Are Social Rewards Enough for Online Community Members?

Ann All

My first thought after speaking with Toby Richards, general manager of Community & Online Support at Microsoft, about the role of online communities in Microsoft's support strategy was, "What an enthusiastic guy." My second thought: Microsoft is doing a lot of things right with its community strategy. (One of the obvious things it did right was enlisting a high-energy person like Toby, who is obviously excited about social media, to lead its community efforts.)


About six months ago I offered some tips on establishing successful customer communities from the smart Jeremiah Owyang. One of his suggestions was to invite influencers and advocates to the community first so they can kick the tires on the community, offer suggestions for improvement, and invite other folks to join.


Microsoft has done this in a big way with its Most Valuable Professionals program. As Toby explained it, MVPs are 4,200 expert users of various Microsoft products, located in 90 countries and representing about 90 technical areas. They lead their own communities, some online and some more traditional, meet-in-person user groups, and some also participate in Microsoft communities as moderators.


MVPs also sometimes participate in communities of Microsoft partners. When Windows 7 shipped in October, for example, both MVPs and Microsoft employees visited HP's technical communities to offer advice to folks who had questions about the new operating system.


How does Microsoft reward its MVPs? Toby told me:


Recognition is first and foremost. We award people based on their past 12 months' contribution to the community. Thank you is step No. 1. Then it's around opportunities for them to speak directly with product engineering. That is probably the most highly rated of the benefits we provide. There's an ongoing dialogue between product engineers and MVPs to provide feedback. They also gain early access to products. So they're pretty influential as it relates to the feedback they provide. I'd say that's the main thing. Plus, there's the general connection and affiliation with Microsoft.


The opportunity to not only gain early access to Microsoft products but to get its engineers to take your input seriously sounds like a geek's dream. And their feedback is obviously valuable to Microsoft as well, the stereotypical win/win. It meshes well with Owyang's advice to reward top community contributors by publicly acknowledging them and/or offering them a premium service or other goodie but NOT paying them. (My take was that paying contributors might suggest something skeevy was going on. Some folks are suspicious of social media promotions in which money changes hands.)


Dell employs a similar reward strategy with its IdeaStorm community. A few months ago while trying to develop an idea for another blog post, I asked Vida Killian, IdeaStorm's manager, whether IdeaStorm members were ever paid for ideas that might result in a boost to Dell's bottom line. She told me:


We do not compensate people for ideas. We do, however, send a small token of appreciation for people who have had their idea implemented. (An example she mentioned: a pen in an engraved box.) The rationale is actually based on lots of benchmarking on community activity and the reasons why people participate. We have found the main reasons people participate in ours and many other communities is for personal reasons -- connecting with peers, helping others, high interest in the topic. This makes the community more pure, and our preference is to thank community members for their participation rather than incent them to join and have potential conflict based around that.


Not everyone agrees with this approach, of course. I dug up a two-year-old post from IT Business Edge VP Ken-Hardin, one of our company's biggest skeptics on all things 2.0, who suggested sites like Digg should pay their top contributors. What do you think?

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Apr 1, 2010 9:57 AM Mark Finnern Mark Finnern  says:

Hi Ann,

To bring in money into a community has often an adverse effect to the spirit of the community and should be handled very cautiosly.

I think, that the factor "connecting with peers" isn't getting enough credit for what it enables, that highly motivated smart passionate professionals collaborate together.

Nurturing an environment that enables such a "connection with peers" is the key ingredient for a lively community and collaboration.

I posted more details around it and the impact it has on SAP Mentors: http://www.sdn.sap.com/irj/scn/weblogs?blog=/pub/wlg/18563

Mark Finnern

Apr 1, 2010 9:59 AM Laure Laure  says:

Good question Ann, and a very interesting blog post with many links to more.

I am a project manager within the SAP Community Network. We have a strong community of 2 million members who participate in our various communities (developer community, business process experts community, university alliances).

What drives the community to contribute is the opportunity to connect with members of the SAP Ecosystem from all over the world, exchange ideas/feedback/tips, get help from fellow members.  Who knows, the person you just helped may return the favor one day! We have a point system in place to recognize Active Contributors, but some of them don't even care about the points. They feel proud to be an active member in the SAP Community; it helps them grow their knowledge around our products and grow their professional reputation.

It is true that the boundaries between professional and social communities are sometimes blurred, but in my opinion monetary rewards would not benefit business communities such as the SAP Community Network. If you introduce monetary rewards, you give way to a new type of competitive behavior that may lead to a decrease of the quality submitted or an increase in plagiarism. And kill the genuine passion that drives the community.

And how would you measure the monetary reward when participation in a community cannot be measured by, let's say, clicks to sponsored web sites?

These are just my two cents, looking forward to seeing what others have to say here.

Laure Cetin, SAP Community Network

Apr 1, 2010 10:57 AM Mark Yolton Mark Yolton  says:

Hi Ann: 

Your blog post has obviously sparked some thinking here at SAP where we have a history of community management and alot of experience and expertise by alot of passionate people. 

I would note quickly that the social rewards are just the first step, and then there are other rewards beyond those.  For example, I establish a reputation, which leads to me being well-known by a wider set of people, which means they refer me for a bigger job or better project, which means I have more opportunities, which means I get paid better...  I believe the tangible financial rewards are indirect, but are linked. 

I also believe that many participants in a community or in general social media are motivated and fulfilled by things other than tangible financial rewards.  Those alternatives might be fame, or appreciation, or the good feeling of being able to help someone else, or any number of other benefits.  They could include the benefit and inspiration of working with extraordinary people (which Mark Finnern notes).  For some, these are the key benefits and far more important than mere money. 

Meanwhile, Laure makes a good point about the potential poisonous effects of financial incentives and rewards.  There are some interesting anecdotes and academic studies about this.  Author and professor Dan Ariely ("Predictably Irrational") covers some of this in at least parts of his book (http://www.predictablyirrational.com/pdfs/2markets.pdf). 

Thanks for the provocative post.


Mark Yolton at SAP

Apr 1, 2010 11:58 AM Ann All Ann All  says: in response to Mark Yolton

I can certainly apply the 'enthusiastic' term to folks at SAP who take obvious pride in your Community Network. I interviewed Mark for an article on corporate blogging and later used some of the comments from that interview in this post on corporate communities:


I think the tech industry has been a real leader in establishing successful customer communities, and SAP is one of the companies at the forefront.

Perhaps it's time to speak again and discuss some of these thoughts in more detail. I'd welcome the opportunity.

Apr 1, 2010 5:43 PM Vijay Vijay  says:

Nice one..! Most of us work close with Communities and its so evident to see the pulse in the way the technology enthusiasts work, and how they regard MVPs.

MVP is indeed one of the best way, Microsoft recognizes individual experts and their contributions towards sharing the knowledge.!


Vijay | MS-MVP

Weblog: www.msigeek.com


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