Gaming Online Community Engagement with the Spaghetti Sauce Model


What spaghetti sauce do you prefer? Thick ‘N Chunky? Traditional? Old-World? In the 80’s, Prego re-invented the spaghetti sauce market by allowing customers to choose based on their preferences. The idea was a game-changer in the commercial food business. Prior to Prego’s six spaghetti sauce varieties, there was one variety of sauce: Thin and red. This was the top-down, expert-selected, head-chef approved sauce who’s lineage stemmed straight from Italy. If it was authentic, it must be the best, and therefore everyone will want it, right? Prego’s antithesis was “maybe people want a variety of sauces to choose from”. To Prego’s delight, offering that variety of flavors increased sales and put them at the top of the sphagetti sauce chain. Ragu reigned no more.

As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out, using spaghetti sauce as the analogy, by “embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to truer happiness”. This concept applies serendipitously to community engagement. I previously wrote about gamification techniques to increase online community engagement using cupcakes or other dangling carrots. Malcolm’s spaghetti sauce story sheds light on how you ought to think about your audience and the rewards you give them. In essence:

  • Everyone is different.
  • Everyone is wired with their own set of values and impulses.

I’ll elaborate a bit on this theme using my cupcakes as the example. When I ran the cupcake contest the first time, it went something like this: Post a comment, get a cupcake. The flaw here was twofold: First, not everyone felt comfortable posting a comment. Second, not everyone liked cupcakes. As  I went around the office visiting each individual, I found some who were wary of posting online – it wasn’t safe or comfortable for them yet. They were comfortable reading something, or “liking” something, but no way were they ready to share their opinion with the world and have it sit there in perpetuity online. I also noticed that many simply did not want the cupcake. They were willing to do something (they perhaps connected to the overarching sense of purpose that drives the community), but they felt gamed or cheapened by exchanging their work for a sugary delight. Others were on a diet, so the cupcakes literally made them cringe. And lastly, some wanted a cupcake, but had dietary restrictions such as a gluten- or sugar-free.

Like Prego, I thought that one gourmet cupcake would satiate the needs and wants of all my community participants. Not so.

The second time I ran the contest, it became a bit more personalized: engage with the site in some way, and get a cupcake (or something else). The ask was broad (“in some way”) and therefore left opportunity for anyone to engage, regardless of where they are at in the community participation spectrum. Some wanted to read an article. Fine. Others wanted to learn about how to follow and share. Great. Here’s your cupcake. The prize was broadened too. When I said “or something else” I made it clear that hey you may not like cupcakes and that’s okay. Maybe you want a coffee mug, or a gold star, or a pat on the back. By meeting people where they were at in the ask/offer, I had much greater levels of participation, and I believe happier individuals since they got something that was more meaningful to them. I also brought in some gluten-and-sugar-free cupcakes for those on special diets. They loved them (I tried one and did not, eegh).

But I can’t give away cupcakes everyday. Ideally, I’m trying to change behaviors and habits so community members will self-reward themselves. Eventually, when they share out their knowledge and ideas, they get to feel whatever it is that makes them tick: I’m an expert, I’m giving to the greater good, I’m a mentor, etc. Some are wired for greater personal satisfaction, and there are ways to acknowledge that too. There are badge and recognition programs that can be effective in giving out engagement rewards programmatically.

Of course you have to think about the law of diminishing returns with your rewards program, especially if you’re dealing in tangible (as opposed to virtual) rewards. How can I offer the fewest number of reward options while maintaining the highest number of engaged members?

There is some research out there on forming habits that says if you want a habit to become automatic, you need to perform the new behavior daily for (on average) 66 days. This is practical advice for your gamification strategies. Besides offering variety in your engagement incentives (ala Prego spaghetti sauce), you should also consider the cadence of habit you’re trying to shape (e.g. daily, weekly) and how much repetition is required to create automaticity.



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