The Case Against Gamifying Your Online Community


When it comes to launching a new online community or driving more engagement in an existing one, the first suggestions community managers usually bring up are gamification, giveaways and contests. It has become the default, go-to answer for many. I’ve seen this approach result in all kinds of headaches and problems time and time again. It brings out the same reaction in me as when a marketer or advertiser asks to make their branded video GO VIRAL. For the one billionth time, you can’t make a video go viral. Every time you ask such a silly question, a baby unicorn loses its wings. Viral is a byproduct of creating awesome content. You can’t force crappy content to go viral.

Anywho, I digress. The reason why I get all worked up is because so few communities manage to do it well. I’ve seen, participated and studied more than my fair share of lame, cheesy, half-assed attempts to gamify a community and/or product to be more than a little skeptical. It takes a lot more than a shiny badge, a new title and flashy new swag to motivate someone to become more active in an online community. Or, at it’s absolute the worst, the ridiculously expensive and elaborate sweepstake contests that many large brands have grown fond of on Facebook, Pinterest and yes even Snapchat in recent years to increase “community engagement” on their social media accounts. That’s not gamification. It’s simply bribery.

This creates all kinds of problems. The first and biggest being that you are essentially poisoning not only the new members you bring in to the community but also existing members. You basically are sending the message that the only reason to participate anymore in the community is to get some sort of reward or incentive. This creates an engagement strategy that simply will never be scalable and effective long-term. It’s no different than email marketers that get a little overzealous with giving out special discounts and promos to their subscribers. You are essentially training subscribers – i.e. the people who are generally the most loyal to your brand- to only buy from you when items go on sale.

A second problem with gamification and giveaways is the very nature of them being “quick win tactics.” While you may see brief spikes in activity as people are drawn to the shiny and new, that excitement around the new swag or badge goes away as quickly as it started. That leaves you with always having to find bigger, shinier and better swag to give out, until at some point when even that isn’t enough. You find that your community has turned into a branded ghost town, as all your members just “disappeared” to chase the next giveaway.

That’s where gamification can go so wrong. It focuses too much on the shiny and superficial one-and-done interactions (the so-called “quick wins”) and not enough on fostering the relationships that will make your community thrive in the long term. It’s the relationships between community members and in many the cases the community and the brand that will make a community scale exponentially higher.

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About the author

Jessica Malnik

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