Gamification: More to marketing than just a buzzword?

28th Mar 2011

Raf Keustermans looks at case studies and gauges expert opinion on the latest hot topic. 

Gamification. The world alone makes some people nervous. Or aggressive. It is one of those terms that is overused to a point where it almost lost its meaning.
The word is (ab)used for a variety of topics, usually with the aim to increase the hype factor: from using games in marketing campaigns or promotions (sweepstakes, ‘wheel-of-fortune’, advergames) to advertising in existing games or virtual worlds (McDonald’s in FarmVille) to far-stretching philosophical concepts (‘everything is a game’).
There is no formal definition that has been agreed upon, but most agree that gamification is all about using game mechanics - such as badges, levels, achievements and leadboards - for non-game applications, including consumer-oriented web and mobile sites.
What is agreed on, however, is that it is capturing the imagination of a growing number of business experts and leading-edge organisations. Gartner, for instance, has been  doing a lot of research into how gamification is being used to engage stakeholders, improve performance and drive innovation, and in its CIO New Year’s Resolutions, 2011 report it highlighted gamification as one of the trend-leading technologies that CIOs must get experience with.
Any substance?
So is there any substance behind this hype? Certainly the number of case studies is growing.

NBC Universal's USA network has successfully used gamification to spread word about its Psych TV programme. On the Psych area of its website - dubbed Club Psych - visitors are encouraged to become loyal fans with achievements and rewards, getting 200 reward points for sharing something on the site such as a game or video, 50 points for taking a poll, and so on. The gaming reward programs have generated a 130% increase in page views for the show and a 40% increase in return visits according to its results.

In what has been hailed as a brave new world for publishing, Random House Children's Books and Stardoll, an online games and fashion community for teenage girls, launched a serialised mystery novel series called Mortal Kiss. The online series allows users to to vote on plot points and affect the story’s outcome, delve into an interactive map of the story’s setting, play games that allow users to dress characters and participate in writing contests. This combination notched up over 17 million page views in two months.
Customer loyalty may be a primary application driving the gamification trend, but other benefits can also be driven by the use of gaming mechanics. Gartner highlights an example of a public sector body using gamification to drive innovation, for instance. In Case Study: Innovation Squared: The Department for Work and Pensions Turns Innovation Into a Game, the analyst details a project by the Department for Work and Pensions in the UK which used game mechanics to create a market for innovation called IdeaStreet.  
Healthy living can also be encouraged, and gaming mechanics have been used as part of quit-smoking programmes, with participants competing against each other, ‘levelling up’, earning badges on the way and even ‘unlocking items’ by reaching certain milestones. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this approach results in 30% better results compared to more traditional programmes. Elsewhere, Health Month takes the science of of nutrition and behavior change and combines it with gaming mechanics to help people improve their health habits.  
So with an ever-growing number of case studies demonstrating the value of gamification to user attention and engagement, let's take a closer look at some of the most important game mechanics that underpin this upcoming trend.
  • Rewards: rewarding players/users/consumers for certain behaviour. This can be done with badges (or trophies, points, coins, medals, …) that can be collected an can either increase status within the user community, or can ‘unlock’ functional items or features. This is probably the most used mechanic in gamification, used primarily to drive and reward certain behaviour (visit this page on the website, fill in form X).
  • Collaboration: very often used in social games; certain features are items can be ‘friend-gated’: a user needs assistance from his friends/other users to complete a task or get an item, e.g. in a Facebook game: collect gold from your friends to complete the castle that will protect your army. Outside games: get three friends to sign-up to get access to the Platinum Club with extra discounts.
  • Progression: levels can be used to give users a feeling of progression, and can also be part of a broader layer to increase the ‘fun’ and reward element of a game. Good games will have a mix of easy and difficult levels, e.g. Angry Birds will let you progress fast for three or four easy levels, add a difficult ‘frustrating’ level and reward players again with again some easy levels; once players understand the structure, they know that their grinding and frustration in a difficult level will be rewarded with fast progress afterwards. Levels can also be used as part of an educational/tutorial process, to get users through a complex process, where the complexity increases with each level. It could be imagined that adding a level structure could simplify, e.g. online tax forms.
  • Appointments: Another pillar of social games, made famous by FarmVille and other resource management games: users are encouraged to return to the game within a certain timeframe. Missing an appointment can be punished. A typical example is the harvesting mechanic in farm games; harvest after four hours or your crops will wither. Interesting is that shorter timeframes are rewarded more substantially than longer ones (higher yield for shorter harvest cycles), and that this feature is usually also combined with a social/viral aspect, where friends or neighbours can prevent or undo damage to the player’s virtual crops. This is a core mechanic to drive engagement and loyalty, and could be used by content creators to create a daily/weekly habit.
  • Quests/challenges: Sometimes similar to a level structure, but in most cases quests or challenges are used parallel with a level structure. They can be used to broaden the gameplay; e.g. a city-building game can have a strategic angle (build an efficient city that yields the highest taxes), but can also have an aesthetic angle (build a beautiful city, your dream city). If the level structure rewards progress on the strategic axis, adding specific quests (‘add a park and trees to keep your population happy’) can avoid that the games becomes one-dimension and alienates a part of its user base. Quests are usually rewarded with badges or currency. Quests can add a different (secondary) layer to for instance a loyalty programme; the main goal can be to use your credit card as often as possible, but a quest can be to vote for the winner of a Visa-sponsored music talent show.
  • Status: One of the more abstract (and therefore difficult to influence) areas of gameplay. Status is the reason why Zynga Poker is the largest online poker room in the world (35 million monthly active players) despite the fact that it’s not possible to win or cash out any real money – the main currency of Zynga Poker is not virtual chips, it’s the ‘bragging currency’ that increases your status in your community of friends and other players. Online forums and message boards have used similar status-based systems to moderate and supervise content; power-users or users that are respected by other users are nominated to be ‘moderators’ and given control to edit and even ban other users. This system has even been used by some start-ups to create user-powered customer support, where users/customers are rewarded with ‘status’ by the company in return for helping other users with (minor) problems and questions.
Ultimately, however, the difficulty for those who can see the value in gamification is of course to understand these mechanics and use them in a relevant way. Game mechanics could have significant results for businesses, but as with most powerful weapons, they should be handled with care.
When confronted with something such as a complex loyalty system, most customers might get mildly frustrated, but if a company gets it wrong with ‘status’, the reactions can and will be more serious. Learning, learning, testing and learning again is the key to success in this area.

