3 critical elements in a winning gamification strategy

Gamification is a hot topic in marketing, intelligence gathering, and other circles. Before applying gamification in your organization, read this primer.

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Gamification is the practice of applying "game mechanics" outside the realm of games. For example, an element of most games is keeping score and, to some extent, most employee evaluation programs apply an element of scorekeeping to how they rank and reward employees. Other ways in which companies apply game mechanics range from an employee of the month plaque to a complex customer loyalty program.

Shining examples of applied gamification

Some of the best applications of gamification are encouraging desired behaviors, or differentiating an otherwise similar process or product. My employer has effectively deployed gamification on its internal websites, with each mandated task detailing the number of people in my organization with my title who have completed the task. Mandatory training or completing forms become more interesting when my competitive nature is stoked, as I see I'm in the 20% that has yet to get my act together.

In a similar vein, call centers have long employed gamification techniques. Most modern call centers are replete with huge screens detailing leaderboards and statistics that stoke the competitive fires among employees.

Loyalty programs are another excellent example of applied gamification. The travel industry pioneered these programs, as various elements of travel became effectively commoditized. It's unlikely I could tell what hotel chain I'm staying at if you stripped all branded items from the room, and yet I only use a couple of providers because of their loyalty programs, which are essentially elaborate games created to keep me as a captive customer of an otherwise commoditized product.

What makes a good game

Even simple applications of gamification can have compelling results. The classic example is the "completion gauge" pioneered by social media companies that reminds you your profile is "50% complete." When these companies added a suggestion of a next step, like "Why not add your employment history?" they saw profile completion rates skyrocket.

When you ponder what makes a good game, it's little wonder this technique works so well. The best games have three essential elements:

  1. a clearly defined and achievable outcome, making it clear how you "win";
  2. a straightforward, progressive way to advance toward winning; and
  3. a prize that's commensurate with the effort required to play the game, ideally one that comes with an element of status; for example, finishing in 1st place merits a bigger trophy than 2nd place.

For the social media "completion meter," all three boxes are checked. The outcome of completing your profile is obvious; a next step is clearly suggested and the advancement in the "completion meter" is immediate; and being "100% complete" clearly separates you from those who have not completed their profile.

Companies that attempt to use gamification often fail with the #2 and #3 elements. It's generally straightforward to identify the objective you want to achieve through gamification, but it's considerably more difficult to offer your "players" clear rules for advancement that are readily understandable. Similarly, even a well-designed way to advance through the game is worthless if the rewards aren't commensurate with the effort required. It's unlikely I'm going to complete a 237-question employee survey for a "handsome printable certificate of completion" any more than I'm going to enjoy an employee evaluation process where everyone receives the same reward.

How to get started with gamification

  1. Identify areas in your organization where gamification techniques can be applied. Anything from a manually created leaderboard that's published on a daily basis to a complex rules engine that is integrated with your internal systems and rewards certain behaviors is a ripe candidate.
  2. Keep the three rules of effective games in mind.
  3. Remember that gamification can start simply. As in games, complex rules and overly elaborate systems often detract from the experience.

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