How marketers can level-up their gamification strategies

Gamification can drive results, but a clear approach to strategy is essential before diving in.

Marketers are increasingly turning toward gamification strategies to grab the attention of overstimulated consumers but many are missing an opportunity to connect on an emotional level by falling into a few common traps, according to two experts.  

At their core, games are quintessential behavior and emotion manipulators; the user interacts with a specific function, and, in turn, that function possibly elicits a positive dopamine-fueled response. In terms of marketing, this response hopefully encourages the user to feel good about the product and want to buy more.

The success of Pokemon Go last year points to the enduring appeal of digital games, an interest that brands like ABC's "The Bachelor," Amazon and others are taking advantage of. Research underscores the opportunity, with the gamification market expected to be worth about $11.1 billion by 2020, according to Markets and Markets.

Still, gamification deployments often fall short due to poor design, a failure to understand how rewards systems work or because the product or service isn’t a good match for the consumer.

"I think the missing element is often that the advertisement is just not very interesting," Gabe Zichermann, founder of the agency Dopamine Inc. and author of "The Gamification Revolution," told Marketing Dive. "But again, unless you address the product holistically it will be hard to truly do something amazing."

Gamification isn’t a cure-all

There’s a misconception among marketers that engaging with younger audiences really means tackling an issue of attention span. At the end of the day, consumers within all generations still just want a good product, suggesting that gamification alone won’t drive results, said Zichermann.

"I'm not sure that attention span is the right metric to pay attention to. Much more important from a marketer's standpoint is credibility and interest," said Zichermann. "Something that’s kind of crappy that you then gamify is still going to be crappy. It’s not like gamification is going to fix your underlying issue."

Because of the potentially strong emotional response that gamification can produce, marketers must also pay particular attention to the authenticity and veracity of their efforts, according to Michel Dubery, partner and leader of strategy and human science at WeThePeople, London. Those who fail to do so could make consumers lose faith in a marketer’s service, regardless of how interesting the campaign is.

“Gamification is a powerful tool, but if you are using it to deceive people, then absolutely don’t do it,” said Dubery.

Good design is paramount

The notion of quality also extends to gamified applications themselves. If gamified elements in a website are poorly designed, this could negatively impact results.

The caliber of game design elements is more important than ever because people have become better at filtering their interests and credibility, per Zichermann.

“What are some of the clues that people look at? They look at the design of the website, the typography, the layout, the imagery, the message. Over the last 20 years, as people have used the web more and more, they’ve gotten better and better at deciding whether a website is credible or not,” said Zichermann.

Despite the importance of quality, research suggests that subpar gamification design is rampant. In a press release from 2012, Gartner predicted that, by 2014, 80% of gamified applications would fail to meet business objectives primarily because of poor design.

For the most part, Gartner’s prediction has held up, with a few exceptions. Research from Corporate Insight’s 2015 study into digital financial apps showed that gamification can, in fact, help companies boost profits. For instance, the study noted that Domino’s Pizza increased sales using its “Pizza Hero” app, and HP was able to grow its revenue by $1 billion because of its “Project Everest” game, per Financial Planning.

But, Corporate Insight ultimately concludes that the majority of gamified applications still fail because of poor design, and the financial industry needs to ‘shape up’ the digital user experience. Quality is the key factor that marketers need to consider, Zichermann insists.  

Don’t let points become pointless

Doing gamification well is all about understanding how consumers respond to rewards and then leveraging this in relation to a product or service, something that marketers often struggle with.

“If you are promised a reward for doing something, you will get a little release of dopamine, the pleasure chemical, in anticipation of the reward, and an even bigger release if you get the reward. This dynamic is exploited mercilessly by gaming companies,” said Dubery. “It really is about the manipulation of that hardwired reward center of your brain. It sounds pretty mercenary, and I guess it is."

“If you think about Candy Crush Saga and its biggest year in purchases, people were so desperate to get the next reward, they were prepared to cough up real money," he added. "They made $1.3 billion last year by selling stuff that doesn’t exist.”

However, there are some pitfalls even where dopamine is involved. Marketers tend to misalign the balance between extrinsic motivation factors — the rewards that push a person toward doing something — with the intrinsic motivators, or, the actual innate drive to participate in something, wrote Zichermann in an article for Gamification.co.

Both types of motivation play a role. Convenience Store News’ 2016 Shopper Insights 360 Study survey of 5,000 shoppers found that over one-third of shoppers would like to receive offers based on their individual profiles, preferences and past shopping behavior. Another 37% percent said they would like to know how to manage their points or rewards proactively, which would need to be done through very specific gamification elements, reports CSNews.

However, if marketers don’t target how consumers actually want to engage with their user experience, points systems could be pointless, badges might be targeting the wrong behavior and rewards could be simply unnecessary, according to Amy Bucher, an expert in organizational psychology and behavior change design.

Untappd, an application that provides badges for the number of beers the user drinks, offers an example of the misuse of badges, per Bucher in an article on her site.

“Drinking beer is already a rewarding activity, so a badge to encourage it is completely unnecessary,” Bucher said. “And the Untappd app has a clear purpose that also doesn’t necessitate an external reward: It lets me track interesting beers I try so I can remember to order them if I see them again... In fact, given the undermining effect, adding a badge in on top of an already motivating experience could have the unintentional result of making users less engaged.”

Satisfy their needs, not yours

There’s also a possibility that marketers, so invested in their gamification strategy, fall into a trap of their own bias.

“If I put a website out there, and I want to get 100,000 unique visitors, weirdly enough I get a dopamine release if I achieve that objective,” said Dubery. “I am now fooled into thinking that it was a good objective because it brought me pleasure. I could fall into a situation where I validate the website because of the effect it had on me rather than the effect it had on the business."

“And other people in the business that buy into that objective will also share that experience," he continued. "This poses an even bigger trap than just saying that gamification is going to ‘save my product.’”

Marketers that are keen on using gamification within their campaign strategies can optimize efficacy by first focusing on the product’s quality and then maintaining analytic research on user behavior. By monitoring trends in the click-response system, CMOs can better understand the way their consumers feel and adjust accordingly.

Making sure that the design elements of a website offer users a sense of credibility, as well as targeting specific audience desires through analytics monitoring, will help ensure that a gamified element is more engaging and successful.

Ultimately, however, it should be obvious from the beginning if a product or service is marketable through gamification. If it isn't, then a different approach may be warranted. 

“One of the things that I’ve learned is that people often start the process of gamification by saying it’s a way to fix a problem,” said Zichermann. “I say step back and look and try to determine what is the actual issue and try to work on it as part of a gamification initiative.”

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