Understanding extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation

What’s the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation? It’s another very common question I get a lot from clients and marketers’ trying to understand what gets people to take certain actions and change behaviors. It applies to both internal audiences (employees) as well as external audiences (customers) and in this case, its starts with a bit of understanding about human psychology.

  • Why do we do certain things or take certain actions?
  • What really drives behavior?
  • Does motivation arise from the outside (extrinsic) or inside (intrinsic)?

As always, let’s start off with some basic definitions first:

  • Extrinsic Motivation: this applies when we do something because we are simply told to do so. An example might be, in school we are extrinsically motivated to study hard because we want to get good grades. Good grades leads to good things, such as advancement and eventually college and career placement.
  • Intrinsic Motivation: this applies when we do something because we want to do it. Using the same academic example as above, in school we are intrinsically motivated when we find subjects of keen personal interest. We take a vested interest because we get excited by the subject matter and want to learn more. Whether or not we succeed in learning does not hinder our ability to partake in the activity of trying to experience the subject matter.

In the corporate world, this is very important when addressing employee engagement. Lots of marketers and HR departments look to tactics such as gamification to increase employee engagement. Gamification as an engagement tactic provides an intrinsic motivation for employees to become brand ambassadors, because the game lets them play and compete first (which is fun), but also learn and be inspired in the process (which is necessary). So it’s not just another boring “have to do” corporate training channel, (an extrinsic motivator), it’s a new exciting “want to do” gamified social platform. It should be thought of as “good for me” versus being thought of as “good for the company”. In the end, both the employee and company wins!

The same principle may be conveyed in external marketing. When marketers try to get consumers to check out a new product or service, they will use gamification or advanced engagement tactics as a way to get people to primarily have fun and be entertained. The side-effect or byproduct if you will, of such initiatives is organic communication of that said product or service’s inherent values.

If you understand how these different motivations work, you can craft an engagement plan with the right tactics that will entertain, motivate and get your audience to start talking about whatever it is that you are selling.


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