What motivates people to go above and beyond in knowledge exchange platforms?

In recent years, online knowledge exchange platforms such as Quora.com, StackOverflow.com, and Zhihu.com have gained widespread popularity, and rapidly evolved into individuals’ go-to places for obtaining and sharing knowledge. Assistant Professor of Information Systems Nina (Ni) Huang and Associate Professor of Information Systems Yili (Kevin) Hong, the authors of a study titled, “Spillover Effects of Financial Incentives on Non-Incentivized User Engagement: Evidence from an Online Knowledge Exchange Platform,” point out that a key challenge for these platforms remains how to motivate the desirable user engagement behaviors, such as voluntary knowledge sharing and social interaction with other users.

To address this challenge, a common practice in the industry is to use financial incentives to motivate user engagement on those knowledge exchange platforms. In their study, Huang and Hong look beyond the direct influence of financial incentives on users’ contribution to the platform and further inquire about the spillover effect of the financial incentive on other user engagement behaviors. In other words, the authors are interested in after some users received financial incentive to share knowledge on the platform, are those users more likely to engage in other non-incentivized behaviors as well? The answer from their study is yes.

After receiving the financial incentive and sharing their knowledge as paid, the users shared more free knowledge later on and increased their social ties in the platform.

This study, published in the Journal of Management Information Systems, is among the pioneering work aimed at improving understanding of the potential spillover effects of a financial-incentive-based feature on online knowledge exchange platforms.

Huang’s expertise encompasses the behavioral and economic aspects of information technology in general, and focuses on the design of information technology on the online user learning and purchasing environment in particular. Hong’s research involves digital platforms and the sharing economy. He is currently an associate editor at the top journal Information Systems Research and an editorial board member of Journal of the Association for Information Systems.

Spillover effects

The sustained development of online knowledge exchange platforms depends on the users’ active engagement within the platforms, particularly, knowledge sharing, knowledge seeking, and social engagement. However, the authors note, similar to other platforms that rely on public goods and content provision such as online reviews and online crowdsourcing markets, “knowledge exchange platforms face the under-provision problem, wherein users lack the motivation to actively engage with the platform, such as knowledge sharing. The users’ lack of active engagement is also related to the aspect of knowledge seeking behavior because a large fraction of users churn from the knowledge exchange platforms after only one post.”

Based on motivation equity theories, Huang, Hong, and two other co-authors — Zhijun Yan and Lini Kuang of the School of Management and Economics, Beijing Institute of Technology in China — proposed a set of hypotheses regarding the ramifications of financial incentives on three types of desirable yet non-incentivized user engagement: voluntary knowledge sharing, knowledge seeking, and social engagement.

Prior research on online knowledge exchange platforms focused primarily on the motivations for knowledge-sharing behaviors, while overlooking knowledge seeking and social behaviors that also play important roles in the sustainable development of knowledge exchange platforms. Some research has examined financial incentives as an important motivating factor for the desired individual behaviors.

For instance, one study found that high compensation may elicit more and longer answers, but not necessarily high-quality answers. Another suggested that high school students invest more efforts in volunteering when they are not paid than when they are paid a small amount of financial incentive for their work. Thus, prior research appears to suggest that individuals commonly have a payment threshold for their motivation.

Huang and Hong began by obtaining an archival data set from a major online knowledge exchange platform, Zhihu.com, to evaluate their hypotheses. Leveraging a quasi-natural experiment in which the platform implemented a paid knowledge sharing feature, they employed econometric analyses to evaluate the results of financial incentives on the afore-mentioned types of engagements.

Their results show that the initial financial incentives on the paid knowledge sharing activities further motivate users to voluntarily share more knowledge and increase their social engagement in the platform.

Posing questions

The users’ knowledge seeking behaviors — for instance, posting questions — are crucial to the health of knowledge exchange platforms because thought-provoking questions can trigger other users’ knowledge sharing behaviors. Beyond that, users’ social engagement plays a critical role in their affinity with the online communities, an aspect that is crucial to a community’s sustained success.

Thus, to improve user engagement, online knowledge exchange platforms typically set up various motivation measures, such as providing virtual points and setting membership levels based on users’ engagement behavior. Alternately, these platforms provide users with financial rewards to stimulate engagement.

The study analyzes the impact of financial incentives on the users’ engagement behaviors in a hybrid knowledge exchange platform, where paid and voluntary knowledge exchange services coexist.

“We leverage a quasi-natural experiment wherein the platform first implemented incentive-based paid knowledge exchange services,” says Huang. “After the users received financial incentives for knowledge sharing activities, we investigated how the financial incentives insert spillover influences on the users’ non-incentivized behaviors, such as voluntary knowledge sharing, knowledge seeking, and social engagement.”

The financial incentives initially received by users for knowledge sharing activities have broad effects on the other related non-incentivized engagement behaviors. Specifically, the financial incentives largely increase voluntary knowledge sharing and social interactions, yet have no significant effect on users’ knowledge seeking behavior. In addition, the amount of financial rewards plays the role of an important moderator, such that high rewards have a stronger effect on users’ non-incentivized engagement behaviors than low ones.

Looking beyond

What is unique about the duo’s recent study, Huang maintains, is that they found that monetary incentives “can not only create a motivation to provide more incentivized content but also spills over to unintended/non-incentivized behaviors.”

The research is proving invaluable because online knowledge forums have increasingly become important sources for individuals to seek and use knowledge. “Ample prior work has established that financial incentive can directly motivate people to perform desired behaviors,” Huang explains. “In our study, looking beyond the first-order/direct effect of financial incentive, we strive to understand the secondary effect of financial incentive on the unintended users’ behaviors in a knowledge-sharing website, similar to Wikipedia.” Specifically, the use of financial incentives has been successful in motivating users to share their knowledge. However, says Huang.

We find evidence that the users who received the financial incentive also started to exhibit unintended behaviors, such as increased knowledge sharing and social engagement behaviors without the incentive.

Many digital platforms are experimenting with incentives and other designs to increase user engagement, says Huang, but it remains unclear how the incentives may positively or negatively affect users’ behaviors. “Therefore, our study provides some scientific evidence on the secondary/spillover impact of financial incentive on user behavior in the context of online knowledge exchange platforms.” The empirical evidence in their study suggests that the financial incentives not only have a positive effect on incentivized engagement but also impact users’ other desirable non-incentivized online engagement behaviors, such as further knowledge sharing and social engagement on the platform. The study extends prior research by improving understanding of the overall positive effect of financial incentives above and beyond their first-order outcomes.

Given the inconclusive findings on using financial incentives for user engagement, the authors say, “Our research provides empirical evidence in support of using financial incentives in practice, as they can be used as an effective strategy to nurture users, to seed content, and to enhance sociality of a digital platform.”

By Howard Riell