CFO World

Rethinking gamification in marketing

Gamification was once a buzzword in marketing, popping up in campaign activations and strategies whether it fit or not. So does gamification still have a place or was it just a fad?

It doesn’t seem that long ago that conferences were jammed with sessions on how techniques and ideas from the world of electronic gaming were revolutionising marketing.

Games are highly engaging, and brands are always seeking greater engagement, so the idea of the ‘gamification’ of campaigns seemed like a logical development. Hence leader boards, points systems and completion bars started appearing in all manner of digital campaigns, as marketers sought to entice audiences to stay engaged with them for as long as possible.

Fast forward to today however, and pretty much no one is talking about gamification. So was it just an overhyped fad?

“I think that, thankfully, the early days of 'gamification' are officially behind us,” says director of strategy at Melbourne-based agency Hardhat Digital, Dan Monheit. “The era I'm referring to was the one in which every client wanted every campaign, website, app, newsletter and internal office poster 'gamified', whether it made sense to do so or not – because it usually didn't.”

The learning for the industry was that taking a boring, inherently unmotivating task and adding a leader board and some badges still left the audience with a boring, inherently unmotivating task.

“It's kind of like a terrible person paying others to hang out with them,” Monheit says. “It seems kind of palatable at first, but it doesn't take long for people to either decide that it's just not worth it, or work out how to game the system and extract the most amount of cash for the least amount of interaction possible. Either way, it's not going to be the result that the terrible person was looking for.

“The inherently motivating factors need to be baked in from the very start - after all, games have no purpose other than to create enjoyment by being played, and that's what companies with their raft of other objectives are likely competing with.”

Lessons learnt

Monheit says the realisation for many of the early adopters was that it was incredibly difficult to make a product or service that was as addictive as a game. This is reflected through many successful games effectively only being ‘one off’s’ from a developer that got exceedingly lucky, with few small developers able to repeat their success consistently.

“This all seems pretty obvious, but it seems that as an industry we had to learn the hard way,” Monheit says. “The same could be said for brands realising what it takes to produce truly entertaining content.”

Partner at Deloitte Digital, Jason Hutchinson, believes gamification has very much been a victim of the hype cycle. But while it failed to meet the expectations many placed on it, this may have been the result of poor implementations, rather than an inherent fault in the idea.

“People were rewarding the wrong things,” Hutchinson says. “We were rewarding people for a specific task, but not necessarily for the quality of that task. We would reward someone for creating a piece of content, but what we should be rewarding people for is the value of that content.

“Where gamification works really well is when we put higher rewards based on the value of that content and whether people like it, share it or reuse it – or remove points based on how people use it. So it should be powered by the data around it, not simply creating a piece of content.”

While gamification might be many years past being flavour of the month, Hutchinson says clients still seek to have gamified elements included in projects. Deloitte itself long ago incorporated elements of gamification into internal systems and processes, including a corporate version of Foursquare that encourages consultants to ‘check in’ after they have met with clients and include information on what they have discussed, and earn rewards for doing so.

Up next: Examples of successful gamification today, plus learning the impact and effectiveness

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Next-gen gamification

Aspects of gamification are very clearly apparent in many common concepts today, says Monheit, even if they are not immediately recognised as such.

“Elements from gamification have found their way into lots of nice places where they add plenty of value,” he says. “Most online forms and digital onboarding experiences today use 'game' elements, even if it's just a visual progress indicator, or natural language to guide you along.

“We also see game elements in lots of health and fitness apps, where 'hot streaks', teams, locked content and achievements are all completely intertwined in the experience. Headspace and Strava are a couple of excellent examples that spring to mind.

According to Morris Bryant, a partner at digital agency Sparro, gamification concepts are also found in the ‘freemiun’ app model and in loyalty programs.

"Google Places and TripAdvisor have nailed the most basic model, where the user is gamified for no reward other than the game itself - creating levels and 'badges' for reviewers,” Bryant says. “But it hasn't become the game changer it was claimed to be.

“As with every trend, it was widely-applied, and only the most practical uses have survived. The largest content creation websites - Facebook, Instagram, YouTube - don't use the model, which says a lot.”

That gamification was once able to generate such a high level of interest was due to its perceived potential to solve one of the oldest issues in marketing: Building audience engagement.

Zac Fitz-Walker actually studied gamification as part of a PhD he commenced back in 2010, and subsequently developed a Masters unit for QUT on gamification and persuasive computing. He believes the focus on points, badges and leader boards represented the wrong approach.

“As we know, these are not the things that make a video game fun, which is about the challenge, or fulfilling certain needs,” Fitz-Walker says. “And that wasn’t being captured in a lot of early gamification systems.

“Often you see a misalignment of goals, where the goal of gamification doesn’t actually align to the business goal. And if you don’t nail that alignment, then you are going to get some engagement, but then they may not follow through with the desired behaviour you are looking for.”

Fitz-Walker continues to use gamification techniques in the projects of the app studio he co-founded, Eat More Pixels. He says the critical concept when considering gamification techniques is to understand why games are engaging in the first place

“And I think it is because they align really well with theories around intrinsic motivation,” he says. “They set a goal or a challenge, there is good feedback, there is a good sense of progress, and they do all those things.

“Everyone plays games, it just depends on the type of game system or gamification you are building. For example, my grandmother used to love Words with Friends. So you can build gamified systems which are very casual, aimed towards a particular demographics.”

While it may not command the same headlines, gamification is still used to great effect in many campaigns today. Publicis Media for example worked with its client Heineken to create a gamified experience for its sponsorship of the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Melbourne this year, using a Facebook-based chatbot to set challenges for fans, such as talking their way past a virtual doorman. Prizes included free Heineken, discounts at G-Star RAW, GQ magazine subscriptions, and VIP passes.

Public Media’s head of content, Patrick Whitnall, says the gamified chatbot provided an innovative and cost-effective way of engaging with this audience.

“That enabled us to build around the infrastructure of a chatbot, so we didn’t have to build an app or something separate to it,” he says.

Ultimately, the implementation outperformed Heineken’s expectations for user interaction. “That is going to drive customer loyalty, customer engagement and repeat purchasing.” Whitnall says.

From the CMO archive: Why gamification and big data go hand-in-hand

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Impact and effect

Exactly how effective games can be in influencing people to behave in a desired manner will be the focus of a study currently being conducted by QUT and the research and development agency Rubin8. Together they are investigating how participants respond to a game-based approach to surveys, and whether the use of games can improve survey results.

“For us it is an exciting opportunity to learn how people interact with modern technology,” says head of the Behavioural Economics Department at QUT, Professor Uwe Dulleck.  “The question of reliability of information is not only important from a business perspective, but also from a research perspective, and retention rates of surveys is a very big issue for researchers in social and economics as it is for market research.”

For Rubin8’s founder and creative director, Rob Holden, the project is an opportunity to put some science behind its work and test a theory that when a person engages in a game they will provide more truth.

“We gather a lot of data that helps marketers make better decisions, and helps them drive behaviour of their consumers,” Holden says. “We are using games and the high-level engagement they provide to encourage and push people down certain paths. When you are engaged, you use a limbic part of the brain rather than the rational part of your brain.

“And anecdotally it is easier to tell the truth, rather than think about the question asked.”

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