Are Social Rewards Enough for Online Community Members?

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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?