At the same time, what we do create with products is quality in and of itself, and we’re incredibly explicit about what’s sponsored. There’s a company that we work with called Zestra, for female arousal. They’re approach, which is interesting, is to use content as a means to get their brand out there and to engage potential customers in a conversation. They’re doing that through our site, but they’re also doing it through PR and their site as well. What was interesting for us with this client was they have a lot of research around female arousal and intimacy, so it’s not that they’re just over here saying, “Buy this product, it’s the best product ever.” Instead, they’re over here saying, “Hey, we understand the various issues surrounding women and sexuality, and we want to give you content and create a way to be more informed.” It ends up being a little bit of a softer sell. This is a real issue for our users, and the great thing is, when we partner with a company like that, that actually has research—they also have experts etc.—it ends up being truly beneficial. Nobody seems to be bothered by the fact that it’s sponsored because it’s frankly related content.

I guess also readers are starting to get used to more things like that. As you said, a lot of other websites are doing the same thing, it’s becoming part of the reading experience at this point.

Definitely. I think that’s the case, although there are certainly different ways that various media companies approach that. We’ve all seen examples where it’s really heavy-handed and you feel like it’s not so much for the reader but it’s the advertiser pushing their own message. It’s a lot like social media—you really have to be so mindful of your audience. If you just are over there pushing your agenda, people are going to tune out. You have to figure out where that balance is.

Could you tell us a little bit about the YourTango community and the way people can earn points. It’s an interesting and different way to engage readers more and improve loyalty.

We just launched with a company called Badgeville, only two weeks ago. We’ve identified around ten ways for people to earn points. They range from points for signing up to our newsletters, to reading articles, to posting questions or answering questions, contributing to the blogs, etc. We also launched with Zestra, and we’re doing a contest with them where people can get the “Z badge” if they participate in the contest, to win a trip to New York that Zestra is sponsoring. So those are the kinds of things we’re offering incentives for. And it varies: you get more points for signing up for a newsletter than for reading an article.

Has it been successful so far?

It’s really early. I couldn’t say how much more it’s improving engagement or any of that stuff. Anecdotally, looking at this unit we have on every page showing who’s participating and who’s getting points—which at first was dominated by our team—now we’re seeing all these names that we’ve never seen before. It seems like it’s starting to be taken up by our audience. The ultimate goal for us is to use it as a fun way to engage users and to help them feel rewarded by what they’re doing, and incentivized to come back and to continue to do that. We have identified a handful of “super users” through their contributions to our blogs, and commenting, and things like that, and we just felt like these are people who care and they’re spending a lot of time, so why not give them status, and help them feel like they can get credibility that they have earned by being so active? We’re pretty optimistic.

The other part of it is just the pure, fun, gaming part of it. That’s been part of the fun for me in using Foursquare—you want to unlock this badge and that badge. There is something to be said about just the fun of it.

Do you think that this is a kind of system that would work well with news sites, too?

I am a big believer in gaming mechanics in general. I think that we’re going to see more of this kind of thing, just like we’ve seen social media take off. My hunch is that a lot more companies are going to figure out that gaming mechanics are an interesting and fun way to engage and reward users. Whether it’s news or anything else, I would place a bet that this will become the next interesting frenzy around media.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner