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If you're starting a community from scratch, switching online platforms, or generally trying to get your members more involved, you've probably come across your fair share of gamification tips. And many of them are TOOOO much. Some of them are just plain sleazy.
I've put off gamifying the Soapbox Project community for months. Partially, this was a mental block: I didn't want people to just make posts to get badges or whatever. And the other part of this was that gamification feels like so much work.
But it doesn't have to be.
Remember when we were kids, we'd be satisfied banging on pots and pans and playing with sticks? Those were the best games! So in this article, I'll share the banging-on-pots games that I've been creating. They may not scale very well, but when you're a baby, you can't (and shouldn't) go straight to using the shiny iPad.
What is gamification and how is it different for online communities?
Let's use Gamify dot com's definition to reward them for snagging that sweet domain name.
Gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. It can also be defined as a set of activities and processes to solve problems by using or applying the characteristics of game elements.
Games and game-like elements have been used to Educate, Entertain and Engage for thousands of years. Some classic game elements are; Points, Badges, and Leaderboards.
Ok great. That's gamification. But gamifying within a community:
- Needs to be interpersonal
- Must be sensitive to the needs of members
- Has to mesh with community values
We can forget the bullet points as long as we remember that community gamification is about real humans and should be treated as such. My rule of thumb, as I've said before: If you wouldn't use this technique with in-person friends, it does not belong in your community.
Gamification constraints and advantages for newer communities
(Newer or smaller, really.)
I'm not separating these into constraints vs. advantages because honestly, each one includes both sides. It's up to you on how you want to leverage it. Here's a few things I've run into that have helped, hurt, or both — factors I know wouldn't come up in more advanced communities:
- Your community isn't a habit yet. I check Twitter every day and LinkedIn at least a couple times a month (even though it's gross, sorry). I also check in fairly regularly with online communities I've been in for a while, including Climate Changemakers and Women in CSR. I find myself forgetting about recently-joined communities unless I get notified somehow. I don't expect the Soapbox community to be top-of-mind for everyone. (Actually that wasn't always true. I used to expect it. I shed tears over it, and then realized people have lives and it's my job to be there for them.) The exciting thing about this is you get to choose how people remember your community. When I check in unexpectedly with a meme or a 1:1 invite, people are pleasantly surprised. They're glad — not annoyed — that I'm reminding them of Soapbox's existence, because they signed up for a reason!
- Things must happen manually. If you're part of a tiny team, or caring for your community isn't your full-time job, or X zillion other reasons you're not a behemoth community-driven company like Peloton, you can't achieve scale overnight. If you've tried, like me, it may have failed miserably because people are looking for human connection. Early communities require a loooottt of leg work (and hand work and all the works). Gamification can be slow and painful, but it's also rewarding because people simply care more when they know how much effort you're putting into their experiences.
- Everyone knows everyone (?) Even if your community is anonymous, when there's tens of people, activity is recognizable. Maybe this will motivate some healthy competition. Maybe it will cause resentment. I've used this as a positive tool to have authentic conversations that are harder to foster in large communities.
How to gamify your early-stage community: 6 strategies
- Identify which types of activities you want to reward This may be a no-brainer ❌🧠 but it must be said. I've seen too many rewards for things like highest # of posts. And as the wise ones have told us for generations, quantity ≠ quality. For Soapbox, since we encourage bite-sized activism, I put a higher point value (we have a leaderboard) on attending events, making donations, and filling out forms on self-reported habit changes. We do NOT give people points for posts, unless they are recap posts for 1:1s they have with other community members. We 💚 our Soap Bud chat recaps!
- Focus on internal vs. external motivation This was actually a new concept for me that I learned from Carrie Melissa Jones' & Charles Vogl's book Building Brand Communities. The world of gamification focuses almost exclusively on swag, access, and other transactional perks. It was news to me that I didn't have to do that to create a happy and healthy community. In fact, overusing external motivation decreases genuine connection. It's hard to get tactical on this without knowing what your community is (although we can defs chat so I can learn more) but here's some great game guidelines from CMJ's book
- The game encourages and rewards cooperation among participants
- The rewards serve only to acknowledge participant success rather than provide real material value (⬅️ IMO the most important one since people F this up far too often)
- Losing the game does not meaningfully harm participants' status
- The game is non-zero sum. Everyone can grow ny playing.
- Sitting out is OK and not a status-losing choice.
- Everyone wants winners to win.
- Make each event a game Every early-stage community builder I know, without exception, has had some sort of event within their community. Whether that's Twitch livestreams, game nights, webinars, product updates, fireside chats, or workshops, events are the easiest way I've gamified my community without going full tech bro mode. In February, for example, we had a panel on sustainable fashion moderated by supply chain expert Sabrina Moscola. Unlike most virtual panels I've attended, people were really active and asking questions in the event sign-up form, live, and in the chat. It certainly helped that we had an amazing panel including directors at Ibex and Cotopaxi, but the other thing was a lil "What's in Your Wardrobe" game we played in the beginning.
- Partner with abandon One challenge I faced early on with gamification is... what do I even give points for?! I didn't want to reward posts for no reason. I wanted points to be meaningful but it was too hard for me to figure out what that looked like by myself. In the Soapbox community, we reward people for making positive social change, but that can look like so many things! One of our earliest point awards was "25 points for attending a Climate Changemakers event" and it's still on our leaderboard to this day.
- Use tangible tokens of appreciation We sent postcards to all our Founding Members a few months ago. It wasn't a sign-up perk or anything; we just wanted to show our appreciation of our earliest supporters. It felt great to give, and we heard it felt great to receive too 😉 When a member tops our monthly leaderboard, we also send them a tangible product — something eco-friendly they need, like reusable dish towels, compostable phone cases, ocean-plastic-rescued jewelry, or coffee that supports women farmers in Kenya. Many of these recs are community-sourced, so the winner gets something tangible while the community knows their input is being used forreal.
- Host a leaderboard I referenced this earlier on, but our leaderboard is a great way for me to monitor community health and participation. I don't know if we can keep running this the same way once our membership crosses 200, but for now, it's great. (It requires a LOT of manual upkeep.) Do something simple — just start with 2-3 ways that members can win that are aligned with your values and vision! I'm planning on doing a tutorial on my early-stage Airtable-powered leaderboard, so stay tuned.
This was an easy way for me to avoid creating extra programming just for the sake of points while also encouraging meaningful action. 🌟
Sending physical gifts and tokens has really gone a long way for us, especially in an online world where many communities mesh together. When you're teeny tiny and just getting started, it's soooo easy to use this as part of your gamification strategy.
As always, let me know what gamification strategies have you used or seen? What roadblocks have you encountered? I want to know all of it — @ me on Twitter and tell me more about where you spend your time.