Lipstick on a pig

Companies will spend $2.8 billion per year on gamification by 2016, according to the LA Times. But if social spend is any indicator, an awful lot of it will be wasted on “me-too,” superficial gamification that does little for anyone.

That’s the sense I left with after attending the excellent Blogworld East panel Game Mechanics and The Future of Loyalty last week. Companies that implement and scale gamification successfully will need to avoid the following four pitfalls.

Pitfall 1: Piling it on

It’s easy to tack-on a largely useless layer of game mechanics that doesn’t generate value for brands or consumers, according to the panelists. There are hundreds of game mechanics you could apply to any piece of content, but that doesn’t mean you should apply them all, warned Mike Schneider. This is like social media in general, where we often see brands creating Facebook Pages and Twitter profiles before they understand how to drive results through them, or thinking about why consumers would want to interact with their brands on the social web. Companies with successful social presences are selective about which social channels they invest in, and they don’t try to be everywhere all at once. The planning phase of a gamification strategy should use the same selectivity. Start with the goals (which behaviors do you want to motivate?) before the tools (which game mechanics should you implement?), and craft your gamification strategy only once you’ve answered both questions in that order.

Pitfall 2: Making it too easy

Completion is a powerful idea. People want to achieve it, and game mechanics can play on this desire. But by making it too easy to satisfy this desire, brands aren’t fully leveraging the power of completion. Video games get more challenging as players get closer to beating them. Finals are generally more difficult than entrance exams. The step before the completion of most goals is the most difficult to conquer. Humans are used to it, they expect it, and they’re motivated by it. Gamification needs to take this into account, making achievements progressively more difficult to unlock. As one of the panelists pointed out, the harder someone works for an achievement, the more satisfaction it provides and the likelier they are to share that achievement with the world. Early achievements and rewards should still be relatively easy to unlock so they trigger initial action, but they should become harder the nearer they are to end goals.

Pitfall 3: Putting lipstick on a pig

If there was one statement that got the most enthusiastic response from both panelists and attendees, it was Jason Keath’s: “Gamification is like marketing in general: It can’t ‘solve’ a bad product”.  The same is true of services, obviously. Game mechanics should be used to enrich a good experience, rather than to ease the pain of a bad one.  Employing them like a shiny veneer on rotting wood will do more harm than good, and it will also distract from addressing the issues head-on to make the product better. In short, don’t use gamification as lipstick on a pig.

Pitfall 4: Relying only on extrinsic motivators

Gamification normally relies on extrinsic motivators, like prizes, leaderboard positioning, badging, etc. Extrinsic motivation has genuine appeal, and can invite behaviors that benefit both brand and consumer. And yet, it’s not as powerful as intrinsic motivators, those internal drives for things like fulfillment, self-confidence, friendship and loyalty. So what is the relationship between game mechanics and intrinsic motivators? It’s difficult, if not impossible, to build a gamified experience that relies entirely on the intrinsic. But gamification that uses extrinsic motivators to build toward intrinsic satisfaction combines the best of both worlds.

A colleague of mine has a grandmother that plays Farmville for hours every day. Her most prized achievements are not high scores or rankings. They’re friendships that she has made with people all over the world. The extrinsic motivators in this case led her to a deeper, more fulfilling experience. They are milestones on the road to something greater—that’s the model for successful gamification.

What’s the best example of gamification you’ve seen? Leave a comment and let us know.


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