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This is How Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation Affect Web Consumers

You know you want to motivate visitors to act when they visit your lead-generation website.  But what is the better way to motivate them, intrinsically or extrinsically?

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Reward

Intrinsic motivation is where you do something just because you want to:  you enjoy it; it gives a sense of purpose; because you think it’s the right thing to do.

Extrinsic motivation offers an outside reward:  money; a championship trophy; a tangible pleasure you wish to obtain.

You might think that you understand how these types of motivation affect you – but in fact it’s more complex than most of us realize.  An experiment known as The Candle Problem sheds some light:

As The Candle Problem demonstrates, people do better at dealing with complex problems when they are intrinsically motivated.  Extrinsic motivation, like getting more money for better performance, inhibits people’s creative problem-solving skills.  In fact, in the last phase of the experiment, the people who were motivated by the monetary reward took an average of three and half minutes longer to complete the task.

An unexpected result with implications many organizations fail to recognize.  Dan Pink maintains:

There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

If/then reward models work well when there is a simple set of tasks to complete.  The narrow focus works.  But in the 21st Century digital age, many tasks are not straightforward, many decisions are laden with options and implications.  The narrow focus doesn’t help when the solution is on the periphery.

This test has been repeated and confirmed multiple times.  For right-brain, creative, conceptual work, higher incentives lead to lower performance.


How does intrinsic and extrinsic motivation affect website visitors?

We know that online consumers tend to be self-directed.  The unspoken question, “What’s in it for me?” is at the core of understanding the state-of-mind of web surfers.

The best websites try to answer that question.  But how that answer is developed is one of the keys to understanding what motivates people.

Like business management, our first thought in creating website content is that extrinsic motivators have more impact.  What could be better than saving money?  Do this thing, get that reward.  Freebies, discounts, limited-time offers…these are what motivate people online.  Or are they?

Materialism is the basis for most extrinsic motivation.  A new TV, a bigger house, the dream vacation…all external rewards we assume will make us happy.

However, this overlooks how autonomous online users are.  It’s often the case that even as people shop or look for home service, they’re looking for more than a simple solution.  They spend more time researching to find the best, and want to work with businesses that are aligned with their opinions, beliefs, and lifestyles.

Online, people have more information, options, and time.  As we sit at our computers, weighing our options, extrinsic motivators are questioned.  Do I really need this?  Will this make me happy? Is this the right thing to do?

Autonomous consumers are not just motivated by self-serving impulses.  Self-directed implies a state of being well informed.  Consumers in an informed, mindful state are more aware of old advertising ploys that target extrinsic motivation.  An ongoing Nielsen study on the types of advertising people hate most shows that advertisements which disrupt perceived control are what turn people off the most.

The Candle Problem says something about time and pressure.  The extrinsic reward model fails when there is time pressure and the stress of considering the monetary reward – when the problem is more complex.

When the problem was more simple (with the tacks outside the box, so the box is more easily seen as having more than one function) the monetary reward got the people to solve the problem more quickly.

If the basis for motivation is more complex, an intrinsic reward may more effectively motivate people.


What Do You Want People to Do, and Why Should They Do It?

Let’s say you run a fitness center and you use your website to bring in new clients.

Your call to action (the what you want people to do) is to fill out a short form where you will email a certificate worth one free hour at your gym.

Now the motivator, why should they do it?

  • They save money because they get one free hour in the gym. (extrinsic)
  • You have a new facility with all the best equipment. (extrinsic)
  • Being out of shape and sedentary is putting them at risk for serious health problems. (intrinsic)
  • Getting to the gym will help them feel motivated, energetic, and confident. (intrinsic)

The extrinsic motivators target more impulsive thinking.  The intrinsic motivators target contemplative thought and long-term goals.

Any of these motivators may get you conversions.  With online marketing, there is not a right and wrong strategy with regard to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

But don’t ignore intrinsic factors in website content.  With online marketing, you’ll get better results when you connect with people in a way that makes them feel good about choosing you instead of just dangling a deal in front of them.   For example, Toms is effective at using intrinsic motivation on their eCommerce website:

social purpose marketing toms

This concept is worth testing on your online advertisements and landing pages.  Toms uses shows how intrinsic motivation works with social purpose marketing and it also ties into lifestyle brandingMillennials and other digital natives are intrinsically motivated consumers.

There is a powerful competitive advantage to leverage when you go beyond the surface of extrinsic motivation and get people to see working with you as the right thing to do.

Dan Pink makes a strong case:

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