It’s always an interesting nexus to work in marketing and community. Sometimes, you see great things that make you envious—”Hey, why didn’t I think of that?” Then there are other times when you shake your head and wonder, “What were they thinking?”

Also, as someone who knows the pain and work that goes into building a community, the hours spent, and the emotional force it takes, I never want to call out someone’s work by naming and shaming them.

So, with that explanation out of the way, I want to respond to a large and well-read marketing blog that touted “a new way to build community.” The essential idea was that, unlike boring communities, this community was on a platform rewarding user interaction with financial incentives. The author went on effusively about how this brand was fantastic by giving members rewards for posting and responding to drive activity.

What I saw right away was a fundamental misunderstanding of core community dynamics. This model, while seemingly innovative (according to the author), underscores a glaring oversight in recognizing the essence of genuine community building. It is not a novelty but rather a testament to a misunderstanding of how vibrant, sustainable communities are nurtured.

It also concerned me that this was shared on a marketing blog read by marketing executives looking for ideas to be more effective, and creating community by giving financial incentives was presented as an innovative way to do this.

Now, I know those of you in the community profession know this, but for those coming from other disciplines, please take note of the following: True community engagement is not a transaction; it is a relationship. By leaning heavily into extrinsic motivations such as rewards, there’s a risk of undermining the intrinsic values that are the bedrock of meaningful interactions. It is not the foundation for long-term success. Anyone who has deployed a reward program will tell you it should always be in addition to other programs because it is not the core focus, as eventually, the “fun” and motivation run dry unless the gifts and prizes get bigger and better.

Communities thrive on shared passions, mutual support, and authentic connections, not on the precarious foundation of financial incentives. Such an approach offers a quick surge in participation but risks cultivating an environment with shallow engagement and fleeting loyalty. If one looks at the community posts of this “new way” community one can easily see people posting just to get their post count up or regurgitated posts of others to be relevant and keep themselves on the leader board.

With the reliance on rewards as a primary motivator, not only will the owners of this community see a dilution of content quality, but they will also see a shift in user motivation. When these motivations move from passion to profit, there will be an eventual decline in engagement that was so revered because the novelty of rewards wears off. In essence, building your community building on incentives neglects the core principles of community building:

  • Fostering a sense of belonging.
  • Facilitating meaningful exchanges.
  • Nurturing an environment where members feel valued beyond the monetary.

If you want to build a vibrant community, it lies not in transactional interactions but in cultivating a space where members are intrinsically motivated to participate, share, and connect. The focus should be on building a community ethos that resonates with its members, tapping into their passion, and encouraging participation that is self-rewarding and self-sustaining. 

While it might be expedient, a community should be measured not by its short-term engagement metrics but by the depth of its connections and the genuine interactions of its members. If you prioritize those intrinsic values, I promise you will foster longer-lasting engagement and loyalty and the kind of customers you want to tout your brand to the world. 

And I should be clear—no one is saying people don’t love rewards, but they should not be the primary source of your community building. This is not a new idea – either. There is a reason others don’t do it, and you shouldn’t either—long term, it doesn’t work. I’ve seen it fail countless times. So trust me and save yourself your money and the heartache.