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Social Media: More on how points can be used to drive user behavior August 22, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in business models, game mechanics, gaming, social media, social networks.

I’ve posted in the past in praise of Amy Jo Kim’s principles of game design and in particular, the way that social media sites can use keeping score to drive the user behavior that they want.

Last week Rajat Paharia, CEO of Bunchball, pointed me to an interesting NY Time’s article that gives further evidence that users will do more for points than they would otherwise. The article summarizes one case from a very interesting paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2005.

Points can give people the illusion of advantage.

The article describes an experiment where students were asked to do two tasks; one for a reward of a vanilla icecream and the other, slightly harder, for a pistachio icecream. About a quarter of the group did the harder task, which approximately matched the proportion of the group that preferred pistachio to vanilla.

A second group was asked to do the same two tasks, but instead were rewarded with points; 60 points for the easier task and 100 points for the harder task. Students were told that people who ended up with 50-99 points would be given a vanilla icecream and people who ended up with 100 points would be given a pistachio icecream (no option to take vanilla instead). As such, the two reward systems were functionally identical.

The surprising result is that when points were introduced, over half of the group chose the harder task and got a pistachio icecream. Yet when polled, the same proportion of people preferred pistachio. So when points were introduced, many people chose to do the slightly harder task to get the reward that they liked less, just because they got more points!

It seems that points alone gave people some satisfaction. The rest of the paper goes on to extend the findings in various ways that are not covered in the NY Times article.

Points can give people the illusion of certainty.

One group was given the choice between $1000 now or a 50:50 chance of $6000 or nothing in one months time. 30% of people took the money now.

Another group was given the choice of 1000 shares (points) now, or 3000 shares in a month. Shares today were worth $1. Shares in a month had a 50:50 chance of being worth 0 or $2. Again, the two groups faced choices that were functionally equivalent. In this group, 61% chose to take their chances and wait a month.

The fact that they were holding shares (points) gave the group a greater feeling of certainty, even though the value of those shares in the future was variable. Perhaps this is why people with frequent flier miles don’t always rush to redeem them even when their airline is facing potential failure.

Points can give people the illusion of linearity.

A group of people were asked to listen to an increasingly loud and unpleasant noise through headphones for as long as they wanted to.

One group was given M&Ms for listening; 10 M&Ms for the first 10 seconds, 9 M&Ms for the next 10 seconds and so on.

The other group was given points for listing; 10 points for each 10 seconds. The first 10 points that they earned could be traded for 10 M&Ms, the next 10 points for 9 M&Ms and so on.

Again, people rewarded with points listened for longer on average (median ~105 seconds vs median ~75 seconds) than people rewarded with M&Ms directly, even though the rewards were functionally the same.

Some people focused more on the linear increase in points than the non linear increase in outcome/rewards, and this kept them motivated for longer. There are clear parallels here to the established practice on increasing the number of points before “leveling up” in games.

How can you use this?

I’ve only summarized the results here – its worth reading the whole paper and thinking about how you can use points to influence user behavior in your business.


1. Chris - August 22, 2007

Just look at what LinkedIn does. They have status bars regarding how complete a user’s profile is, how many connections a user has, etc. It’s an effective motivator.

2. Yan Pritzker - August 22, 2007

Very interesting. I wonder if this is a byproduct of the american education system where points form the basis of most grading systems, or if this is some innate property of the human mind.

3. Wayne Mulligan - August 22, 2007

I think these conclusions/results not only give valuable insights into tactics that promote user participation – it also shows why casinos are so successful. When you’re not holding cash in your hand (chips) you’re more likely to keep rolling the dice and participating/playing the game.

Bringing this back to social media: it’s difficult for people to calculate opportunity cost when dealing with intangibles like “points” or “shares”. If we told someone we’d pay them $1 to post 5 videos (let’s say it takes 30 minutes), they’d quickly go, “Wait a minute – I make $40 per hour at work, there’s no way I’ll do this for a lousy buck!”.

But if we gave them 1000 points (which are only valuable within a given site) it’d be much more difficult to calculate their opportunity cost, thus making it more likely that they’ll work for those 1000 points.

Just my two pennies.

4. Larry C - August 22, 2007

This is great stuff. I was pointed to this blog by Robert Scoble.
I have been fighting a battle to get this implemented on the site I work for.
It looks like everyone is getting the point now.

5. lawrence - August 22, 2007

One other possible interpretation: people are idiots. Fascinating stuff nonetheless.

6. Tyler M - August 22, 2007

Damn, and here I thought I’d thought of this before anyone else… well here’s to hoping our system is the best!

7. Josh - August 23, 2007

In the section, “Points can give people the illusion of certainty.”

($1000 now) VS. (50:50 of $6000)
= 30% money now.

(1000 shares x $1 now) VS. (50:50 of 3000 shares x 0/$2)
= 39% shares now

The article infers that “…holding shares (points) gave the group a greater feeling of certainty…” when in fact more people too the certain shared now. Which contradicts the point made.

I appreciate the research and plan on taking advantage of what I’ve read, but (unless I’m quite mistaken) this results do not represent the findings statement in that portion.

8. jeremyliew - August 23, 2007

Josh – maybe I wasn’t clear enough in the text.

Group one was given a choice of $1000 or [a 50% chance of $0 and a 50% chance of $6000].

Group two was given a choice of [1000 shares x $1] or [3000 shares with a 50% chance of the share price being 0 and a 50% chance of the share price being $2]. Doing the conversion, this is essentially a choice of $1000 or [a 50% chance of $0 and a 50% chance of $6000], which is the same as group one.

9. brad s - August 23, 2007

absolutely. i was just thinking about the notion of progress feedback in driving user engagement. it seems to me that, broadly, the desire to accumulate value (whatever the definition) drives behavior. it might going from $10M in net worth to $25M. or it might be spending the extra twenty hours in Oblivion getting to that next character level. as long as there’s an easily recognizable expression of value or currency within a market of some sort (making your value relative to other’s), people want to get it and (usually) display it.

geni.com has a great treatment of a “percentage complete” bar on their profile, which i think is very effective in getting users to round out their profile. i’d love to a/b test it.

and, since no tech blog comment is complete with a quotation from napoleon: “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”

(incidentally, i was first introduced to these words in a video game. it actually mocks the player reading it. brilliant.)

10. David Armstrong - August 24, 2007

I think the costs of dealing with the “web opportunists” hurts the value of point programs. I think there is a group of any market who gets turned away from sites that have (need) these. Even if millions use them…think about how many people turn away..points to tell your friends..points to register…win a free Ipod….if the value of the service was so good…why would you need to have points to incent?..hmm..

11. joe - August 24, 2007

Fascinating stuff as always, Jeremy. Coincidentally, I’m debating whether to put in a point or credit system for a Facebook app that I’m working on (click on my name if you’re interested).

12. When can paying people become counterproductive? « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - August 11, 2008

[…] mmorpg, social media, user generated content. trackback I’ve posted in the past about how points can be used to drive user behavior. Last week the Washington Post explored when play becomes work, and talked about some of the […]

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