Knowing what motivates your customers to engage with your brand is a huge part of building a community they want to be a part of. When you understand how your customers think, you can encourage customer behaviors that help strengthen your community by getting others to join, engage, and share.

The trick, of course, is actually getting to know your customers. While a lot of people might say you need to run a feedback survey or comb through support conversations, you can actually learn a lot about motivating customer behavior by understanding one simple concept: reinforcement.

Why reinforcement works

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you already understand how reinforcement works. If you grew up in a house like mine you were probably promised a treat in exchange for doing chores or, on the flip side, got a week chore free if you brought home a great report card. These are both examples of reinforcement at work.

Reinforcement is the process of encouraging or establishing a belief or pattern of behavior, especially by encouragement or reward.

Unlike punishment, reinforcement is not used to decrease the likelihood of a certain behavior but rather to increase it. As a result, reinforcement can be both positive and negative depending on whether a desired stimulus is introduced or an unwanted stimulus is removed.

You can see both of these in the examples I listed above:

  • Positive reinforcement: I was rewarded (desired stimulus) for doing my chores
  • Negative reinforcement:  chores (unwanted stimulus) were removed as a result of my good report card

Reinforcement isn’t limited to getting your kids to help around the house, though. Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.

Positive reinforcement inspires action

If the concept of positive reinforcement sounds familiar, it’s probably because this psychological principle is the backbone of every rewards program you’ve ever been a part of. For hundreds of years, brands have been using positive reinforcement as a way to encourage more repeat purchases, higher average order values, and to build stronger connections with each of their customers.

With rewards, brands are able to motivate these valuable behaviors by creating a strong link between each action and the benefits the customer receives. By offering exclusive experiences or valuable discounts in exchange for engaging with their community, customers will be more likely to adopt these behaviors quickly.

Gourmet Skin Bar rewards

Not only that, but the positive reinforcement of a reward will also prompt customers to adopt these behaviors permanently. Take Gourmet Skin Bar, for example. With their #HAPPYSKIN Rewards program, customers can earn points for referring friends, making purchases, leaving product reviews, and more. These points can then be used for rewards like free shipping, free products, and discounts.

When customers receive these forms of positive reinforcement, they’re conditioned to repeat these behaviors in order to continue experiencing these rewards. As a result, Gourmet Skin Bar’s incentives set their customers up to become (and remain!) engaged members of their brand community moving forward.

Ultimately, positive reinforcement works because it inspires action. By rewarding customers for doing something, you can encourage them to explore more of your brand and deepen their relationship with your community.

Negative reinforcement improves circumstances

It might seem a bit odd to think of something negative as positive, but no one ever said psychology was easy to understand! Much like positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement is also designed to increase the occurrence of a particular behavior. However, instead of introducing a positive stimulus to encourage the behavior, it works by removing a negative condition.

Software update prompts are examples of negative reinforcement

A great example of this is the reminders you get to upgrade your computer software. By following through and upgrading, you are able to remove the annoying reminders. Not only that, you’re probably also more likely to upgrade preemptively in the future to avoid these pesky reminders in the first place.

This marks a clear distinction between punishment and negative reinforcement. When we hear the word “negative”, we tend to assume something bad is going to happen to us. For your kids, the punishment for not finishing their dinner might be no TV for the evening and an early bedtime. This punishment introduces negative circumstances that might make them feel bad but doesn’t necessarily inspire positive action.

This is the difference between punishment and negative reinforcement. Like its positive counterpart, negative reinforcement creates a link between an action and moving to a desired state. The key difference is that the desired state is characterized by being “less bad” than the current state instead of by being “more good.” In the software upgrades example, that means having fewer distractions on your screen even if you don’t want to upgrade to new features.

Highlighting the benefits of the desired state is what inspires your customers into action.  Customers are always extremely motivated to remove negative consequences and will take any action within their control to avoid them.

Negative reinforcement may cause discomfort and annoyance.

Where negative reinforcement falls short is in the kind of relationship it may create between a customer and your brand. While positive reinforcement creates a relationship based on affection and excitement, negative reinforcement has the tendency to inspire annoyance and discomfort.

It’s easy to understand the difference by thinking about your phone. Positive reinforcement is like pressing a button on your phone and having your favorite song play. You’re encouraged to take the action because you like the result and you’re delighted by the learning process.

Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, is more like hitting the snooze button to stop your alarm from going off in the morning. You’re every bit as motivated to take action, but instead of delight you’re more likely to feel frustration.

As a result, negative reinforcement could put your brand at risk of alienating your customers as they explore your community.

Using reinforcement to encourage customer behavior

Hopefully you can now see how reinforcement can be used to encourage different customer behaviors. Depending on what you sell or the services you offer, your community might be better suited to one or the other. Here are a couple of ideas to get started with either.

You can use positive reinforcement by:

  • Providing excellent customer support. Giving customers the support they need creates a delightful experience that will encourage them to reach out when they need help in the future.
  • Building a rewards program. With rewards, you can explicitly specify the behaviors you'd like customers to develop, and a program gives you the framework you need to encourage and sustain it long term.
  • Thanking your customers. Whether it's a card in their next order or a follow-up email, this small gesture has big dividends for building emotional connections with every customer.

You can use negative reinforcement by:

  • Gating certain features or services. Spotify puts this to use by allowing customers to listen to music for free with frequent advertisements. This prompts customers to upgrade to a premium plan without preventing them from enjoying their service at any pay point.
  • Offering early access to VIP customers. Even though a rewards program is typically a positive reinforcement tool, you can use perks like early access to entice customers to spend more in order to avoid missing exciting store benefits.

Reinforcement works best when it's positive

While both positive and negative reinforcement are excellent candidates for inspiring action and molding customer behaviors, positive reinforcement is definitely the more effective of the two. With more opportunities to delight your customers through rewards or other exceptional brand experiences, positive reinforcement avoids the potentially harmful frustrations negative reinforcement can introduce to a brand community.

Even though negative reinforcement may spur quick action, it often does so at the expense of the customer’s experience. Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, doesn’t just inspire action – it inspires confidence in the brand and in the learning process. What more could you want?