Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Maslow's Hierarchy: Consumers Seeking Esteem Drive Communities

Yesterday, we discussed how Maslow's famous Hierarchy of Needs helps to explain how and why people seek out online communities. Once humans have satisfied their Physiological and Safety Needs, they seek out Belonging. Online communities fulfill this need by providing a place where those with similar experiences, opinions, and values can meet and engage each other.

While in the Belonging phase, community members will focus on those actions that create a sense of acceptance, such as visiting anonymously, reading others' contributions, joining the community, and adding others as friends within their networks. Those in this stage may compliment and agree with others, but they rarely initiate new discussions, share potentially controversial ideas, or criticize others (even constructively).

It is important that online communities offer safe ways for consumers in the Belonging phase to ease into the community or they'll simply leave. These include obvious best practices such as permitting visitors to access content without registering, but they also may consist of more subtle policies such as creating a section of the community where "newbies" may ask questions without risking ridicule from more established members. Other community strategies that can invite a sense of belonging include organizing volunteers who welcome and befriend new members and publishing clearly stated rules and guidelines that permit community members to gain confidence as to what is acceptable and what isn't.

Another way to invite participation from those in the Belonging phase is to allow visitors to rate or vote on topics anonymously. It's trendy on community sites to force complete transparency--every member can track every other member's activities--but for those in the Belonging stage, a little opacity is more encouraging. For example, Yahoo Stores allows visitors to indicate if each store rating was helpful or not, but no one else may see a history of an individual's ratings.

While communities must be welcoming to people in the Belonging stage, vibrant communities do not develop unless members are encouraged and able to proceed into Maslow's next stage: Esteem. People seeking to satisfy their Esteem needs are the ones who contribute new ideas, create subgroups, express opinions, share judgments, and reveal more of themselves within communities.

The need for Esteem includes being recognized, earning respect, and doing things that provide one with a sense of accomplishment and contribution. Marketers and publishers who want an active community must provide ways to advance members from Belonging to Esteem, a progression that can be eased by social media tools that recognize participants for their contributions.

Examples of the ways online communities allow members to satisfy esteem needs include:
  • Points: Consumers taking time to do the sorts of things that contribute to an active community may be awarded points based on their level of activity. On the VIVA Diva Cafe site, consumers earn community points by registering, encouraging friends to join, participating in special promotions, entering sweepstakes, and posting comments. As points are accumulated, community members advance into different membership levels and are rewarded with special gifts called Diva Delights. Another example is Plurk, where members who create microblog posts earn Karma points that permit access to better emoticons.

  • Votes/Lists: Community members may vote for each other in a number of ways, but the important aspect for those in the Esteem stage is that they be credited for the commendations received from others. The most famous of social media voting mechanisms is Digg, which acts a constant democratic filter for all Web content. Amazon's Listmania allows shoppers to rate each others' list of recommended books and music, sellers on eBay live and die based on their positive ratings, and Social Media Today maintains a list of the highest-rated and most-discussed authors.

  • Backlinks/Traffic/Subscribers: Those who blog love to be recognized for their contributions. This can happen in a number of ways, such as tools that promote backlinks (the number of incoming links to the site) or reveal traffic figures. Feedburner provides a means for blog owners to share the number of people who subscribe to their RSS feed; for example, TechCrunch currently claims 861,000 readers.

  • Friends: In the Belonging phase, people fear being called out by others so they cautiously add friends to their networks; but in the Esteem phase, aggressively acquiring the largest list of friends can become a goal unto itself. Kevin Rose, the founder of aforementioned Digg, has over 50,000 followers on Twitter. Steve Hofstetter is a guy seriously lodged in Maslow's Esteem stage. He set out to gain 10,000 friends on Facebook, then set his sites on 100,000; once he hit 200,000 friends he was slowing down Facebook so they had to reset his profile.

  • Badges and insignias: We never really get over the feeling of earning those scout badges or letters for our varsity jacket, do we? Communities can fulfill members' esteem needs by awarding them visible representations of their status and accomplishments. Marketing bloggers seek to be included in the Ad Age Power 150 and Marketing Alltop so that the badge of honor can be added to the blog. eBay sellers strive to be earn the tiny "Power Seller" icon, which bestows prestige and higher bids from buyers.
Providing the mechanisms for people to advance from Belonging to Esteem encourages the kind of behaviors that foster thriving communities. Understanding a community's unique audience and identifying the rewards that will satisfy their particular Esteem needs may be the most important factor in community success.

For Maslow, there was only one more stage to which humans could aspire: Self-actualization. This condition represents the fulfillment of everything a person can be--mature, creative, accepting of others, and balanced in their perceptions and judgment. Can online communities help people reach this lofty human ideal? Perhaps--many of the bloggers I follow seem to be achieving amazing levels of thought, creativity, and problem-solving.

Maslow's Hierarchy has its detractors, and even Maslow himself pointed out that people don't always progress from one level to the next in an orderly fashion. Still, he's provided us with an interesting and useful way to consider how we invite people into our communities and then embolden them to become the kind of active, contributing members necessary to sustain a lively and persistent community.


Exp said...

Great article. I guess this explains the Facebook phenomenon.

Dana Theus said...

This is a fantastic set of articles. On your latter point about self-actualization, I would ponder that form some people the social web is absolutely an opportunity to explore parts of themselves they don't have much opportunity to in the real world (for good and bad, I suppose, but let's focus on the good). I know communities where people participate anonymously and explore art and poetry and creative hobbies. On the professional front, the opportunity for self branding, blogging to explore your own brand, is very much a motivator for many.

Thanks for the stimulating post.

PS-you might want to link your previous post to this one so that they're easier to read in sequence.

PPS-I tried to find you on Twitter but your tweet feed on your site has no link to your account. I'm @dtheus if you're interested.