Are Using Contests To Build Community A Bad Idea?

83/365 So many board games.I read a recent post by Patrick O’Keefe, a very well-respected community manager and blogger, about the place contests and giveaways have in building community. Rather than a community-building tool, he says that “contests and giveaways are marketing for your community”.  While its true that the oeuvre of traditional marketing knowledge indicates that the most common usage of contests and games is to recruit new members, there is a lot of good research to back up the notion that games can be used in very effective ways to build community.

The key consideration as to how contests & giveaways can be effective has to do with user-motivations and impulses. People in your community are wired differently. Some want validation. Some are vain. Some are creative. Some desire to be more influential. Some are altruistic. The list goes on an on. Forrester research provided evidence of this in their book Groundswell (on pg 60). There are many other motivating forces that have been identified. Check out Clair Flanagan‘s Jive Blog post on What Motivates Community Advocates.

Once you’re aware of these impulses, you can create games (i.e. contests and giveaways) that nudge users towards desired behaviors. This sounds at first like an unsustainable approach: You’re setting up a paradigm of “if I do this, then I get that”. What you really want is to have members connecting with one another and sharing with one another in self-sustaining, self-perpetuating ways.

So then, how can contests and giveaways be sustainable and healthy, and ultimately increase community engagement? Michael Wu of Lithium Communities talks at great length about this on his blog. In making games like contests and giveaways sustainable for your community, he states that “while the player is carrying out the gamified activity, he creates something that has long lasting value. When the player begins to realize these values, the extrinsic rewards will become less important to him.” This creates:

a positive feedback loop that ultimately turns the gamified activity into something intrinsically motivating for the player.

They end up gaming their own motivation! Eventually the player finds something of value beyond the prize and continues to engage with the community in a self-sustaining, intrinsically-motivated way.

I’ve seen proof of this in my own community. I kicked off a cupcake contest. Some people participated and won a cupcake, they learned something, they deepened their engagement with the community. Contests that educate the user about the community’s goals and challenges, it’s protocols and social mores, are a GREAT way to build community.

I did another contest where the reward was recognition for having the most thoughtful comment to a question I posed. I featured the winning comment in a community announcement. That particular discussion became the most discussed, AND the most viewed on the community board. And what’s even better, most of the comments were from first-timers. They’ve since posted comments on other discussions. For them, the tipping point to deeper engagement was one small contest with a $0 reward. They just wanted some recognition.

So in summary, games and contests CAN build community. You have to be comfortable experimenting to see what works though. For me, the experiment was trying out different types of games (I’m still experimenting) to see what nudges users towards desired behaviors. Once you have a pretty good handle on that, you can start asking yourself how you can leverage games and contests to build your community in sustainable ways.


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