There’s no denying it. Gamification is hot. We talked recently with Gabe Zichermann, entrepreneur and author of “Game-Based Marketing,” about how fun and gaming techniques are permeating every aspect of marketing, and what it means for measurement.

How do you define gamification?

Gamification is the process of using game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems. Many gamified systems are designed like updated loyalty programs.

How is gamification changing marketing?


Gamification is rewriting economics for marketing, both in terms of customer acquisition and in terms of loyalty programming. Gamification at its core is a process, and it’s different for everybody.

But it’s not like some magic guy behind a curtain who waves this wand and makes everything more fun. It’s incremental. It’s perpetual.

How do you identify the right carrot?

It’s no longer enough to know just your customer’s purchase motivation. You need to know what drives them to invest, engage, and succeed. Then reward early. Reward often. Try not to be negative.

I think the main metric consumers are looking for is fun and engagement.  If we believe consumers care about having fun as a natural metric, consider this: 

What was once an advantage -- clarity, simplicity, purpose -- could be a disadvantage. It means we need a new metric for engagement that gets at how much people care.

What do you recommend?

A number of us involved in gamification have come up with what we call the E-Score.  These are the metrics that go into the score:  

  • Recency – How long ago did they visit?
  • Frequency – How often did they come back?
  • Duration – How long did they stay?
  • Virality – How many people have they told about you?
  • Rating – What did they explicitly say when asked about you?

In an ideal world, this is all tied into CRM. This is the future. Ad platforms will monetize engagement, not just click-throughs. Lifecycle tracking of the user along the engagement meter involves better revenues for everyone.

Getting someone to like a product is different from getting someone to click on an ad or to like a Facebook fan page or to register. Buying a product is at the very end of the funnel. Long-term engagement is monetizing by the brand and the property.

You've repeatedly said fun is the future. What do you mean by that?

People are now making buying decisions based on how resounding the fun and pleasure is rather than any features and benefits. An iPhone is the glaring example. It’s not selling on features or benefits. None of that. It’s a pleasure and status-driven sale. As gamification becomes more prevalent, it will drive sales.

We can merge fun and work by using game-thinking. Status is the most important motivator. So game mechanics should be on the outside. Badges and the like.

How do you make it sustainable?

Increasingly the concept of compulsory and optional choices replaces work and fun. Once we get into optional time, disposable time, users are naturally going to gravitate to the experience that is most rewarding. By definition, games have a big advantage over just about anything else you’re creating.

Games are the only force in the universe that can get people to take actions that are against their self-interest, but in a predictable way.

Will there be gamification fatigue?

Yes. Do we need to worry about that in the next three or four years? No. If you’re inside the bubble, you may say everything is already gamified. But we have four or five years to go before that. It depends on the product.

Give me an unusual example of gamification in action

Target has had some success using a social game for its cashiers. The way it works is that for everyone who comes to the register, it can calculate an idea of how long it should take to complete the transaction.

The computer is keeping score and sharing with the cashier a little bit of feedback, a subtle way of giving cues on whether you’re doing things right or not.

Meanwhile, the managers see a complete dashboard of their cashier’s performance. What Target has learned is that the game feedback is partially changing their employees’ behavior and getting them in the optimal timing zone without hitting them over the head with it.

Just how do you figure out the right reward?

That’s the most insightful question. Marketing has always been about a certain degree of persuasion and motivation, and a degree of manipulation. Games do that most effectively.

Game designs are all about:

  •  Creating Pleasure.
  •  Giving Rewards.
  •  Design over Time. 

There is a certain hierarchy of rewards, "SAPS": (Status, access, power, stuff). Status is what users want the most and stuff is what they want the least. It’s not just about the lazy marketers who give discounts.

People only like that for as long as it takes to get it and redeem it, then move on with their lives. It does nothing for your brand long-term.

I wonder what Groupon is doing to marketing. It conditions you to expect a discount. By contrast, think about a Neiman-Marcus and its point system. They’ve known all along it’s about status and access.

Just for fun, what’s your favorite video game?

Civilization. I’ve spent a year’s worth of my life on it. I also like Angry Birds and Zombie.

Why Civilization? It’s a fun strategy game through simulation. Based on the real history of humanity. It made the whole experience more engaging. The game doesn’t have anything to do with history. But it uses real history.

Where will Zynga be in five years?

It is a fait accompli that Zynga will be the biggest gaming company in the world. Social games return us to the place games were before the video game industry. The video game industry was an anomaly.

We’ve been playing games forever, but the whole model of buying a $50 game to play on a machine you put in your house is dead.

What’s around the corner?

HR is the next big frontier of gamification. Sales teams have been using leaderboards forever. For HR, games can be used for performance reviews.

Expose the XP system. Expose the actual process for getting a raise, and make an XP bar that everyone can see. Here’s your XP, here’s the distance to your next raise. At least demarcate the next level.

Is it time to introduce the role of Chief Gamification Officer?

Definitely there’s a role for a CEO, a Chief Engagement Officer. It’s a sort of marketing function and it represents the motivation and emotional state of the consumer. Part game design. Part psychology. Part marketing.

I think every corporation will have a chief engagement officer whose job is to focus on nothing but customer engagement as their full-time gig. It’s a very specialized position.

Laurie Petersen

Published 16 March, 2011 by Laurie Petersen

Laurie Petersen is Principal at LP Strategic Communications and a contributor to Econsultancy. Follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (2)


Sid Meier

Respect to anyone who lists Civilization as their top game ever. Civ IV is probably the greatest video game ever made - unendingly replayable, never gets old.

over 7 years ago


Vincent van Leeuwen

Cool article. Strongly believe in the power of game mechanics to influence everyday life!

Although it might sound unrealistic, I think Gamification can also perfectly be used by banks to stimulate savings by their clients. No flat interest rate for every extra dollar, but bonuses when you reach certain thresholds! (achievements, combos)

over 7 years ago

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