One of the things that I tell people who want to build an audience for their website is that they have to figure out a way to continually reward the people they recruit. The short story is, it is not very important what your reward is - it could be points, stickers or a nice warm feeling in your belly - as long as it feels rewarding to the members to do something that you want them to do.
I will below provide the story of Consumating's ill-fated point system as a sort of counter-example to how you should design your own. We built a point system into Consumating because we thought giving direct feedback to people about their conduct on the site would encourage them to be nice to one another - you get a thumbs up when you are nice (treat!), and a thumbs down when you are a douche (electric shock!). It worked dramatically well in that aspect, and gave our members everything they needed to police themselves, punish trolls, and create a vibrant and unique culture. In virtually all other aspects, however, it caused serious problems.
The primary problem with Consumating points was that they did not actually give incentive to the members to do anything valuable. What we wanted people to do was write interesting posts, and then invite their friends to comment upon them. However, posting things to the site earned you nothing and inviting your friends earned you similar amount of nothing. Even voting on and ranking content for us earned you nothing. The only way for a member to earn points was for another member to vote on one of their posts. We had essentially short-circuited our rewards system by handing over all of the power to the whims of our fickle members.
Members without any pre-existing friends on the site had little chance to earn points unless they literally campaigned for them in the comments, encouraging point whoring. Members with lots of friends on the site sat in unimpeachable positions on the scoreboards, encouraging elitism. People became stressed out that they were not earning enough points, and became frustrated because they had no direct control over their scores.
Even worse was our decision to allow negative votes that actually took points away. Anyone who joined the site immediately opened themselves to cavalcades of negative feedback from existing members whose goal was to protect their own ranking. Our brilliant design where every post could be individually ranked meant that the more you participated, the more you could be punished by other members. Members could gang up and "thumb bomb" other members, giving a thumb down on every single post, causing points to disappear and rankings to drop. The best way to "win" at Consumating was to not participate at all!
Oh, hind site!
At first, we thought that if we made the point system more transparent and showed people that you essentially achieved nothing by being negative, we would reduce some of the negative impact the point competition was having on the site. We gave our members graphs and charts and ways to compare their points to other people's points. We gave them detailed reports on what their top point earners and losers were over customizable periods of time. We really wanted to demonstrate to people when they were pleasing their peers, and when they were not. Oh, it was an information junky's dream come true... but it did nothing to reduce the friction or help the site grow. People just had more numbers to obsess over!
The key lesson for me is that our members became very thoroughly obsessed with those numbers. Even though points on Consumating were redeemable for absolutely nothing, not even a gold star, our members had an unquenchable desire for them. What we saw as our membership scrabbled over valueless points was that there didn't actually need to be any sort of material reward other than the points themselves. We didn't need to allow them to trade the points in for benefits, virtual or otherwise. It was enough of a reward for most people just to see their points wobble upwards. If only we had been able to channel that obsession towards something with actual value!
- Ben Brown, Nov 3, 2009