How to Motivate Your Community Superstars

Jake McKee
December 4, 2018
April 2, 2024

Every community has a group of people who are more engaged, more enthusiastic, more prolific than most members. These folks have been called a variety of things: Super Users, Rockstars, Fans, Power Members... the list goes on. Whatever we brand them, these community superstars are critical to the health and growth of any online community. They are leaders who can help guide and grow a community’s culture. They generate answers, feedback, and ideas in significant quantities. And they model behaviors, culturally and tactically, that we want all community members to replicate.

But super user programs aren’t like Ambassador programs or Influencer programs. We can’t just toss some goods over the fence and hope they continue doing the behaviors we want to see. We can’t make their engagement with our company or with our community a transactional one (“If you do X, I’ll give you Y”). Legal teams are rightfully worried about creating volunteer roles that more resemble a paid job, minus benefits, protections, or salary. Cases against and AOL have made corporate legal teams leery of volunteer programs. While every legal team is different, common approach seems to be to avoid any quid pro quo exchanges with volunteers like super users.

Thinking About How to Reward Super Users

We absolutely must think about rewards for our super users. But that word “reward” can get tricky for two key reasons:

  • While gamification can be a powerful motivator within a community overall, we want to avoid super users “doing it for the free stuff.” If this is their primary driver, we lose much of the value that comes from super users leading and participation from a place of passion.
  • Legal issues may cause “co-employment” concerns, wherein volunteers cross the line into “employee.” While case law is still being defined around this issue, it’s generally a good idea to stay away from any type of rewards (or training) that blurs the line between volunteer and employee. No direct quid pro quo exchanges.

So how do we encourage more community members to step up into a super user role? How do we get existing super users to keep on doing what they do so well? We have to first think beyond incentives like free t-shirts, and start thinking in terms of multi-faceted motivations. We have to stop asking “what rewards do we need to give away?” Our question is really “what is the incentive stack that motivates super users?

  • Identity - the mechanisms for how we are able to display, share and take pride in the accomplishment of becoming a super user.
  • Privileges – the set of technical capabilities, access to, and engagement with the company, and opportunities to have their leadership sanctioned
  • Tangibles – the “goods,” whether physical items, account credits, or invitations to special events

You’ll notice the order of these three. The “stuff” is the last part of the stack, and if you’re doing the first two right, it may be the least important.


Psychologist Erik Erikson defined identity as “socially distinguishing features that a person takes a special pride in.” We want to drive that “special pride” by creating identity incentives such as:

  • Special avatars or footers that specifically brand themselves as members of the super user program
  • Special program badges in their personal profile and on each post that clearly marks them as members of the Super User program
  • Listing of current and former super users on a public web page on the corporate web site
  • Press releases that welcome new members to the program

Identity incentives helps super users reflect their accomplishments to themselves, to the community, and to the world at large. Imagine that feeling when you get that new business cards that reflect our recent promotion. It’s a tangible reminder of your accomplishment that is showcased to anyone you meet and exchange cards with.

And the more we can develop a super user identity that’s “portable,” the more than that identity extends beyond their participation in our community platform. It now becomes something that helps them land jobs or more successfully represent themselves beyond the virtual walls of our community. Microsoft MVPs, for instance, often use their MVP status on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles as a means of improving their professional profile.

Because identity is tied to how we think about ourselves and how we define ourselves to others, we fight hard to maintain it. When super users have taken special pride in their identity, they tend to work harder to maintain that status. This is a critical part of ensuring that super users are continually returning value to the community, rather than letting their contributions wane over time.


Leaders want to lead. They don’t want to gain status and sit quietly on the sidelines. They’re eager to get in the game and make big plays. Getting invited to join a super user program can grant a number of privileges that typical community members don’t receive, such as:

  • Moderation tools to help keep the community happy and healthy. These tools can include special dashboards to more easily find unanswered content, the ability to flag content so that is immediately escalated to an employee, and content flagging that highlights great content or marks content as a good or endorsed solution.
  • Private forums that allow super users to engage with each other as a group
  • Access to training and materials that help them better understand the product or concept the community is based around
  • Content creation on public corporate channels
  • Direct path for product feedback to product teams
  • Opportunities to meet and engage company employees more directly
  • Communities are built around the idea of a shared purpose. The members and the company that runs the community are working to create something together. Something that blurs the lines of ownership, and instead brings together all parties interested in the topic. Super users act as representatives to and from the overall community. The better informed they are, the more likely they can help support the community. The more that they are able to feed community feedback quickly and directly to the right team inside the company, the more the company benefits.

CAUTION:It’s important to think about how you can avoid treating super users as quasi-employees rather than empowered volunteers. Any super user program should be signed off on by your Legal department to avoid any issues that may be present about the relationship you’re creating. There is a risk, although a small one, that companies could get sued by super users claiming that they were effectively acting as an employee rather than a volunteer. You can avoid many of those risks by doing the following:

  • Consider what is required to participate in the program. Requiring super users to sign a code of conduct is just fine but requiring that they complete a certain number of specific tasks each week is not.
  • Make sure that program membership resets on a regular basis. There are no lifetime memberships. Each member has to be reconsidered on a set time frame, no matter how good their contributions may be. This allows you to roll in new blood and remove inactive members. It also allows members who have stopped participating due to life circumstances a chance to step back and save face.
  • Let the cycle guide the participation. Members who don’t participate in the program don’t get to stay in the program. And if potential new members are lining up to join, there’s a good chance that you don’t have to set specific participation requirements for existing members. They’ll know that to keep their status, they’ll need to get it in gear!


And last, but not least, we move to the tangible goods. This seemingly easy category can actually be quite tricky to get right. We want any tangible item to be satisfying and connecting. We want to avoid the sense that the program is a better way of getting big discounts on product purchases. And tangibles are more than just an account credit or a t-shirt. They’re ways of creating connection between the individual super user and the overall program. Here are a few examples:<ul><li>Program (and timeframe) branded and designed t-shirts, stickers, and other gear.

Yearly super user summit event, where the company pays for all or part of each super user’s travel and accommodations.

  • Program gift that is part of the onboarding each super user when they’re granted (or re-granted) access to the program. Think of a program gift like a trophy or a plaque that marks their participation.
  • Account/product credits that allow super users to purchase items that relate to the program at a discount. A marathon or race medallion is a great example of a tangible reward: it's exclusive, it's tied to a time and place, and it makes the owner feel special and rewarded.[/caption]As you can see, these tangibles are meant to be totems of the program participation. It’s not just a t-shirt, for instance, it’s a t-shirt that is specifically designed for program members, marked with the date they got it, and available only for program members. These are not freebies or gifts, they’re totems. Objects that hold spiritual connection, so to speak.

In Conclusion

Building a successful incentive stack will require looking at all three pillars outlined above and balancing the quantity and timing of which super users get each one. If your program cycle resets every year, think about how to deliver these benefits over that full year, tied into busy times and slow times, and in the most delightful ways you can. Don’t just drop a pen in a FedEx box. Spend a few extra bucks on a special mailer. Include a handwritten thank you note. Making the Super User feel like they’re getting access behind the velvet rope, joining an elite group helps drive a sense of connection to the program that yields higher outputs, deeper emotional connection, and a greater enjoyment to participate.

Super users are an amazing resource, but more importantly, they’re passionate enthusiasts who bring that passion to the community. How can each of your interactions with them create a delightful experience that connects them to your community, your program, and your company?

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Jake McKee
December 4, 2018
April 2, 2024

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