What motivates the motivators?
March 27, 2012, 6:46 pm
Filed under: Brain dump, Editorializing, Research

Gamification is the concept of using the principles of game design in non-game settings, whether it’s making work more productive and rewarding or encouraging people to live healthier lives. I’ve had the pleasure recently of attending two panels on gamification applied to more sustainable lifestyles. As it turned out, the most interesting part of the panels wasn’t how the companies motivate consumers to reduce their environmental impact, but rather how the companies’ business models motivate the design of their programs. What are the incentive structures of the organizations that are creating incentive structures for the rest of us?

The participants in the panels came from Recyclebank (which recently acquired Greenopolis), Terracycle, Practically Green, and MyEnergy, among others. Other companies doing similar work include Daily Feats, Opower, Wattz On, Mint, Weight Watchers, and Good Guide.

Recyclebank offers points for recycling (based on community, rather than individual, recycling rates), reading or watching educational materials, or pledging to make some change, whether it be conservation or an alternative purchase. The sponsors for these point-earning opportunities are often companies selling products, such as Kashi, Preserve, Amtrak, Pantene, Suave, Barnes & Noble (Nook), ebay, Ziploc, and a Visa issued by Barclay’s bank. While “sustainability can be beautiful and fun” (according to Pantene), the system is low on measuring actual impact and high on getting you excited about buying things. The company isn’t shy about its strategy of appealing to mainstream moms who want to feel like they’re doing the right thing and get rewards for it. The rewards themselves don’t even pretend to have anything to do with sustainability. Your points get you your choice of free Dasani bottled water, discounts at Outback Steakhouse or on cut flowers, etc.  You’ve watched a three-minute video on Pantene shampoo! You deserve that steak. But what’s in it for the company and its investors? The service is free, and Recyclebank gets paid for advertising by the sponsors of its point-earning and point-spending opportunities. Whether your life becomes more sustainable or not, Recyclebank doesn’t know and doesn’t care.

Terracycle has a similar approach. While it started as a purveyor of “worm poop” fertilizer in reused plastic bottles, the business model has changed to focus on “sponsored waste.” Terracycle organizes “brigades” that collect hard-to-recycle waste streams, such as chip bags or drink pouches, then mail it to Terracycle in exchange for 1-2 cents per item, paid for by a brand that sponsors the effort (though other brands’ products may also be collected). These brigades often act as fundraising efforts for schools. Terracycle then converts the waste into new products, like bags, backpacks, notepads, kites, etc. (all covered with the still-recognizable branded packaging for more effective advertising saturation), as well as products such as baby teething rings, plastic picnic tables, etc. which do not have recognizable branding. Success is not defined as reducing environmental impact, necessarily, as evidenced when the Capri Sun drink pouch collection was a little too successful, and Capri Sun cut the price it would pay per pouch to 1 cent from 2 cents. To a greater degree than Recyclebank, Terracycle celebrates consumption. The system only works if you eat more chips and drink more fruit-flavored sugar water – and if someone then buys the M&M’s wrapper kites and Frito Lay’s backpacks, completing the advertising lifecycle. Is it better than throwing chip bags onto or into the ground? Sure. Is it better than not stuffing your face with fat and salt that came out of a single serve container? I would hesitate to say so. And for the amount of energy that goes into, say, collecting thousands of single-slice Kraft cheese wrappers, I dare say we could have managed something a little more impactful for the environment (not to mention nutrition education). Terracycle’s latest showpiece is a Facebook-based game called Trash Tycoon, where you can test your knowledge of the recycling process, in a virtual village sponsored by the familiar brands, including a house made of slices of Kraft cheese. And why wouldn’t Terracycle be thrilled by this? The company makes its money from sponsorships and from selling the junk-made-from-junk.

In terms of impact, both Recyclebank and Terracycle were quick to point out that they’re aware of the dangers of green washing, but they are showing corporations that people care about this sort of thing and they are opening up dialogue with those corporations on how they can improve. To which I reply: you’re showing corporations that people can be duped by $5 coupons to steakhouses, and convincing people that the best thing they can do for the environment (same as for the economy, of course) is to buy crap from their friendly neighborhood multi-billion-dollar brand. And for organizations who ostensibly have put some thought into how incentive systems motivate behavior, this should come as no surprise: their bread and butter is helping brands boost consumption. Reducing environmental impact has no bearing on the incentives facing Recyclebank or Terracycle.

