Should we provide incentives for engagement with social technology?

It may seem odd, but a question I get asked quite a bit is “Should we pay our staff extra, or provide some sort of bonus, for engaging with social media?” Sometimes it’s asked in the context of getting people to use an internal wiki or blog, sometimes it’s about getting them to engage externally with business-relevant communities.

My answer is always the same: No.

I have based this answer on an understanding of what drives people to engage with social tools, an understanding I have developed over the years through experience and observation. People generally use social tools because they find them useful or helpful in some way, because to do so increases their status amongst their peers or wished-for peers, because they are curious, or because the tools are enjoyable to use, amongst other reasons.

Putting a financial value on the use of social tools feels wrong. Not to mention simplistic, patronising and a gross misunderstanding of what social software is all about. I think it feels that way because social media is all about relationships, and we don’t explicitly “incentivise” (what a horrible word!) the creation and maintenance of relationships in any other context, so why would social media be different?

If I said to you, “I’ll give you £5 for every friend you make” you would rightly understand that this incentive both encourages you to be promiscuous in your friendship making (quantity over quality) and implies that you are incapable of going out and making some friends without financial reward. For some people the incentive itself would devalue the action that it is designed to encourage, thus leading to contrary behaviour.

This interpretation of my gut feeling turns out to be correct, as Samuel Bowles explains in the Harvard Business Review article, When Economic Incentives Backfire:

Experimental economists have found that offering to pay women for donating blood decreases the number willing to donate by almost half, and that letting them contribute the payment to charity reverses the effect. Consider another example: When six day-care centers in Haifa, Israel, began fining parents for late pickups, the number of tardy parents doubled. The fine seems to have reduced their ethical obligation to avoid inconveniencing the teachers and led them to think of lateness as simply a commodity they could purchase.

It seems that scenarios where altruistic, or other social behaviours, are involved a financial incentive devalues the behaviour to the level of an economic transaction, removing the moral and ethical aspect and making it easier to behave badly.

The psychology of social tools has not been adequately* examined, but I suspect there is an altruistic component, despite the fact that I often appeal to self-interest when discussing adoption. When you look at a healthy wiki, some people spend time tidying up other people’s work for no real recognition or reward, a behaviour that could easily be interpreted as altruistic. There are similar altruistic or semi-altruistic behaviours in other tools too. Using tags/categories on blog posts to enable discovery could be an altruistic behaviour if the author themselves never actually benefits from having used tags/categories, e.g. never goes back to look a their old entries.

To social media people, all this is blindingly obvious, but the incentive question is one that I get asked often enough that it’s something I feel we need to address and nip in the bud.

* Did I say ‘adequately’? Aah, the wonders of British understatement.

One thought on “Should we provide incentives for engagement with social technology?

Comments are closed.