How to Reward Community Members, Even Without a Huge Budget

by | Wed 9 Sep 2020

Today, I want to briefly discuss one of my favorite community-building tactics: amazing reward systems.  How do you use rewards to celebrate amazing work from your members? How do you reward community members, even without a huge budget?

I get a lot of questions about this topic. Many times, people want to know how they can use rewards to keep their community members interested, even with a measly or nonexistent budget for doing so. After all, it can get pricey sending out free t-shirts internationally. 

The reason rewards work so well is that, much like Pavlov’s famous dog, we as humans love to be rewarded for our good behavior, and when we can repeat this good behavior for a couple of months, it gets sealed into our brains as a habit.

Digging Into Rewards

Rewards are a powerful way to nurture your community as it flourishes, however, not all rewards are equal for people building communities. To understand why, let’s first look at my Community Participation Framework from my latest book, “People Powered: How communities can supercharge your business, brand, and teams.”

This framework shows you how to take a new community member from a Casual member to a Regular member, and then on to a Core member. With each bump in community level, there is also a bump in your member’s level of participation. But how do you move them from Casual through to Core?

You can see under these three community levels, there are little black bumps. Those are the rewards for your members! 

In other words: when someone does something, they get something cool.

Do you know why rewards are so powerful for communities? It is because rewards encourage the kinds of behaviors you want to see in your community members – the more they participate and get rewarded, the more their behavior changes.

For example:

  • Do you want casual members to read more content? Reward them for it.
  • Do you want regular members to generate material and get more active? Reward them for it.
  • Do you want better peer reviewed code contributions? Reward them for it.

Habitual behaviors are enormously influenced by rewards!

Two types of rewards: Intrinsic and Extrinsic

So, this all sounds great, but kinds of rewards should I send people?

Well, there two types. Let’s dig into each.

Extrinsic rewards

This is what most people think of when they think of physical perks from a community. Here, you are sending your community members physical goods such as swag and other merchandise. 

For example:

  • T-Shirts
  • Challenge Coins
  • Gadgets
  • Stickers
  • Water Bottles
  • Treats
  • Travel Gear
  • Trophies

The key to making extrinsic rewards work is buying high quality materials in bulk (cheaply) and shipping it to members (also very cheaply.)

However, if either of those things goes awry, you can end up costing your community a lot of money and time. 

So, some tips:

  • Avoid t-shirts: there are different cuts, sizes, and more that massively overcomplicates the process. You usually end up with a load of stock you can’t get rid of. Also, many t-shirts people make suck, so only make t-shirts that look cool. 
  • Focus on interesting, personalized swag that you can ideally put in an envelope to reduce shipping (e.g. Stickers, Challenge Coins etc.)
  • Make sure your shipping is cheap and trackable. If it’s not, it is probably best to focus on intrinsic rewards.  
  • ALWAYS include a handwritten note. (But don’t use your normal signature, otherwise, people could forge it if you do!) 

Tips aside, extrinsic rewards leave you more exposed to things going wrong. This is why I always prefer starting with the second sort of reward.. Intrinsic rewards. 

Intrinsic rewards

In this reward system, you validate your members’ efforts without sending a physical product at all. Instead, you simply actively recognize the work they’ve done! 

For example:

  • Thank you emails
  • Public forum recognition by saying something like “Congrats to ___, they have made some amazing contributions including X, Y, Z…
  • Inviting members to insider planning/team meetings
  • Sending free “VIP” digital content such as e-books, courses, and more
  • Giving them access to the “Batphone”; a direct contact email address that they can reach you and your team when needed

There are 2 main ways intrinsic rewards work for your community: 

  • Social recognition (such as public praise) is a form of validation, and validation is yet another form of reward! 
  • Creates social proof, making not only the rewarded member more inspired, but also his or her peers. 

In Conclusion

I know this is all a lot to think about, so here’s a quick recap of my actionable suggestions for making rewards work for your community better. 

  1. Start by deciding what behaviors you want members to take
  2. Break those behaviors into Casual, Regular, and Core categories, choosing 2 behaviors per category that you can recognize and reward 
  3. Choose your rewards, both Extrinsic and Intrinsic
  4. Think about the most efficient way to implement your rewards once chosen (especially for extrinsic rewards that require logistics.)  

Now go enjoy the uptick in community morale these tips will give you. 

Want to find our more? Check out my video:


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