Gamification: Hype or helpful?

More perspectives on this emerging trend...

Andrew McCallum, Head of Studio Services, APS Group: "The popularity of brand-driven viral games, such as Gu’s ‘chocolate spoon roulette’, has already shown that consumers are willing to engage with brands on this level. Although gamification hasn’t yet found its niche, used positively it can be a valuable customer engagement tool.
"Location-based gaming tools like Foursquare and Gowalla offer brands an innovative way of driving customer behaviour through the potential for rewards – for example, checking in at different Starbucks locations will earn Foursquare users the ‘Barista’ badge, and the ‘mayor’ of Starbucks can receive a free coffee once a week. These are good examples of encouraging customers to engage with your brand in an overcrowded marketplace. These gamification tools are also more accessible to small and local businesses than brand-driven games, which often require a large investment.
"The concept is not just limited to third party applications- ,brands can gain valuable insight into their customers’ behaviour by developing their own gamification tactics. Dunhill offered an example of this when it teamed up with Japanese media company Honokudo to develop an online football game. Users collected points for the opportunity to buy the official Japanese World Cup team tie, which outsold all other styles. Customer analysis taken from these activities can also be used to guide future marketing initiatives.
"Gamification now needs to be put to a more beneficial use for brands – with a focus on loyalty rather than revenue generation. Companies could even begin to use this technique as a means of rewarding employees for completing training programmes or reaching performance targets. Taking gamification into the business to business domain will also help to position it as a valuable long-term engagement and loyalty tool rather than just the latest sales gimmick."
Alistair Gray, usability consultant, Webcredible: “Gamification is a powerful tool for marketers as it has the ability to tap directly into a natural human behaviour, to play games. There’s evidence of play, dating right back to the same time we were painting in caves. It’s a natural, almost automatic behaviour. Playing a game is a great way to engage with your audience, and creates common ground for your audience to engage with each other. It even opens the possibility to influence their behaviour. Nobody likes to be forced to do something, but if it’s part of a game...?
"To use gamification effectively marketers need to ensure that it:
  • Is well targeted - what do you want people to do?
  • Supports users natural behaviour -what do your users want to do?
  • Encourages social interaction between players
"Gamification is definitely not a fad. It’s here to stay, but it needs to grow and develop. It can be adopted by almost any industry, but the biggest successes and perhaps the easiest introduction currently will be any site where people are interacting with each other in some way, in an easily measurable manner. Sites that encourage fundraising, comments and purchases for example will be areas where gamification can really take off.”
Albin Serviant, CEO, MXP4: "Gamification of life is all about status. If you can gamify an activity, you can feed both the social and competitive nature of people by giving them a new social status. This is what we focus on at MXP4, by applying the same rules for music. Instead of simply telling friends about this great new song they have heard, a person can tell them how a remix of that song was highlighted by the artist or alternatively how they scored in a specific music game with their preferred artist…thus elevating ones status. MXP4 don’t see gamification as a fad, it is something that is going to continue to develop and grow, people don’t need to just listen to music anymore, they can interact with the music and become a part of their favourite artists network.
"Our ‘PUMP IT’ games on Facebook have 1.3 million monthly average users, with 15 minutes spent on a game per session, with 30% of that figure sharing their experience with friends and some people playing up to 3,000 times to be featured as the N°1 fan of a specific artist."
Chris Gorell Barnes, CEO of Adjust Your Set - "Gamification is a very valid marketing approach for a certain type of customer requirement. It is particularly relevant when there is a smaller budget and they want to extend the lifecycle of content by using it to provoke a response or conversation.
There are various 'gameplays' that can be deployed by marketers; a simple quiz that inserts into a social media platform with answers delivered around the content, or the ability to choose alternative journeys through content depending on your preference. This was done to great effect last year by AMV BBDO with their 'choose a different ending' film for the Met Police.
"There is no denying that gaming is a major entertainment force and no longer the domain of bedroom geeks. With the explosive growth of online video and social networking, we think gamification has a great future ahead and we are only just scratching the surface of it so far."
Guest blogger Raf Keustermans is an independent social media consultant and strategist. Raf held senior management positions at leading digital entertainment companies, most notable online gambling operator and video games giant Electronic Arts (EA), where his last position was global marketing director for social game developer Playfish (acquired for $400mm by EA in 2009). Earlier in his career, Raf worked as project manager and strategic planner for advertising agencies like BBDO, Grey and DuvalGuillaume (Publicis Groupe). His Twitter handle is @raf_keustermans

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