What’s Your Community’s Engagement Incentive?

A bitcoin-driven online community startup raises some fascinating questions about the reasons people engage online. ZapChain's incentive strategy could offer inspiration for your own online space.

“How do you engage your community? Pay them.”

It’s certainly a provocative tagline to sell an online community platform, but the approach by the startup ZapChain sort of requires a little provocation. The company is attempting to sell itself as a direct competitor to sites such as Reddit, but with the added wrinkle of compensation for engagement—in the form of bitcoin.

Here’s how it works: Instead of liking a post, your readers give you a tip; if you want feedback on an idea but don’t want to be ignored, you can sweeten the pot by offering respondents the opportunity to win a couple bits off the blockchain. And some, such as the rapper Talib Kweli, have taken to straight-up selling stuff.

And of course, the appealing part for the get-rich-quick folks: If you write a post that goes viral, you could be talking about real money.

Sure, gamification has parallels to this, but let’s be honest: Fake prizes don’t hold a candle to real money.

In a way, ZapChain is selling not only the value of community, but also the value of bitcoin. For all the talk about the cryptocurrency, few people have any real-world experience with it. Because of that, ZapChain could be a gateway for trying it out. The firm is bullish about its potential, too.

“We have tested our community product for almost a year now with great success, with some communities getting over 100,000 people a month, and some members earning enough to buy school books and phone plans,” ZapChain CEO Matt Schlicht wrote in a Product Hunt comment last week.

(One thing that will have to evolve about the model as it grows is the breadth of subject matter: While the company is aiming for an array of discussions much like what can be found on Reddit, it’s not all the way there yet. Many posts are about bitcoin at the moment, which is due in part to the site’s roots as a bitcoin community. It’s like how a lot of posts on Twitter are about Twitter.)

It’s an interesting model, and a departure from the current community dynamic we’ve seen on a lot of sites. Sure, gamification has parallels to this, but let’s be honest: Fake prizes don’t hold a candle to real money.

A screenshot of the ZapChain website.

Understanding How People React

The thing about ZapChain that I find so fascinating—and the reason I bring it up knowing that this may not be the right fit for the association space—is the fact that, as novel as the concept is, they’ve worked really hard to create a selling point for those looking to join or build a community that could attract a certain type of audience.

Clearly, a lot of work went into understanding the psychology and motivations behind what gets people to engage meaningfully. If you look at the comments on some of the incentivized threads, people are actually answering and offering real feedback, which suggests there could be a path forward for improving the tenor of online discussion after all.

No matter if ZapChain becomes a major hit along the lines of Reddit or a memorable failure like the first iteration of Digg, it’s created a fascinating breadcrumb experience that other community app developers and providers should make a point to study.

Incentives Done Wrong

The idea of incentivizing the social experience isn’t entirely new, but it’s extremely easy to screw up. The tale of another startup’s recent run-ins with Facebook offers a bit of perspective on this front.

In recent weeks, a small social network named Tsu has been the subject of a flurry of stories reporting on its claims of unfair treatment by Facebook. In September, the social giant banned all Tsu links—and, in fact, any mention of the company’s URL—over activity that Facebook deemed spammy.

“We’re persona non grata,” Tsu founder Sebastian Sobczak told CNN Money. “You can type in all sorts of seedy websites, and you can get to them. But not us. We don’t exist.”

The problem? Tsu gives its users a share of its ad revenue, based on how much a user’s post is shared; those who invited others also getting a chunk of the pie. As Mashable helpfully points out, the structure is similar to a pyramid scheme.

As a result, Tsu doesn’t encourage engagement so much as sharing. Engagement and sharing are two different things, and having one doesn’t mean you’ll have the other.

Carrots On Sticks

So why are these two social communities with relatively similar ideas behind their business models seeing such different results?

To me, it’s a question of incentive: When communities drive reactions based solely on exposure and scale, users will often make decisions that expand that exposure in any way possible—which discourages the growth of a well-connected, close-knit community. When the incentive is more about strengthening the conversation, you create a feedback loop where the benefits are shared with everyone in the community.

Ultimately, the mere existence of platforms that put money into the engagement equation highlights something that perhaps doesn’t get talked about as much as it should: When people engage in a community, it’s because they want to get something out of it.

For association members, being active in a private community is all about networking, solving problems, and building deeper professional relationships. For some, the engagement could lead to a better job down the line.

How does your community infrastructure, from the community managers to the overarching design of the product your association uses, reinforce your users’ goals? If engagement is a big challenge these days, it may come down to the incentive you give them to participate.

What’s in it for them? It’s your job to answer that.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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