivators.
To frame an example of these rewards in the context of private communities, the incentive for users to participate regularly in the community is the hope of social acceptance - will people agree that my post was helpful and see me as an expert? - and becoming a "thought leader" within that community. Sure, there are still people motivated by seeing their name on the leader board of top contributors, but there are others who are more motivated by the ego stroke of becoming a big fish, intellectually speaking, in a relatively small pond. It's a lot easier to stand out as a thought leader in a private niche community than, say, on Facebook or Twitter.
To be a 'Thought Leader' on LinkedIn, you have to be selected by LinkedIn; to be a thought leader in an organization's private community, all you have to do is prove yourself knowledgeable in the context of that community by posting discussions, answering questions and maybe blogging if the community has the blog capability turned on. ASAE's Collaborate is a great example of a community where this type of motivation is very apparent; consultants and thought leaders within the association space are frequent contributors and put a lot of thought and effort into maintaining a regular presence on that community.
Frequency Builds Habits
I think this one is right on with regards to private online communities. The TechCrunch article talks about the importance of habit formation in technology platform adoption, citing this study about habit formation. The key tie-in for frequency in private communities is the daily digest and email notification features. Look at the popularity and longevity of listservs, especially within the association community - that's the perfect example of a technology becoming a habit to which people get hooked. Listservs aren't sexy - they're clunky and usually ugly and fill up users email boxes with tons of messages. But that frequency is exactly what makes them so addictive to users who participate in them, even if their participation is only reading along on a daily basis and rarely, if ever, chiming in.
If you want to see a group of users who are passionate about a technology, just take the listserv away from a group who have been using them for years! So when it comes to building a successful community, that same daily (or more frequent) touchpoint is essential for ensuring that users get hooked on your community. This is exactly why I recommend community managers auto-subscribe their members to the daily digest email notification. At first, it can be annoying to some, but we've seen it play out thousands of times: notifications are what enable a private community to go from being an isolated island to a daily habit for users. Keep in mind the members' perception of the email they receive is very different from a traditional marketing email. This is an email from their peers (albeit, facilitated by your organization).
A Community of Respected Peers
Sure, LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter may have millions of users, but private, niche communities have the advantage when it comes to motivating users who care about the respect of peers within their profession or topic of interest. While those same users may Tweet or write Facebook updates about topics they're passionate about or knowledgeable in, chances are those efforts go mostly unnoticed. The bottom line is that public social networks are about numbers, not about promoting individuals.
Read this great client story about how an online community can motivate its users to contribute out of respect for peers, their professions and the industry at large.
So over time, individuals are less motivated to contribute thoughtful content on those platforms simply because, in the sea of other content, theirs probably doesn't get noticed by anyone they care that much about. But in a private community of peers they respect, who work in a similar field or who share an interest or hobby, their content is a lot more likely to get noticed, and get noticed by people who matter.
Looks like this book, Hooked, could be a good resource for further thoughts on what motivates users - click the link and if you give your email address, they'll send you the first chapter for free.