The social incentives that won $40,000 in 9 hours

written by  Ryan Seamons

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In 2009 the US Department of Defense held the Red Balloon Challenge in honor of the 40th anniversary of the creation of the internet.

The goal was to use the internet and social media to discover the locations of 10 red weather balloons hidden around the United States. The winning team would get $40,000 dollars.

4,000 teams signed up. And most teams tried to leverage individual incentives to find the balloons (tell us where a balloon is and we’ll give you $3,000). Other teams used data (combing through all tweets that mention “balloon”).

But the team that won (students from MIT) tapped into network effects. If you found the ballon, they’d give them $2,000. If you told the balloon finder about the challenge, you’d get $1,000. And if you told the person who told the balloon finder, you’ll get $500. People scrambled to tell their friends.

2 million people ended up joining this team and they won the challenge in 9 hours.

Read more from MIT News.


Challenging problems of the future will be solved by teams.

Those who can encourage groups to work together towards an end get massive boosts compared to an individual-centric approach. More and more network-oriented phenomena are gaining influence in our world (ex. open-source software projects, massive online games, social media …).

Questions to consider:

  • What behavior are you incentivizing?

  • Are you encouraging people to work together?

  • How might you encourage positive social recruiting and sharing?

  • What would make something valuable enough that they would want to tell their friends?

Comment and let me know how you are using or could use incentives to help in your work.


About the Author

Ryan Seamons
writes about more human approaches to modern management.

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