Taking Dr. Micheal Wu’s Gamification Theory into the Real World

Khoros Alumni (Retired)


Years ago, long before Khoros was Khoros and was simply Lithium technologies, a rather curious and beautiful theory was introduced into the world of digital communities. The idea was that if you added some version of gamification and the proper motivation to community users, the digital community would outperform most of its competitors. 

Gamification floats through various strategies and online communities, but what exactly is gamification in the context of digital communities? In as few words as possible, it is the process of rewarding users with digital badges and increased access or features in the community. 

Gamification is a prime example of using extrinsic rewards versus intrinsic rewards to influence more people to use a community page. Former Lithium data scientist Dr. Michael Wu explored this concept concerning gamification back in 2014. All of Wu’s findings are far beyond the scope of this one article, but in short, Wu theorized that you could use both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards in the gamification of a community page. 

If you are not familiar with intrinsic and extrinsic motivations a


nd rewards, Wu said it best in his original article

“An intrinsic reward is an intangible award of recognition, a sense of achievement, or a conscious satisfaction. For example, it is the knowledge that you did something right, or that you helped someone and made their day better. An extrinsic reward is an award that is tangible or physically given to you for accomplishing something. It is a tangible recognition of one's endeavor. For example, it’s a certificate of accomplishment, a trophy or medal for winning the race, a badge or points for doing something right, or even a monetary reward for doing your job.”

This theory applies to almost every single human interaction or action. The key difference between the two motivation and reward systems is longevity. Generally speaking, intrinsically motivated people will almost always continue to perform an action or task. A great example of this is the super users of a community page without any game theory applied. 

The super-users will continuously engage with a community page because they genuinely love to use the website. However, according to the Nielsen group, only 1% of all website users will seriously contribute to the page.  

For the other 99% of the community, the question that Wu was aiming to answer was what would motivate them to start engaging with the website. His answer was to use game theory to increase extrinsic rewards and motivation. 

This can be done simply by adding more features, rewards, and badges that you can proudly display as a community user. Khoros customer Pandora did this exceptionally well. So, what exactly did Pandora do? 

Pandora embraced game theory in a wonderfully organic way. At the start of introducing the Pandora community, users were already looking for ratings. By adding a simple ranking system, Pandora could tap into extrinsic motivation models found in most humans. A simple need to be recognized in a social setting. 

The following elegant practice Pandora put into place was giving greater access to their super-users. Within the first months of launching the Pandora community, the community manager, Erick Linares, noticed that a specific user was fully invested in using the community. This super-user was already displaying intrinsic motivation to use Pandora. In turn, Linares gave this user a moderator role and seriously increased access and judgment to what can and can’t be published or discussed on the website and other traditional moderator rules. 

The result for Pandora was an upswing in relationship building between other community users. This technic refers to Michael Wu’s theory on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. Using the community made users feel good. By feeling good, the user set off to build new digital relationships, which made them and their new digital friends feel good, creating a positive user feedback loop of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and bringing people together in the Pandora community. 


Watch this webinar to learn more about how exactly Pandora built their community with Khoros!




How to translate rewards to other styles of communities 

It is a fair assumption to say that Pandora had a much simpler time energizing its user base. Everyone loves music, and having a place to talk about their favorite artists or events or using the community to solve software issues will naturally draw people in. 

However, few people will choose to use a community that centers around laundry detergent. If a non-entertainment brand aims to reach the levels of engagement as a brand such as Pandora, this would be a big step. 

If you are an electronics or household appliances brand, building a well-designed and highly functional community page is still wise. It’s smarter to focus on extrinsic rewards for your customers and employees.

It’s vital to focus on the extrinsic rewards of a household appliance community because chances are high that your community base is logging into your website for direct support questions and not much else. So, if your community base is only going to log on when there is a problem, how could you get them to return to the website continuously?

According to Wu and game theory, adding something as simple as a badge system for those who give the best answers or answer questions the most could be a good start in giving people great extrinsic rewards and motivation to log back on. 

To add to Michael Wu’s theory and gamification, video games provide further evidence that game theory could be the missing puzzle piece in increasing community engagement. Originally published in the Computers and Human behavior scientific journal, a group of researchers questioned how reward systems would influence test subjects while playing a simple video game. Their findings speak for themselves: 


“We found that the high rewards condition (with the greatest amount and diversity of rewards) was rated by players as being the most enjoyable, creating the greatest sense of presence and immersion, and causing them to expend the most effort while playing. Interestingly, the differing amount of rewards did not seem to influence players’ sense of competence nor tension while playing.” 


While it can be a challenging balance of providing a well-designed community while not making it too much like a ‘silly’ game, the researchers' findings prove that most people enjoy as many rewards as reasonably included. 


The Khoros Effect

Khoros is known for building outstanding communities. Pandora, Samsung, and various travel brands are built on Khoros’ ability to build communities. A complete how-to guide to build your community from scratch is far beyond the scope of this article, but as you sit down with your brand’s team and the Khoros professional service team, keep in mind what Michael Wu and Pandora did by transforming your community user’s motivations. 


Explore more Khoros Resources to learn more about digital communities! 


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