What is… Gamification?

There’s been a lot of talk about the subject of Gamification recently; it’s the buzz topic in marketing and its impact will most likely grow over the next couple of years. But what is it? And what does it mean for marketers?

Gamification – it’s not making games

There’s a misconception that Gamification is all about making games. Let’s be clear: it isn’t. This is an oversimplification. We’re not trying to create the next Angry Birds for our clients, for a number of reasons. One, in a technical sense, it’s very difficult to do well. Two, actually creating a game around a brand isn’t simple. A good game would resonate with the brand’s identity and ethos. It’s much easier for a sports brand to create a game than a computer hardware brand. So, if it isn’t gaming, what is it?

Team Fortress 2 from Valve - achievements and rewards drive gamer loyalty

Gamification is the process of using gaming methodologies to create a connection to the user. When playing games, we are constantly rewarded for our participation. This can be through gaining achievements, opening up new areas or levels, or by achieving some sort of status. Here are some examples:

  1. Team Fortress 2 by Valve – in team-based first person shooting game you are awarded achievements for in-game actions. Reaching milestones for the number of opponents killed, or for capturing places on the map, are rewarded with a cheer and in-game fireworks above your character’s head. Your achievement is not just recorded on your record, but is broadcast to all the other players as well.
  2. Angry Birds by Rovio – this also utilises the achievements reward structure, but at its heart it is the episodes and levels that keep us hooked. The game is split into a number of themed episodes, each containing a number of levels. Completing a level opens up a new level, until we complete the episode and unlock the ending movie. We always feel the pull of ‘Just one more level’.
  3. Farmville by Zynga – this popular Facebook game uses statuses to differentiate players’ progress in the game. As the player moves through the game and gains experience points, their title changes. Starting off  as a simple ‘Field Hand’, they can make their way up to ‘Master of Pasture’ or ‘Lord of the Plough’. Your title is a direct indication of your status within the game, and a something that is aspirational.
Gamification works within games, but how does this translate onto non-gaming platforms, especially those for marketing?

Gamification for the masses

There are some great examples of gamification being used on non-gaming platforms. The most well-known exponent of which is:


Foursquare has made strides lately to widen its offering, but initially its appeal was mostly reliant on it game-based mechanics. The aim of Foursquare is to reward consumer loyalty with location-specific deals and discounts, strengthening the bond between the purchase and the brand. They use gamification to enhance that experience and drive user behaviour. Let’s see how it works.
Users on Foursquare check-in  to their current locations using an application on their mobile phone, leaving an optional comment at the same time. A location can be anything from a coffee shop to a workplace, a shop to a sports stadium. This action has a number of effects:
  1. The user builds up check-ins at the location. The user with the most check-ins becomes ‘Mayor’ of the location
  2. The user gains achievements based upon the location they are checking into and the number of check-ins they have made in total. i.e. they receive the ‘Newbie’ badge for their first check-in, the ‘I’m on a boat’ achievement if they check-in whilst over water, and the ‘Local’ achievement for checking-in at the same place three times within a week.
These rewards create a strong connection with the user, as they strive to gain them. The ‘Local’ check in above is particularly powerful for local businesses, as the need to gain the achievement directly ties the user to their business.
Here’s Katie Colbourne, a friend and ex-work colleague of mine, using Foursquare, thanks to Katie for her permission to use these tweets.

In the first tweet, Katie checks-in at her workplace, and by doing so becomes the Mayor of that location (the second tweet). We can see here that the gaming behaviour – the ability to create ‘feel good’ moments through a rewards-based system –  has translated directly into user action. This, along with the added real-world achievements such as ‘free coffee for the Mayor of Coffee & Co.’ , provide can create motivation and loyalty within consumers in a way that group-buying platforms cannot.

As a marketer, can I use this?

Absolutely. Good marketing brings consumers closer to the brand, generating advocates and ultimately sales. Gamification creates the ‘stickiness’ between the two, and can be used within marketing practice. There are two approaches that can be taken:

1. Apply these ideas to your own product or service

This is the more involved approach, but can be extremely rewarding. Marketing Tech Blog provides some good tips on how to create a gamification strategy for your site or application. In essence, this consists of creating a series of goals (CTAs) for your user and then providing a series of actions to attain that goal, awarding points and achievements along the way, and always tracking their progress.

2. Use existing ‘sticky’ products in your campaigns

Foursquare can drive consumers to purchase using gamification techniques

This is the easiest approach. Going back to Foursquare, we can see that brands are leveraging their userbase and rewards system to their advantage. Brands can now create their own pages on Foursquare and create brand badges which users can earn. Macy’s, CNN, and Toys ‘r’ us have all used this in their marketing campaigns.

As well as the introduction of some sponsored badges, their is also the simple process of linking reward to action, as discussed earlier i.e. if you are the Mayor of my shop, I’ll give you a free coffee every day.

