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July 9, 2020, 11:49 a.m.

Giving thanks isn’t just for Turkey Day: It’s also a way to retain your users

A new study of behavior on Wikipedia finds that thanking new users for their good work makes them more likely to stick around — and to thank others, too.

As the father of a five-year-old, I probably spend more time than most talking about the importance of saying “thank you” to people who do something nice. But saying thanks isn’t just about avoiding awkward scenes in grocery stores — it’s also an important tool for getting others to volunteer their labor for online work. People respond to social cues; if they feel rewarded for something — leaving a high-quality comment on a news story, contributing to a crowdsourced story, engaging with their fellow citizens — it stands to reason they’ll be more interested in doing it again.

That’s the subject of a new study out of the Citizens and Technology Lab at Cornell, led by our old friend Nate Matias. It looks at the most ambitious contributor-driven project around — Wikipedia — and aims to find out if thanking a user for their good work generates more positive outcomes.

The paper’s authors — Matias, Julia Kamin, Reem Al-Kashif, Max Klein, and Eric Pennington — ran a set of experiments on different language versions of Wikipedia: Arabic, German, Polish, and Persian. Since 2013, the site has a tool that allows for one user to give positive feedback to another. Wikipedia editing typically comes with either no feedback (your edit is simply published) or negative feedback (your edit gets reverted or chopped). A “Thanks” within Wikipedia is private to the users involved — no public glory here.

To discover the effect of receiving thanks, we identified 15,558 newcomers and experienced contributors to Wikipedia across four languages. We then encouraged volunteers to thank half of them and observed the effects on their behavior over six weeks. We found that organizing volunteers to thank others:

  • increased two-week retention of newcomers and experienced contributors by 2 percentage points on average
  • caused people to send more thanks to others by 43% on average

We did not detect any average effect on the time contributed to Wikipedia over six weeks.

Those two effects are significant. Wikipedia — like any community-driven online enterprise — is highly dependent on the work of unpaid volunteers. And a big part of that is attracting and retaining new volunteers, who can both help fill any voids left by experienced editors dropping off and bring a more diverse set of backgrounds and life experiences to bear. As this Wikipedia article about Wikipedia puts it (meta):

“Studies have shown that content on Wikipedia suffers from the bias of its editors — [who are] mainly technically inclined, English-speaking, white-collar men living in majority-Christian, developed countries in the Northern hemisphere”…

One challenge with retaining new editors is that the “[n]erdy white guys” who predominate as Wikipedia editors “…aren’t always warm and nurturing” to new editors. For example, when new editors add content on Black history, their content may be deleted by established editors. As well, when new editors are trying to advocate for the inclusion of Black history content on Wikipedia’s talk pages (each article has an associated talk page for discussion of changes), the “[c]omments [to new editors] on [Wikipedia article] talk pages can be very blunt.”

Note that that “thanks”-related increase in retention for users is 2 percentage points, not 2 percent — meaning that, for example, for Arabic Wikipedia, it increased the retention rate from 11 percent to 13 percent, which means the number of editors retained climbed about 18 percent. All from a single “thanks.”

And that second finding — that users who’ve been thanked increased their own thanking behavior 43 percent — suggests that the positive effects on retention could be multigenerational, a Starbucks drive-thru pay-it-forward chain for humanity’s collective knowledge.

That the experiment didn’t increase the average time editors spent working on Wikipedia is interesting, but it’s worth noting that measurements of total editing time are very imprecise (derived by tracking the time between logged edits). The researchers say a larger sample size “might detect an effect,” but that it’s highly likely it would find a difference of less than 3 minutes per week.

So what could a publisher take from this? Think of all the ways you try to influence your users to take an action and whether the addition of some sort of thanks might be useful. Some ideas:

  • Subscription-driven outlets know the critical importance of onboarding new subscribers: those important days and weeks after that credit card number gets entered for the first time. That’s when habits newly enabled by a subscription — launching the app each morning, reading that evening newsletter, listening to that weekly podcast — have a chance to get formed and ingrained. Many publishers have learned to include messaging from journalists or the institution itself thanking subscribers for their purchase, letting them know how it helps pay for the news. Are there more places you can add that sort of thanks?
  • Comments sections can be fruitful places of civic exchange or hellholes defined by humanity’s worst traits. Moderating comments has long been primarily about negative reinforcement — deleting a comment, warning a user about their behavior, or blocking them entirely. But can you add more honey to balance out the vinegar, thanking (and highlighting) the best contributors for their unpaid labor?
  • Can you automate thanks based on user behavior? Say your data shows Jane is an extremely dedicated consumer of one of your newsletters, opening it every morning and clicking multiple links. Can you set up a trigger to send her a note of thanks for her engagement? Can that note also connect to some other goal (like offering her a free three-month guest subscription to give to a friend)?

And — perhaps most importantly — integrating thanks can help make consuming the news a slightly less depressing experience. There’s a lot of bad news these days, and we keep shoveling it all in front of our customers. Anything to lighten the mood — and make them feel like their time invested in news is appreciated — can’t hurt.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     July 9, 2020, 11:49 a.m.
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