Thankfully, there are alternatives for people who actually want to improve their environmental impact. Of course, you might say – if you really want to improve your environmental impact, why would you need a point system anyhow? Shouldn’t you do it because it’s the right thing? Ah, well, this is the beauty of gamification. Even if you would like to do the “right thing,” maybe you don’t know what that right thing would be. Ahem, paper or plastic? Point systems can educate you to the value of trade-offs: if one action is worth 10 points and another is worth only five points, and you only have the time to do one of these actions, then better to go with the 10-pointer. In addition, motivation can be hard to sustain without knowing you’re having an impact. Feedback – both personal and collective – is key to staying the course. How much energy did I save last month? A lot?! Yay, I must be doing something right. Or: I know I recycle, but if people in my community aren’t also recycling, then is there any point? Oh, my community is actually really good at recycling? And my city isn’t just landfilling the bottles I go to the effort to separate from my garbage? Fantastic, so I’ll continue putting the effort in. And so on. Incentives, of course, are tricky because you don’t want people to get into their heads they’re acting for the reward (so when the reward’s not around they revert to poor behavior), but they can be useful. And there are some companies who are using points and/or feedback much more responsibly than Recyclebank or Terracycle.

Weight Watchers is a company that has been doing it right (more or less) for decades now. Weight Watchers succeeds financially only if its users see results. The company’s point system also educates, with points subtracted for meals with more calories and points added back for exercise, and the point values correspond to the impact of these actions on the users’ health (specifically, their weight). While Weight Watchers does brand and endorse some food items, creating a conflict of interests, the bulk of its money comes from subscriptions from people who trust the point system to help them lose weight. And the company makes a big deal of these results, with successes celebrated at meetings (providing positive feedback to individuals and inspiration to their meeting-mates). Without durable weight loss results, users would cease to subscribe, so Weight Watchers’ financial incentives are aligned with their customers’ health.

Practically Green tracks efforts people are making to live more healthily and sustainably. The site provides tips on a broad range of topics (health, water, energy, and stuff), and it record users’ responses much like a carbon footprint questionnaire or an online dating profile. The company does have some product recommendations (e.g. for a particular brand of CFL next to a question about replacing lightbulbs with CFLs), but it doesn’t make money on these and sticks by strict guidelines (posted on its site) on which products it will mention. The points aren’t redeemable for rewards, but they give you a sense of how you’re doing and they provide ideas for other things you can do to reduce your impact. Without sponsorships and with a free-for-consumers service, how does Practically Green make money? The company licenses its platform to companies looking to measure their employees’ sustainabiility efforts. The results can inform corporate sustainabiility reporting, and it can be a source of friendly competition within companies, though Practically Green insists that participation is always strictly voluntary. This social component – within companies or non-corporate users posting to Facebook and Twitter – also serves another purpose: keeping users honest. Users’ actions are all self-reported, but the company has found that few people lie, particularly when their coworkers might hold them accountable for it. As a result of this business model, if users are increasing their point counts, we can be reasonably confident that they are actually doing good, as opposed to just buying more branded products. The incentive for Practically Green is to motivate people to improve behavior and to reliably track those improvements; not to sell goods.

Good Guide is less a means of tracking than a reference tool. As consumers must search for items on it, it doesn’t so much encourage new consumption as it does replacement consumption – buying healthier or more environmentally friendly goods than the convention product you would otherwise have bought. It also doesn’t necessarily motivate behavior change, though it does make such change easier by quantifying the differences between products. Good Guide doesn’t charge for its site or mobile app, and it doesn’t benefit when consumers buy one product versus another. Instead, the company makes most of its money by helping manufacturers measure how their products perform on the metrics Good Guide tracks. Like Practically Green, then, the incentive is for Good Guide to have an accurate system to measure product impacts, but the consumer service is tangential to its financial success.

Mint, MyEnergy, Opower, and Wattz On are similar in that they rely on numerical data – financial, energy, water, etc. – to provide easy tracking of consumption and comparison to other users. We’ll cover their incentive structures in another post, however, as this one is already growing quite long. I hope to update soon as well with information on Daily Feats – which is like Practically Green (in so much as it’s challenge-based, though much more broad and customizable) and Recyclebank/Terracycle (in so much as it makes money from sponsorships). I’d also like to take more of a look at Greenopolis, to see how it may differ from Recyclebank; on first glance, it seems to be more data heavy on actual recycling rates, which is good.

If you’ve used any of these services or have any others to recommend, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.



Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: