Updated: The Huffington Post — taking a cue from Foursquare, the location-based social network that allows users to win “badges” for checking in at various places — has launched a similar feature for regular readers of the news site. The beta offering includes three badges that readers can win — known as the “Networker” badge, the “Superuser” badge and the “Moderator” badge — based on the amount of activity they engage in on the news site. For example, connecting with other readers on the site will earn you a Level One “Networker” badge, and connecting your Huffington Post reader account with either your Facebook account or your Twitter account will bump you up to a Level Two Networker, and your comments on the site will be a different color from those posted by non-Level Two users.
The badges are just the latest offering aimed at implementing social features on the site: the Huffington Post was one of the first to implement Facebook Connect when it launched, and the service was tightly integrated into the rest of the site — for example, showing readers who connected their accounts a special sidebar with news that had been read and/or recommended by their Facebook friends. The badges extend that idea, and are clearly designed to encourage readers to spend more time on the site.
A FAQ describes the different badges: Networker is based on connections with other readers and with Facebook or Twitter, while Superuser rewards readers for commenting on stories and for sharing them through services such as Twitter and Facebook, and Moderator is based on how many comments a reader flags. It’s not clear how much of a given activity you have to engage in to win the badges, however. The Moderator badge says you have to have flagged 20 comments to get a Level One, but only says these flags have to display “a high ratio of good flags to mistaken flags.” I’ve asked Huffington Post for comment on why the requirements aren’t defined, but it’s likely so that the site has some leeway in deciding who gets rewarded.
Update: Huffington Post spokesman Mario Ruiz said in an email that “in the interest of preventing users from gaming the system at the expense of others, we’re not releasing the Networker or Superuser formulas. We do, however, disclose the formula for our Moderator badge. We also feature all user stats prominently so community members know which kinds of behavior helped them earn badges.”
The way Huffington Post is using badges makes much more sense to me than something like the Wall Street Journal’s recent partnership with Foursquare. Offering news tips and Foursquare badges based on where readers are checking in with the location-based network is a nice marketing gesture, but the conversion rate from Foursquare user to WSJ reader is likely to be fairly low. Huffington Post’s badges, on the other hand, may seem a tad gimmicky but they’re focused on the right thing: increasing engagement with readers.
It’s a similar approach to that taken by sites such as Slashdot, which has one of the most devoted reader communities online: Regular readers who behave properly by providing a real name, posting and/or flagging comments and contributing in other ways get “karma points” which then enhance their status on the site. It’s a reputation management system, and one that is functionally identical to the way that players of World of Warcraft and other games “level up” through their activity in the game (which is why everything is becoming a game). The idea is that being rewarded for behavior encourages more of that behavior, and also builds a stronger relationship with readers.
It will be interesting see what kind of response Huffington Post readers will have to the badges, and also what kind of effect they will have on metrics such as time spent on the site, repeat visits, etc. According to CEO Eric Hippeau, the implementation of Facebook Connect had a dramatic impact on reader activity such as commenting.
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