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Social Pro Files: Badges? We love those stinkin’ badges!

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This post was written by Troy Janisch, with art from Mark Anderson. Both contributors have two decades of digital-marketing experience and lead social media activities at American Family Insurance, a Fortune 300 company. Janisch blogs at, and Anderson shares his art at

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand clicks, especially if the picture is a 57-by-57-pixel loyalty badge.

Check into five of Chicago’s iconic movie locations, and you’ll earn Foursquare’s “On Location” badge. Create an account on and check in for a 5K, or 3.1-mile, run to earn a “5K” badge. Foursquare Badge List summarizes more than 250 Foursquare badges that can be earned. At South by Southwest 2011, it was possible to earn more than 20 badges, including the “SXSW Hangover” badge — perhaps after “SXSW Bender” or “SXSW Bar Crawl” — and the “10 Gallon Swarm” badge. My favorite Foursquare badge is still the  “Baggage Handler” badge, which is earned by checking into an airport with the text “TSA,” “grope” or “Don’t touch my junk, bro!” When you do,  Foursquare responds with the badge and the phrase, “Looks like you’ve had your baggage handled. Happy holidays and have a safe flight!”

“Virtual rewards like badges, trophies, levels, status and rank are very effective for changing human behavior,” said Kris Duggan, co-founder of Badgeville. “Humans, at our core, are competitive and driven to compete for our status and collect rewards for the things we do.” When a Badgeville customer announced a limited-time badge for users who watched an entire music video by an artist, thousands of viewers participated to earn the badge. Duggan said the success of Badgeville’s white-label reward platform is based on a shift Internet users have made away from seeking tangible rewards, such as discounts and merchandise,  toward intangible rewards such as “reputation” and “status.”

During the past six months, after growing increasingly weary with the burden of checking in everywhere via Foursquare and Facebook Places — along with privacy concerns that can result from broadcasting your location — I’ve come to appreciate One True Fan, a newcomer in the badge-driven loyalty space.  OTF tracks loyalty of users to every website.  It doesn’t depend on geographic location or a destination’s paid participation. Instead, it tracks users’ browser activity and gives points for visiting a site, viewing content, sharing content or increasing traffic. Players who earn and retain the most points for each site are dubbed the site’s “one true fan,” a more desirable, competitive and credible status to achieve than being a Foursquare “mayor.”

I was one of the first OTF players, but it has more than 6,000 members. I’ve earned more than 250 OTF “patches” in the past 90 days while browsing the Web. Most are badges for specific sites, but I’ve also earned unique badges  in the course of ordinary browsing. My OTF profile shows my participation on nearly 1,500 Web pages and 28 sites that I visit regularly. Eric Marcoullier, co-founder and co-CEO of OTF, said the goal of OTF is to transform the act of visiting websites from a lonely, solo task to a thriving, social one. And it seems to work. When I visit websites, I see the activity of other OTF players, and I learn about online destinations by following players with similar interests. I get more out of the experience than points or badges alone.

“Long term, doing things automatically or ‘auto-magically’ trumps things that require considered thought, such as checking in, because it’s just very, very difficult to change user behavior for the long haul,” said Marcoullier. “Being a fan really should be a real-time thing. It shouldn’t be a permanent thing. There’s nothing worse than people who say they’re Niners fans, except for the 10 years where they haven’t gone to the playoffs. … You’re not a Niners fan. You’re a fair-weather fan.”