The Motivation Bubble

Originally published in MediaPost's Social Media Insider

We rule 
We're getting so good at motivating consumers that we're motivating them to death. If you thought it was tough to bring Lazarus back, just wait until we have to revive our consumers.

We'll get to that challenge shortly. Let's backtrack to the present, where I have a confession to make: I love social gaming.

First, I love it as a consumer. I'm level 700-something in Zynga's Mafia Wars. I'd tell you the exact level, but by the time you read this, it'll be a few increments higher. I'm very good at it. I click the right buttons at the right time while sharing content with friends who play. I've purchased virtual currency with real currency  — on occasion, in small batches. I love it enough that I had to set a rule that I'll only actively play two such addictive games concurrently. I traded Café World, a fellow Zynga creation, for ngmoco's We Rule, a mobile, medieval version of Farmville. It's much cooler than Farmville, though; there are magic shops and spy towers, and — my personal favorite — magic cauliflower. Okay, so it's not that much cooler than Farmville. But I like it.

I also love these games as a marketer. These games are masterful at getting people to do something. Every person who plays becomes an automaton, exemplified by the arc in the series "Lost" where stranded survivors slaved over pushing a sequence of buttons every 108 minutes in an underground bunker. The only difference: the button-pushing sequence in "Lost" proved to have a purpose. It's from an old season, but I won't spoil the show; I'll only spoil the fun of these social games.

Beyond loving the games as a marketer, I love the psychology. You can figure out just the right reward at the right interval to keep people hooked, to get them to convince their friends to join, and to spend money for virtual trivialities. When I play Mafia Wars, there's the superficial enjoyment, and then the amazement at how they find new ways to lure me in, with the occasional frustration of when I have to click too many buttons.

The gaming doesn't just happen in games. I earn badges everywhere now — in Foursquare, which made them famous, and in Miso, which is like Foursquare for watching TV and movies, and in Glue, which invented "liking" content across the web before Facebook, and in Gowalla, which calls its badges "pins," and in Whrrl, which calls them "societies." The applications are all different, but the psychology is the same.

 Here's the contract you implicitly sign when engaging in these activities: "Complete enough actions and you get some form of recognition, which may take the form of social currency if it's publicized." Now, here's the fine print you never, ever see: "We forever benefit from your actions because your actions count as data, and data grows more valuable over time as we collect more and learn how to use it. But the recognition is short-lived, too inconsequential to take pride in, and so fleeting that you must keep coming back for more or it feels like it was all for nothing. Ha ha ha."

As marketers, we can bring more to the table than recognition. We can offer discounts and free products and content from our exclusive partners and inside information. We have what you want and we can give it to you.

Both camps are learning from each other. Combine fleeting recognition and a free sample, and all the bases are covered.

What happens when you strip all of it away, though? Strip away the incentives, the currency, the constant calls for coming back. Strip away the requirements for how many friends you need. Strip away the artifice and the ruses.

What you have then is the kernel of intrinsic motivation. It's what keeps people going. It's exemplified by "fun" — whether that fun is scaling a mountain or indulging in a rich meal or reading "On the Origin of Species."

You'll counter that external forces are at work in those situations. How much of the fun is the act of doing it, versus telling people what you did: how high you climbed or how much you ate or how erudite you were? There are no badges for those acts, though, no one telling you what your self-destructing mission is that you must choose to accept.

Former students of undergraduate psychology courses or readers of pop psych magazines may recall the 1973 study "Undermining Children's Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Rewards" by Mark Lepper and others. The title gives it away: external rewards kill internal mojo. The authors warn in the introduction of "the possible side effects and long-term consequences of powerful systems of extrinsic rewards."

Powerful systems are in place, but these systems in their current form are too new. We are focused on the short-term results: spikes of fans, clicks, engagement, or whatever action we're trying to incentivize.

It won't last indefinitely. We're creating a motivation bubble. We'll fill it with extrinsic rewards until it pops. We'll try to revive it with more, and it will be too late. We'll call out for the intrinsic motivation to return from hibernation, and it will — it's how people survive. But we'll have to find new ruses and rewards to get back some semblance of what we had. Even if all we had was a bubble.