Why businesses should be driving personal incentives for customers

What was the best bit about visiting the dentist? Not trying to plot where you live on the world map on the ceiling. Not elevating in the dentist’s chair. Not even the morning off school.

It was the lollypop. That’s what we all remember. Funny really, being given a treat that rots your teeth. All in moderation though, right?

We’ve all grown up being rewarded for good behaviour and punished for bad behaviour. Sweets for attending the dentist, bed early for jumping on a can of lime green paint and ruining the new carpet (like most children, I lacked the apprehension of consequences). It moulds us into the functioning adults we are today. Many of us don’t realise that this unconscious learning continues into and throughout our adult lives.

Everything you know, everything you are, is the result of experience. There’s no real human nature. Rather, people are infinitely malleable.

— Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University

Paul Bloom speaks at length about behaviourism and its association with learning, our mind being born out of a blank state and its ability to effectively acquire behaviour through processes such as operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which behaviour is determined by the behaviour’s consequences. Effectively, when we’re given that lollypop in return for our participation in a favourable manner, it ellicits a positive association with that behaviour, and so we’re more likely to comply with the dentist when we next visit. We are effectively conditioned to refine and adapt our actions to acquire benefits multiple times, eliminating undesirable behaviour.


How can we adapt the same protocol for operant conditioning to shape and engage our users?

Rather than simply tell you, I’m going to use Medium as an example to demonstrate how it works.

  1. Set Goals

When setting goals, we need to consider two sets of goals. Those of the user and those of the business. Where they intercept is where the magic happens. So let’s ponder the goals of Medium and its users. The key goal for Medium is to encourage people to write whereas the user’s goal is to share their writing with the world to induce a response.

2. Prompt and monitor behaviour

In this case, the behaviour Medium wishes to stimulate is participation in writing. Medium employ multiple triggers to motivate writers to contribute a story, the clearest prompt being the focal input field at the top of your feed. As soon as the writer utilises this function and starts to add more and more stories, Medium is able to monitor activity. It’s key to note now that we will be returning to this step after the final stage.

3. Encourage positive behaviour

We’ve all been there. We write a story, and we religiously monitor our ‘stats’ section. Why do we do it? Well, we write to share what we know in the hope that we might positively affect people in some way, whether it be to give someone that ‘ahh’ moment or drive further thought. When we see climbing statistics, we feel fulfilled that other people are interacting with our content and we feel some sort of social approval and accomplishment.

This is a reward. Not in the way that Dominoes texts us with a unique discount code so we can afford those extra chicken strippers, but a personal reward that gives us a personal incentive to drive more of those rewards. Personal incentives are more powerful and longer-lasting than material incentives. They drive our sense of pride, creativity and achievement that contribute to our self-perception and social standing. If we apply this to a business, it helps to differentiate real, hyper-responsive customers, truly interested in the product from those who have no intention of converting.

4. Reduce undesirable behaviour

In the digital world, we don’t want to punish our users. This is why we refer to this part of the protocol as reducing undesirable behaviour. Whereas encouraging positive behaviour is an active strategy, reducing undesirable behaviour is rather passive. We aim to minimise loss in positive activity, in Medium’s case, lack of participation. Medium does this perfectly by making other writer’s stories the focal part of the homepage. Even better still, it’s personalised by the tags you’re interested in.

We look upon other writers’ stories that entail fascinating insights and have redeemed an enviable response and we aspire for that same success. We crave that personal reward.

This then takes us back to step 2. Triggering this reaction to aspirational content prompts us to write a story, to which Medium can monitor.


And so it starts again.

Medium cleverly uses operant conditioning to drive a cycle of endless rewards and personal development. As this cycle loops, the writer grows and adapts to new changes in their environment; new content that inspires, new reactions to their stories from fellow writers. Medium maintains a sense of participation from driving this cycle, creating an indispensible relationship between writing and the affirmative emotions it evokes.

As a business, we need to consider how we can initiate this same cycle, using personal incentives as a driving force to engage with our products. We need to consider how our products and services perform long-term, how they can build lasting relationships, incite personal growth and shape their customers to be the best versions of themselves.

Sometimes, a lollypop just won’t cut it.

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