July 26, 2011

Badges are a potentially powerful tool for understanding a news audience and shaping its behavior.

Just like the military uses badges to display rank, and scouts use them to honor accomplishments, a news site or mobile app can award digital badges to users who complete tasks or reach certain levels of engagement.

The Huffington Post offers badges for connecting with other users, moderating comments and other useful behaviors.

The Huffington Post uses badges in its “social news” system to encourage users to follow each other, share stories and flag inappropriate comments. Mashable awards badges to users who share content and subscribe to news topics. Just recently, Google News added a simple badge system to track the subjects a user reads frequently.

Badges can serve many purposes, but the biggest is to help a news organization define and grow its relationship with each reader. Those reader relationships are the most valuable assets of your business.

Why badge systems work

As the badge giver, you create a reputation system, which can structure and reinforce people’s behavior. You award recognition to those who achieve a desirable goal and encourage them to pursue the next one.

You also get a valuable set of data about your users. If you give badges to your most loyal readers, or your most avid readers of each news topic, you then know what each reader likes and can use that to understand your audience, and to tailor advertising and content to each member of it.

The badge recipient gains a feeling of accomplishment, superiority over peers who have achieved less, and a new sense of community with others who earned the badge.

You can build even stronger incentives by giving badge holders a tangible offline reward or a privilege in using the site. The new citizen journalism mobile app Meporter, for example, awards badges for posting a certain number of business stories, and the badge can be redeemed for a free Forbes Magazine subscription.

Benefits of creating a badge system

Creating a badge system isn’t easy. It requires some investment in a user registration system that can track behavior, badges and other data. But I think it’s worth it.

Here are some specific benefits a news organization can expect:

Revenue. Badges help you know each individual reader, which allows you to target advertising and offers. Imagine if you could promise an advertiser that their sporting goods ad will be shown to readers who have earned your high school sports badge. Or if a bank could target its ads to your users who received a badge for reading business stories. A sponsor could even pay to have their business name and logo built into one of your badges.

Community building. We talk a lot about the importance of building communities online. That means more than just getting a lot of individuals to come to your site. In a community, the members know things about each other — their interests and experience. Badges can help one user get to know others and form ties with those who share similar interests.

Better crowdsourcing. You can give a badge to reward someone for contributing to a crowdsourcing project. And when you are designing a new project, you can reach out specifically to the people with relevant badges. For example, if you wanted help with a project on your city’s highways, you could ask users who earned a badge for reading your transportation coverage.

Better comments. Once you know who your trusted users are, you can use that signal of authority to enhance your commenting system. Each user’s comment could show his badge icons, so other users can better judge his expertise and reliability. You could even curate the comments this way. Perhaps the article page could initially show comments only from users who have a badge for reading at least 10 stories in that content section. You could give a badge to experienced commenters, and also grant them some moderation responsibilities.

Some news organizations have the resources to develop a system like this, and I encourage them to. For smaller ones, though, it will be tougher.

We could all benefit from someone, perhaps a future Knight News Challenge winner, building an open badge system that can be shared across any website. If one central system could manage user identity and browsing history, each site could access that data through an API and award its own badges based on its own criteria. Feel free to steal this idea, and award me a badge for it.

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
Jeff Sonderman

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