Constructing Incentives Proportionate To Your Goals

Increasing participation by offering incentive (free beer)

My friend Sarah organized her first meetup. The topic of the meeting was related to a particular industry and the methods by which it communicates, though we will focus more on the process Sarah went through to figure out how to entice people to come. By watching the initial success of her meeting as well as the inflated successes of the model she based hers on, she learned that it takes a moderate balance of incentive and resistance to simultaneously get people in the door and to avoid the possibility of having too many people get in the way of your intended purpose.

Or, in other words, free beer can be good or bad depending what you hope to get out of offering it.

Sarah explained that as she structured her meeting she took into consideration and prioritized the reasons she shows up to any topical event. If entry is free, she will attend a workshop for the purposes of education (or discussion of the topic at hand) or networking (she is a freelancer). However, it was one night that we were at one monthly event, one that shall remain nameless, that was selling itself with the help of a third, that reminded us of a forgotten factor: free beer.

“If the meeting’s bad, at least the drinks were free.”

Brilliant. The predominant incarnation of this particular meetup, one that occurs in city’s nation-wide, involves a monthly, bar-based get-together where folks congregate, talk about industry-based, socially conscious issues, and pay five-dollars a pint. Some brilliant organizer, for whom this plight must have strongly resonated, lifted the industry-centered focus* and found a brewery that would sponsor the meeting with free beer** and some free food.

Both Sarah and I very much enjoy lubricating otherwise seemingly-dull conversations with alcohol, and neither of us enjoy paying for it. And while she didn’t think much of her decision to stick with keeping her own industry-centered themes in the format of the meeting, Sarah immediately made a sponsorship deal with another enthusiastic local brewery and she began putting the (down-low) word out that the drinks would be free. Again — Brilliant. When I’m at conferences and the education components are bad, the likelihood of drinking for free on the tab of some industry sponsor is redeeming. Even if core of the meeting is bad, Sarah thought, at least one element is reliably good (and often promised to make the networking part easier for us closet introverts)

“Oops – Could I have provided too much incentive?”

With Sarah’s new priorities, booze, networking, and discussion of issues related to the topic at hand, 20 people showed up to her first meeting. She didn’t know half of them and thus she felt successful. Meanwhile, the model she based the structure of her meetup on, the free beer and general conversation meeting, was facing growth that initially startled Sarah.

We had been going to the gathering here and there with friends of ours, but because of previous obligations, Sarah and I had missed the last meeting of the group she modeled hers after. It had grown substantially since the topical modification and the drinks were introduced, going from a steady 20-person meeting to 70-80 after the next month and well over a hundred at the next. Our friends caught the last meeting and reported an attendance of well over 200 people. Lines for the keg were 20-something strong. The free beer was gone in an hour.

Moderate incentive v. All incentive // Meetings v. Parties

For a short while, Sarah had thought she had made a mistake by offering free beer and that her meeting would soon be over-saturated. She realized, however (or at least hoped like hell), that no, this would not be the case. In her meeting, which is aimed at folks in a typically low-pay industry, optional free drinks had become a reward for people who might not otherwise feel, to give up a free night. In the other meeting, which initially catered to a similar crowd, the requirement of association with an industry had been lifted and coupled with the extra incentive of complementary alcohol. Since the only requirement for entry was sharing an interest in the generally vague topic of the meetup (”It’s about the Blues? My cousin listens to the blues! Where’s the beer?”), it had essentially turned itself into more of a soirée than anything else.

By increasing the incentive while also dropping the requirements for membership, you’re basically left saying, “Come have free drinks with a bunch of people who think about vaguely similar things as you do.” There’s nothing wrong with doing that—this model defined much of many people’s high school and college experiences. It’s incentives had changed to accommodate what appeared to be its new mission: increasing rates of social capital with the help of beer (another wholly noble goal), otherwise known as a party.

However, when an organizer is looking to create something more structured, incentive must be matched equally with terms of entry in order to ensure free-riders don’t overwhelm underlying goals of an action. At a meeting with an explicit goal, a participant with a beer in their hand is being rewarded for their participation. At a meeting with no goal, a participant with a beer in their hand is an extra in a John Hughes movie. Free beer is meant to balance the fact that the folks might need an extra selling point to tip their interest to attending the meeting, thus increasing the likelihood the meeting will have a strong, qualified turnout.

By balancing participation challenges with incentive, we are able to bring more qualified people into the conversation, strengthen our dialog, and create new opportunities for well-matched collaboration. By creating more incentive than challenge, especially when one of them is beer, chances are we’re just throwing a party.

The incentive-heavy will cutter your path.

This model is applicable, of course, to all paradigms of organization. The glory of participating with purpose, the personality of the organizer, or, in the case of the Internet, the usability of the platform don’t always translate into high levels of participation. Sometimes, if a task asks a little more than zero effort from a participant, extra recognition for engagement, a trade of services, or a free something or rather might be necessary to get someone working on your side. It is important, however, to create a balance between the complications of opting in and incentive. Unless you’re looking for a strictly numbers-based mass of support, allowing the balance tip towards the incentive-heavy can leave you burdened with incentive-hungry folks cluttering the path that separates you from your ultimate goal.


*Now the meetings are about over-arching social-consciousness.

**Which, it’s worth mentioning, is spottily illegal depending on your locale and venue.