The Rules To Play By: Gamification in marketing

Don't be deterred by hype. Gamification can engage consumers in fun, rewarding ways

A year ago, information tech and research advisory company Gartner predicted that more than 70% of Global 2000 organizations will have at least one gamified application by 2014. But just last month, Gartner issued a more cautionary outlook, predicting that by 2014, 80% of gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives, “primarily because of poor design.” So, the question for marketers now is how to successfully and effectively gamify going forward.

“The key for me is tapping into an existing consumer behaviour and then rewarding that behaviour,” says Marty Yaskowich, managing director, Tribal DDB Vancouver. “I think the brands and marketers that have done it really well over the last few years are the ones that have built the game layer into something that the user is already doing and (ideally) loves doing.”

Yaskowich and his team did just that when they developed a social game/contest for Best Buy last year during the holiday season. The goal was to create a social conversation about the hottest gifts of the season, targeting middle-aged mothers. Armed with the insights that moms love to help each other and it’s better to give than to receive during the holidays, they created a Facebook-based gamified contest around the holiday tradition “pass the gift.”

Shoppers were invited to tear away layers of virtual wrapping paper for the chance to win a series of featured products. After unwrapping, players could pass the present to friends to unlock extra chances to win. More than 80,000 presents were unwrapped over the course of the campaign, creating 1.5 million social impressions.

Implementing gamification at the product development stage is another good idea, says Yaskowich, citing FuelBand as a good example. It’s a tactic that Adam Oliveira—who left his job as executive creative director at Toronto-based Quizative in January to co-found a game developing company called Blitztream—believes brands need to start looking at more seriously if they are to find success in applying gamification to their marketing efforts.

“If brands are looking at implementing gamification in the broader communication strategy, then they shouldn’t necessarily be looking at marketing elements,” says Oliveira. “They should be looking at creating services or products that have game-like features built in. They need to start thinking more holistically about products and marketing. Ultimately, Nike+ isn’t a marketing campaign that had gamification components. It’s an actual product with gamified elements in it.”

Good game architecture is another key component in ensuring success. Thanks to, particularly, Foursquare’s meteoric rise, best practices—like earning special prize badges, leader boards, or coveted statuses—have become something of a norm, even if the app’s famed “mayor” status has become somewhat passé. It’s true, people do tend to put a lot of value in social capital and status, and the prospect of being visibly ranked higher than your peers is a very tempting one that plays into people’s inborn competitiveness.

“I think everyone keeps score, whether it’s in their head or they want it to be a little more public, I think there’s always an incentive for people to see their name at the top of the list,” says Yaskowich.

That being said, originality, recommends Oliveira, is the best way to go.

“Don’t get stuck on what’s considered best practices because what’re best practices for Foursquare might not be best practices for Shoppers Drug Mart or CIBC,” says Oliveira. “Brands need to look beyond what’s considered best practices and design mechanisms that are fun, engaging and have game-like [elements] that are relevant to their brand, service or product.”

Yaskowich agrees, adding that while badging and the like can be an effective incentive in some cases, he believes they are really, at the end of the day, a superficial incentive. The brands that are truly successful in the gamification world, he says, are those that come up with meaningful rewards for consumers that offer the highest value proposition possible.

“Foursquare really figured it out when they realized what the consumer wants is a deal on their next coffee, not to be called mayor,” says Yaskowich. “It’s about there being some level of customization or personalization for the user that gives them a reward that’s much more meaningful for them. It doesn’t always have to be monetary. What I like to see in this world of gamification is that a brand actually understands its customer and gives them something that really makes them want to participate more.”

Cory Pelletier, dirctor of innovation at Toronto-based Zulu Alpha Kilo, agrees that making fun games with meaningful elements is an extremely important aspect of successful gamification. But, he says, games must be geared towards those who already have some measure of brand affinity. Goals must also be clearly defined.

Agencies like Zulu, as well as MacLaren McCann, are increasingly using gamification tactics in their work. Zulu recently created an online experience that had users interacting virtually with artist Mark Rothko, playing the part of his assistant, to promote Canstage’s play Red, a fictionalized account of the temperamental painter’s largest-ever commission in the 1950’s.

Zulu’s promo for Red (the non-interactive version)

When Xbox released the first-person-shooter game Gears of War 3, MacLaren promoted it by launching an online and real world alternate reality game (ARG) to help bloodthirsty gamers track down hundreds of pieces of freshly butchered hunks of alien flesh. In each case the goals were clearly defined (sell tickets to the play, get people playing the video game), there was a high level of preexisting brand affinity and the rewards were very meaningful to participants (free tickets to the play with paid accommodation and alien flesh… plus tickets to the game’s VIP launch party).

Pelletier says that in keeping games meaningful for participants, brands have to ensure they don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s not really about them, but rather the experience and the game itself.

“When we build a game it is about selling a product or service, but if you put that first you’re going to have an experience that doesn’t feel natural,” says Pelletier. “The biggest thing is to make it about the consumer. The game has to be based on insights and wants because gamification is a really powerful tool and it’s easy to do, but people won’t want to play your game unless it appeals to them.”

The most important thing, he notes, is that at the end of the day the game must be winnable.

“You have to feel like you can win, especially with a marketing angle,” says Pelletier. “For the most part you don’t want games that are so hard that only a few people can figure it out, that are so demanding. A World of Warcraft from a marketer would be horrible.”

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