Does your website have a group of loyal fans -- people who consistently participate, share your content, and even recruit new visitors? To say "thanks," you can give them a shout out on Twitter or offer them a freebie, but is that enough to show appreciation to the people who are the lifeblood of your website?
With the emergence of gamification there are now better ways to reward your biggest fans, but rewards are tricky. If you hand out badges willy-nilly it might feel like an afterthought. The question is, how do you come up with a reward system that feels authentic and that people respond to?
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Give them something they actually care about
It's time to reward visitors with something that's actually important to them -- because rewards shouldn't be a one size fits all approach. An Amazon gift card is always popular, but the best rewards are ones that address the specific interests of your audience. So if you run a sports site, you might offer limited-edition team souvenirs. Or if you run a teen site, you could offer a free download of the new Maroon 5 single.
Physical vs. virtual rewards
It's a good idea to have a mix of virtual and physical rewards. Virtual rewards, like badges and levels, are great because you can constantly hand them out without a lot of expense.
Higher-value physical rewards, like gift cards and T-shirts, are good for getting people to work a little harder and really invest in your site. However, one disadvantage of physical rewards is that you'll need to gather the user's address and ship the reward to them. This transaction causes friction for the user, so it's better to reserve physical rewards for people who are really dedicated to your site.
Give your users bragging rights
One way to reward your best users is to give them something they can be proud of. In traditional online games, players win special armor and weapons like the Battlegear of Heroism in "World of Warcraft" or the Breastplate of Ares in "Age of Empires."
You might not want to hand out battle armor, but you can reward site visitors with other status symbols. If your site has a lot of activity, you can give certain users moderator status. Having the ability to approve or deny comments gives these users a sense of power. Another reward could be granting access to content that is normally pay-only.
You may want to reserve a few special rewards that are harder to achieve, similar to becoming a mayor on Foursquare. These types of rewards are more likely to be shared than simply earning a badge. It may take a little guesswork and trying a few different approaches before you discover which rewards your users will respond to.
Make it a challenge, so users can achieve a sense of accomplishment
Everyone loves a good challenge. Without it, there's nothing to work toward. Simply placing a giant WIN button on your site won't garner any interest. In order for a reward to feel valuable, the player must feel like he or she earned it.
There's a careful balance between winning being too easy or too hard; it's important to ride that line so the user stays interested but doesn't get frustrated. It's similar to the concept of flow. For someone to lose themselves in an enjoyable activity, they need a perfect balance of challenge and feedback.
Encourage first-time visitors to become loyal fans
So I've been talking a lot about games and winning, but winning awards is also about the experience. It's about doing something thoughtful for users that makes them smile. Yes, winning feels good, but it doesn't mean much if the experience leaves you flat. You can reward users for completing certain actions within your site that can be used upon return or for their next purchase. It's pretty much a win-win situation.
Another way to make it more about the experience is to have rewards that help the environment or people in need. SimpleEnergy is doing this by encouraging people to use less energy while competing with friends and family. Simply knowing you're saving more energy than last month (or more than your friends) feels like a reward in itself.
Carrie Peters is the vice president of marketing at BigDoor.
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