Return on Incentives: Examining Reward Response Across Online Community Activities


Managed online communities frequently use recognition-based rewards like reputation points and badges to induce community members to contribute. Such rewards are deployed across different community activities with potentially different levels of effectiveness, a contingency that has remained largely overlooked in the growing body of literature on community governance. Building on prior studies of voluntary work in online communities we distinguish between two types of community activities, core and supporting, based on their centrality to community outcomes, their public visibility, and their perceived interestingness. We contend that the initial lure of rewards should be sufficient to induce a punctual upward shift in member contribution levels across activity types, but the increased contribution levels are only likely to sustain for supporting community activities. We argue that supporting activities, low on centrality, visibility and interest, are particularly sensitive to the potential motivational, habit-forming, and advertising effects of rewards. In order to test our hypotheses, we conduct an empirical analysis of the effects of three activity-specific badges on contributions to corresponding core and supporting activities in three sub-communities of the Stack Exchange Q&A community. We find that community members intensify their contributions as they approach reward thresholds, just to de-escalate once they attain the reward. Consistent with our arguments we also find that members’ contribution levels remain sustainably higher than their previous contribution values in the wake of reward attainment for supporting activities, while this difference is indistinguishable for core activities. Our post-hoc analysis show that the lasting increase in supporting-activity contribution levels goes at the expense of contribution levels for core activities. Therefore, members’ increased inclination to perform supporting activities is at least partially compensated through reallocation of community contributions rather than an outright increase in overall community participation. These findings hold important theoretical and practical implications for online community design and governance.

Working Paper
Coen van der Geest
Coen van der Geest
PhD Candidate in Information Systems

My research interests include digital infrastructures, IT (Platform) Architectures and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).