Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Rewards: How to Incentivize Engagement in your Online Community

I am fortunate to be a member of a handful of communities for community managers. Is this meta? Yes, it is. Am I a complete nerd for online communities? Also yes.

One question that seems to come up again and again among community builders is how best to incentivize engagement in a community.

Social psychologists have identified two powerful types of motivators most commonly used by just about anyone who needs to motivate a person or people to take action (think doting parents, clever teachers, and even a community manager or two):

  1. Extrinsic rewards
  2. Intrinsic rewards

Because community managers rely on rewards to drive engagement and make experiences more sticky, we are in constant pursuit of just the right type of reward to drive the participation that makes a healthy community.

The question is: which type of reward is better?

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Rewards

Proponents of intrinsic motivation argue that, while more challenging to cultivate—especially among new members—it is still ultimately the more sustainable route as rewards like peer recognition and “good vibes” from helping another member are usually free of cost, or close to it. Intrinsic reward systems can offer a higher ROI because actual capital invested in the community is so low.

So, who’s correct?

It’s Less About Which, and More About When

Because an intrinsic reward is unlikely to be immediately apparent to someone new to the community, early on it is important to provide more easily accessible extrinsic rewards. For example, if I am brand new to a coding community, I am less likely than an established member to help answer a question—I just haven’t gained the confidence yet. I might read some posts, get distracted, leave. But if this coding community is utilizing a badge system, there’s a good chance I’ll get an email later that day letting me know I’ve received a badge! Just for joining! I am reminded of my importance in that space (and, tbh, in general) and I make a plan to return soon to collect more rewards and gratification.

Types of rewards required to drive participation over time.

By providing extrinsic rewards early and often, we scaffold an experience that moves our members along their path as members of our community, teeing them up for opportunities to experience these more internally derived, feel-good moments.

As a member of the community becomes more invested and climbs up the commitment curve they will, by virtue of participating, begin to experience the intrinsic motivators — the internally sourced feel-good rewards — that only a participating member has easy access to.

The need for extrinsic rewards as motivation to participate decreases over time, as the member matures as a regular participant in the community.

Better with Both.

Parent, poet, builder of digital online community experiences.