By Steve Sims

Competition is a hardwired part of human nature. It is one of the greatest forces that motivate people to perform better, work harder and strive to reach their goals. We see people in competition everywhere we look: in sports, playing games (online and offline), at work, in school, and even online within our social networks. Competition – both the serious kind and the playful variety – is in our DNA as human beings.

When multiple people are competing, those who are highly self-motivated by internal goals and aspirations are typically found in first place – at the top of the leaderboard. Those in the top spot need a degree of self-motivation since they are already besting their competitors.

Those in second, third, fourth and even last place have a different kind of motivation. The competitive psychology that drives the need to evaluate ourselves and compare our own performance with those around us kicks in for those further down on the leaderboard, and it can be fueled by a variety of factors, including situational dynamics, rivalries, time and even fear.

In an online community, leaders who are looking for ways to improve productivity and increase engagement can use leaderboards to tap into the competitive instincts of participants. Leaderboards are an excellent way to leverage competitive drive, gain insights into user behavior and keep engagement levels at their peak.

Time is an ally in driving engagement in this scenario; the leaderboard gets refreshed as the competition plays out, and those who are temporarily stuck at the bottom or in the middle of the pack will typically not lose motivation or become disengaged because the changing leaderboard will inspire them to move up in the rankings.

While leaderboards usually work best as a motivator for those who sit from the middle to the bottom of the list, there are alternatives to motivate even those who are at the top of the board. One such alternative would be to integrate gamification into an online community to allow users to acquire points and gain access to new levels, which can then in turn be exchanged for extrinsic rewards. Being able to earn additional rewards tends to keep participants focused and interested.

Because those who are self-motivated typically sit on the top of the leaderboard, it could be beneficial to offer tangible rewards to keep them engaged. The prospect of earning tangible rewards can ensure that their level of competition and engagement stays at its peak instead of dwindling.

Competition is innate in human beings, and online community leaders can use it to their advantage to engage and motivate users. But when designing gamification plans, it pays to keep competitive psychology in mind. Leaderboards are an excellent way to spark competition, and with the right alternatives, you can maintain peak levels of interest, even at the top of the board.

Steve Sims is the chief design officer and founder of the Behavior Labs. Steve is a well-known gamification expert with broad experience in game design, development and production across all major platforms – web, mobile, console and PC. Stay connected at @badgeville.