No matter what you consider to be the buzzword of 2010, “gamification” will likely be a contender for 2011. Wikipedia says it’s the use of “game play mechanics” for consumer-oriented web sites to encourage people to perform chores they ordinarily consider boring, such as completing surveys or shopping.

Gamification’s usefulness makes sense in the context of two related theories. “Fun theory” is the idea that it’s easiest to get people to behave a certain way when you make the desired behavior fun – like constructing a giant piano to encourage people to take the stairs. The “participation chain” is a strategy devised by our advisors, former Bazaarvoice CMO Sam Decker and new media visionary Ze Frank. The strategy is to build small consumer interactions in a logical progression, continuously increasing engagement and maximizing customer lifetime value.

Recognizing these driving psychological strategies, the best practices for gamification are largely similar to the practices we use to help our clients build lasting, engaging customer relationships. Here are a few tips for businesses to follow in “gamifying” the customer experience.

Remove all hesitation from initial interaction

The simplest act of participation is the initial push that gets the ball rolling. In one study, a telemarketer nearly doubled their success rate just by asking, “How are you feeling today?” The prospect’s initial response, however basic (“fine” or “good”), sparked more interaction. Make initial interaction as hesitation-free for users as possible. Allow them to like a product or vote on the helpfulness of a review without providing personal information.

That tiny interaction gets the ball rolling, not just for that user, but for others who see the vote as well. Think about the common silence when a presenter asks, “Any questions?” Once one person asks theirs, many more hands shoot up. Once one user contributes on your site, there is substantially less social risk for others to contribute as well.

Ramp up engagement quickly with simple rewards

When you first start playing Foursquare, it’s easy to earn ten badges – meaningless outside the game – in just a few days, providing a reason to check in everywhere you go. As it slowly becomes harder to earn badges, checking in has (hopefully) become habit. Brands can similarly make interaction a habit for their customers. Small rewards like discounts, unexpected upgrades like free shipping, or achievement badges like “Top Contributor” can encourage contribution. Even small, meaningless rewards can encourage simple behavior. Users who tweeted the hashtag “#SuperBowl” on Super Bowl Sunday earned a small football icon on their tweet.

Show users their progress, and never leave them at a dead end

Foursquare displays empty slots for badges you can earn, giving users a visual representation of progress and future rewards. LinkedIn similarly uses a progress bar, with steps users can take to complete their profile. Illustrate progress to encourage customer behavior, like linking their Facebook account to your ecommerce site, or completing steps toward a frequent shopper award.

If a user has to ask, “Now what?” you’re inviting them to get bored and leave. Thank you pages and emails are the most common dead end. Whether you’re thanking the user for buying, for submitting a review, or whatever else, they just engaged with your brand. The ball is rolling – this is not the time to stop pushing! Use thank you pages as a link to the next logical step in your participation chain – for example, asking reviewers of a product to answer shopper questions about it.

Add value by being fun, useful, or interesting

Words like “game” and “fun” give marketers a narrow perception of gamification. It’s not necessarily about making interaction fun, but rather enjoyable and rewarding to the user. Be conversational about topics customers care about, educational about relevant news, a facilitator for customer communities around shared interests, entertaining through original branded content, useful in providing recipes or how-to’s – all of these tactics add value for the user. Be a brand your customers want to engage with, not an interruption they’re forced to tolerate.

Create a network effect through competitive or collaborative engagement

Network effect exists when the network becomes more powerful or useful as more users join. As a result, users in communities with network effect are inclined to invite others. This is how social networks like Facebook and group buying sites like Groupon grow so exponentially – users invite their friends in order to make their own experience more valuable. Challenges between users create a network effect, as users invite their friends to play the game. Collaborative communities, like customer Q&A, also have a network effect – users push their question to social networks to find answers more quickly, inviting friends back to your ecommerce site.

Reward active contributors to keep them participating and create aspiration

Leaderboards, virtual currency, and badges like “Top Contributor” or “Expert” encourage active users to keep participating, and create a draw for casual users to become more active. Our client Urban Outfitters features their top reviewers in marketing campaigns, and client Free People saw a 93% increase in review volume after featuring top reviewers in an email. On Facebook and Twitter, frame sales or coupons as rewards for your customers who are already participating, not as a draw for more fans, to make your followers feel appreciated rather than marketed to.

The point is, don’t get distracted by a shiny buzzword like “gamification,” but don’t dismiss it for being a buzzword, either. It’s not about turning your ecommerce site into a video game. It’s about recognizing the driving psychological forces that make games engaging, and applying them in appropriate ways for your brand.

7 Responses to “Gamification 101 – building a participation chain that keeps customers engaged”

  1. Hi Andi, good point. Recognition goes past a one-time gift to build an ongoing reason to contribute. Thanks for reading!

  2. Great post indeed! We also learned the people love to be rewarded with power and status, like being a Top Influencer of a group, above freebies, like getting a free pen or candy.

  3. Anonymous

    The app I work for does all that and makes it completely turnkey- leaderboards, Top Ambassadors, tracks everything for you and you don’t have to keep up with trends because the guests can use their favorite platforms. Some of our events have sold out in three days because they went viral on the web… we had to create a waitlisting feature to handle the demand.

    Plus social connection and a really solid management and registration tool.

    We also have a really cool events & technology blog. Always looking for new interviews and interesting stories about events!

  4. Really great post Tara and a lot of great information anyone can start using today to get their user base engaging.

  5. Great recommendations for anyone looking to start gamifying their business. I really liked your last statement because it is so true. The hype is here for a reason, but don’t miss out on doing it right.

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