At about 6:30 a.m. this morning, I walked to the local Giant in Columbia Heights to pick up some eggs to make breakfast. When the cashier was almost done ringing me up, she hesitantly asked me if I needed bags. My immediate thought was “odd question”, but I responded yes. She proceeded to push a button on the register before bagging my groceries, and, to my surprise, I was charged a fee for each bag she gave me. Having lived in Boston the past three years, where we are not charged a mandatory fee for bags given to us by a store, I was annoyed by having to pay this.
I did a little research into why I was charged this fee when I got home and found this interesting graphical explanation of the “bag law”, more formally known as the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act of 2009.
After reading the purpose of the law, though I still didn’t like being charged the fee, I better understood the purpose. It also reminded me of a fantastic WIRED article about feedback loops I read and wrote about last year. The article talks about the cycle of decision making and how positive reinforcement is being used to change human behavior. The bag law is actually a good example of how consumer behavior can be shifted with a little reward for their good deeds, in this case reusing shopping bags.
Community managers can learn a valuable lesson from the tactics described by Thomas Goetz, author of the WIRED article. In my past analysis of the way some of the top brands in social media manage their online communities (specifically Facebook pages), I have found there are two dominant approaches taken:
- Brands ignore both positive and negative comments left on their page.
- Brands reprimand those who post negative comments, and ignore those who make positive contributions to the dialogue taking place.
Either approach is a negative approach. Look at it from a real-world perspective. We ignore people as a negative way of saying we do not care about you or what you have to say. We give people a slap on the wrist when they do something we deem to be wrong. Both responses do not produce a positive change in behavior within that individual. That person or persons generally end up angry or hurt by the situation, or both, which often amplifies the original negative behavior they engaged in.
Now, I am not advocating that community managers stop penalizing people who are disruptive to the world. As Alfred said in the movie The Dark Knight: “Some men just can’t be reasoned with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Those consistently disruptive people, who seek to do nothing but voice frustration and anger, with complete disregard for the consequences to themselves and those around them, should be penalized in some way, shape or form – be it banning them, etc. But, creating a culture of negative interaction with your fans and followers in social will do nothing to change perception of your brand or convert the wicked into brand advocates.
Engagement strategies should be structured around creating feedback loops for your fans and followers that inform them of the consequences and rewards of their behaviors and incentivizes them to interact positively with the brand. Over time, as people begin to associate these positive rewards with their positive engagement, they will come to adopt this as their preferred behavior.
This concept is not new. B.F. Skinner developed the concept of positive reinforcement, known as operant conditioning, in the early 1900’s. The theory was tested using a device called a Skinner Box, where an animal was given a signal (often a light) when it was expected to do a certain behavior (peck at a lever), and it was rewarded with food each time it did. Your fans/followers are not chickens or rodents in a small cage, they are dignified human beings, but the general concept of conditioning can be applied nonetheless.
This can be done in a few easy steps:
- Start by developing clear community guidelines that set expectations with your fans/followers/members of the purpose of your community (mission and vision statements), how you plan to engage with your audience, how you plan to create a positive environment for engagement, and the consequences (both positive and negative) of engaging within the community. Here is the trick – focus more on the positive as to not set a negative tone during people’s first or early interaction(s) with your brand.
- Develop a series of rewards that you will offer to people who choose to positively engage with your brand in social media. These rewards should range from simple acknowledgements and recognition to more elaborate rewards, such as naming a fan of the week or giving away prizes.
- Lastly, begin to engage with fans of your page in a positive way. Hold a conversation. Do not just respond to customer service requests and angry rants. Look for opportunities to create a dialog with people and begin to do so. Don’t forget to work in those rewards for those who positively interact with you.
There are some challenges to effectively deploying this approach at scale:
- Tracking of data – There are few tools that are good at, or even offer, the feature to track individual user engagement in aggregate. The smart guys over at Groundwire developed a methodology called the Engagement Pyramid, which allows organizations to model out their engagement strategy and track it in Salesforce. If you are a large brand wondering how this applies because it is targeted at nonprofits, read Seth Godin’s article on finding innovation in other industries.
- Overjustification Effect – Over-rewarding human behavior can, and often, leads to people taking certain actions only for the reward. The desire to take an action because of its original purpose is overtaken by the desire to gain the incentive that has been given to that person. You need to tread lightly and be scarce with the amount of times you reward any one person.
The payoffs to this approach, if done right, can be grand. Increased positive interaction from your fans/followers/members is spread virally to their social networks, which may have an effect on those individual’s perceptions of your brand as well. Though not measurable in terms of monetary value (yet), there is some intrinsic value in the generation of free social impressions. Lastly, and more measurable in terms of impact, is the change in behavior amongst your existing community and customer base, which can directly impact your bottom line.