You may not have heard of Lithium, but you'll almost certainly have used one of their products. The California-based firm creates and manages social hubs for some of the biggest brands in the world. Bought a new pair of Sony headphones and they don't work? Where do you go? The Sony forum of course - powered by Lithium.
But the secret to managing social communities - or so they say - is not to manage them very much at all. Users will moderate themselves, responding to questions and even defending brands from rageful users. But what incentivises these people to post? And what drives users to become that holy grail of brand advocate, the so-called 'super user'?
Super users typically make-up around 1% of a brand's web community yet will often be the most active members of a foum, returning frequently and participating in numerous debates. These users are invaluable to the brands they endorse, and can shave millions off a firm's call-centre budget by providing answers to commonly asked questions online.
But how do you create a super user?
Michael Wu, Lithium's chief scientist, has a PhD in biophysics: finding patterns in human behaviour is his domain. MT quizzed him about the unique beast that is the super user. Can anyone be tranformed into this kind of engaged, brand evangelist? Or does it take a unique character trait to make the grade?
'You do have to have a certain predisposition,' says Wu. 'As with anything, some people are more susceptible to gamification than others.'
Gamification, for the uninitiated, is the process of inserting game mechanics into other activites. Think of the 'super sellers' on eBay. These people have 'graduated' to 'super user' status through sheer volumes of successful transactions. They have 'leveled up', in layman's terms.
But gamification is a lot more interesting than the basic process of ascending levels. According to Wu, the most interesting research into this topic has been undertaken by a professor and game researcher named Richard Bartle.
Bartle identified four different types of gamer: the killer; the explorer; the achiever; and the socialiser. 'Killers are the gamers who are out to win,' says Wu. 'Explorers are just that: people who like discovering new information. Achievers enjoy overt rewards: points, kudos etc. While socialisers aren't really that into winning. In fact, competition will often turn them off.'
Most social communities target the 'killers' initially for their super-user group, but subsequently encourage the participations of the achievers, explorers, and finally the socializers. The super-users are rewarded not through commercial or physical incentives, but by leveling up, receiving likes, and creating value that is recognised across the community. 'These users are drawn in through the gamification,' says Wu, 'but they stay because of the value they create.
'There are two kinds of rewards: intrinsic and extrinsic,' explains Wu. 'The former is about helping people and receiving 'likes' or 'kudos' for your efforts, knowing that something that has been useful to you has helped other people. The latter is about winning an iPod or collecting points that earn you a discount. Killers usually start engaging in the social conversation to climb the ladder much as you would in a game: earn stars, get a new avatar, a new level: 'super user', etc. But they stay for the intrinsic motivation.'
So 'kudos' really is enough to persuade people to do stuff for free, says MT sceptically. 'It is enough for a while. But while, they participate, they create value. And when they see how much value they’ve created they will stay, because by now they would be intrinsically motivated. It's basic human psychology,' says Wu. 'We all want to be appreciated and in the online space, knowledge is a valuable commodity.'
But it's not all about the killers. The next-generation of social technology will hone in on the other three groups of players. 'Using sophisticated feedback systems that you find in videogames, brands will incentivise all types of users to spend more and more time in their social communities,' says Wu. 'I can't reveal how just yet, but it's happening.
MT is reporting live from the LiNC conference in San Francisco. Tune in tomorrow for more on the power of building social communities and using gamification to create brand ambassadors.