Social networkers often find they are in breach of “rules”. Last week, for instance, players in the US Open Tennis championships were warned against using Twitter. They are not alone, the National Football League in the USA has banned the use of Twitter in some circumstances. And social networks themselves often have “unwritten rules” which can hamper your attempts to promote your business.

Carrot or stick? Rewards achieve far more than punishment

Carrot or stick? Rewards achieve far more than punishment

In fact, take a look at the terms of use of Facebook and you’ll see it tells you what you must not do. The rules are all negative. Break one of those “do not” rules and they’ll be down on you like a ton of bricks – you can even have your account removed. It’s the same on places like StumbleUpon; they banned me for “inappropriate use”, which turned out to be I had submitted a link to my own web site. Gosh how naughty.

Wherever you look on social networks it’s all “stick” and no “carrot”. We are told what we must not do and there are procedures in place for people who break these rules. Yet, there is no encouragement for doing the right thing, no support for doing well, no promotion for being brilliant at social networking. And according to newly published research on getting people to co-operate in a network, this is by far the best way to achieve positive results.

The study, conducted at Harvard University, showed that in order to gain co-operation between a group of people reward was much better than punishment. Teachers have known for years that if you reward pupils they tend to learn faster and more easily than if you punish them. Equally, many businesses know that if you reward people with additional products or higher than expected levels of service, they get more loyalty than if you punish people for not buying soon enough to get the deal or not phoning at the right time, for instance. Wherever you look, reward outclasses punishment in terms of achieving success.

Indeed, look at the children convicted yesterday of savage attacks on other youngsters – they were brought up on a diet of punishment and associated violence. Reward was missing entirely in their lives. It’s the same story wherever you look in terms of children with difficulties – punishment loomed much more highly in their lives than reward.

So why is it that social networks are so focused on punishment, rather than reward? Isn’t it about time they changed their focus and their terms of use? Give us extras for doing well, rather than punishing us for doing badly? Maybe, but the reason is interesting; it’s about power. The owners of Facebook are essentially saying “it’s our site and we decide what’s right and wrong”. They are essentially thumbing their nose at us. The US Open Tennis organisers and the National Football League are saying “it’s our club and we set the rules”. This new research from Harvard suggests this, in the long term, is the wrong way to go. Instead, these organisations and web sites are only going to achieve respect and co-operation with a reward-based system.

And that begs the question for your business and your web site. How much of what you do online rewards your customers and potential customers? Or how focused is your entire system on “rules” and what happens if people break them? If you are too rule-bound, too punishment-focused, you could be jeopardising your business. And if you want people in social networks to help promote your business, how much reward do you provide for their help? It’s carrot you need in your business, not stick.

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