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  Community Rewards and Identity?
I run a scientific community on an intranet. I've seen examples of reward systems on other communities for participation in the forums, how do these work? Also, what is the importance of 'identity' in established communities, and how do the two relate?

Reward and identity are two key facets to building and managing a cohesive community, and actually are related to one another.

First, you might wish to think of the difference between reward and award. Most commonly a community will reward participants for their loyalty, energy and contributions by using such benefits as discounted purchases from online stores, incentives from site partners or other forms of preferential treatment such as enhanced status within the community. Rewards are often applied in relation to a specific measure, such as participation in the community for a period of time and posting to a message forum a number of times. In some cases the rewards may even be self-generating such as the different status given to members of a forum that is automatically applied by forum software when postings reach a certain level. In sum, rewards tend to be ongoing inducements to participation in the long term.

On the other hand, award systems work on a slightly different premise. Often the award is very public and is usually in relation to a one-off event, such as a competition, a request for contributions, or a particular act of participation by a community member. Similar forms of award can be given in these instances, including prizes and other forms of merchandise, but in addition an award system is powerful because of its public nature.

Often the greatest awards that can be provided to members is recognition of, for example, contributions they have made in their postings on the site. How you handle this is dependent on the nature of the site, but people love to see their “name in lights”. Not only does it provide them with a sense of pride, but it also spotlights and positions them as an active and appreciated member of the community. In turn, this also helps them to establish an identity in the community, an area we will come to below.

Each community is different so it is important to establish a system that will fit best with your site and community. To do so it may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions;

What awards or rewards can we offer to our community members?

How would we communicate our reward or award system?

How will we provide the rewards to our members?

What kind of awards can be supported within in the community?

As we touched on above, an individual’s identity is very important to establish within your online community, especially when that is communicated positively in the form of an award. Again this is related to turning the spotlight on your community individuals, perhaps inviting them in the process to share something of themselves with the community.

You can foster this in a number of ways. A brief list follows:

Highlight new members of your community and provide brief biographies about them so they are firmly introduced to the community.

Provide community member profiles (such as used on AOL) to allow individuals to make more of themselves known to others than simply their postings or other contributions.

Refer to other member’s contributions to assist others with questions. This is also a great form of recognition, as you are establishing that member as a valued and respected contributor.

Ask certain members directly for assistance with various areas of your site. For example, asking a member to help moderate a topic that they know a great deal about or asking for article contributions that are directly linked to the community.

Use requests for contributions or competitions as a means to award individuals and also to provide them with the platform to identify themselves.

Use awards such as “Community Member of the Week” or “Top Member Posting” to publicly acknowledge the identity of your valued participants.

As you may see reward and identity are very closely intertwined and are crucial components in fostering a viable and successful community. Using both in tandem will provide you and your users with the platform for positive community participation.

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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