Where can I find out more? What are my next steps?

There’s a full explanation of gamification at Wikipedia, along with a selection of supporting articles. For those interested in using gamification techniques within their products, sites or applications, please feel free to contact me.

Facebook ‘Likes’ – a license to be pushy

So the new currency for the web is Facebook ‘Likes’. It seems as if brands and services are falling over themselves to get people to like them as if their lives – and livelihood – depended upon it.

But that’s no excuse to abandon the tried and trusted rules of engagement with your consumers.

Still, that’s what seems to be happening. Brands are demanding that you like them for no other reason than they are a ‘brand’. I thought the whole point was that you earned a friendship?

Dale Carnegie, author of ‘How to win friends and influence people‘, wrote the following back in 1936:

You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.

How relevant is that quote a full 75 years later?

I like CrazyBuzz! Not.

Today, a friend on Facebook shared a video on his wall: “Ronaldinho humiliates his teammate during warming up!” Being a football fan, I clicked through, hoping to see some piece of magical, mind-bogglingly good skill. Instead, I was greeted with this.

CrazyBuzz - Like this video
CrazyBuzz - Like this video. Errr, no thanks...

Excuse me? What? You want me to like you, even though this is the first time I’ve been to your site and I’ve never viewed any of your content? This is just wrong. Social Media doesn’t work this way and it constantly amazes me that people haven’t got to grips with this.

And this isn’t the only time I’ve experienced this. A few days ago I was contacted by a a well-known agency network – I won’t mention them by name in this case – who wanted me to like their new Facebook page. Again, there was no attempt to tell me why I should do this, or any invitation to sample the page to see if I thought it was of value to me. Instead they started their email by giving me instructions of how to create a Facebook account and ‘like’ their page. It’s a clumsy and heavy-handed approach, and could do real damage to the brand’s perception.

Changing our approach

Yes, there are precedents in Marketing practice. The tried and trusted method of offering whitepapers and other resources in return for supplying your details is still used today. But in a content-led web, the effectiveness of these ploys is questionable. It takes content with a high perceived value to generate the response, and even then we (as marketers) tend to offer freely available content prior to this point. In a digital world where Social Media is growing ever more dominant, organisations must adapt their approaches to be more sensitive to the needs of the consumer. They are now in charge of the conversation, and to earn their trust and their support you have to make it worth their while. Going back to Dale Carnegie, the way to gain ‘Likes’ is to show interest in them through providing meaningful and useful content.

Following my experience with Scribd, I had hoped that I’d be spared this kind of thing for a while, but it seems not. We still have a long way to go, and I’m sure there will be many mistakes along the way. But they are avoidable mistakes and some simple preparation and reading will arm organisations against them. After all, it’s not as if you need an expert…

Have you had any similar experiences? I’d be interested in hearing about them.

RE: The Walking Dead – A call to Frank Darabont

This is a call out to Frank Darabont, a personal plea from me to him.

The first season of The Walking Dead came to a conclusion on UK terrestrial TV a few weeks back. Sitting back now, I can honestly say I enjoyed it; it was entertaining. But here’s the plea: Frank, please, MORE ZOMBIES!

The cast of the Walking Dead - Season 1

I don’t say this because I am a fan of gore and viscera (although a disclosure: I am).

I’m not saying this because I’m some sort of horror genre fascist that only believes there is one true way to make a zombie movie (or mini-series in this case).

I’m saying this because, if you don’t have enough Zombies, it simply doesn’t work. Zombies aren’t like other screen monsters.

Vampires have strength, charm and intelligence. Werewolves have an unstoppable hunger and rage. Alien’s aliens are streamlined assassins. Alone, any one of these is a reason to be scared.

Zombies aren’t all powerful, on their own they’re not even particularly menacing. They simply shuffle around moaning until they rot and fall to pieces.

But, get a whole bunch of them together in a confined space and suddenly they are another matter altogether. It’s no surprise that the the two best scenes in The Walking Dead are those where we had a horde of the undead descending upon our survivors. In episode 1 our hero is riding through a deserted Atlanta, Georgia, on a horse he has appropriated from a nearby farm, when he rounds a corner to find himself facing row upon row of zombies. They turn and advance on him as a pack, desperate for flesh, eventually surrounding him whilst he hides underneath a tank. He escapes, but only just. I won’t tell you what happens to the horse, but I think you can guess. A few episodes later, the survivors are attacked in their camp with predictably gory results.

Walking Dead - Rick and his horse get a surprise in Atlanta

Why are these the best scenes from the series? Because implied threat spills over into actual violence, reminding you that these people are living in constant danger.

Zombie movies are rarely about the zombies themselves, they are usually human stories – love, loss, treachery, betrayal, hope, redemption. The zombies are the backdrop, the ever-present threat that pushes the intensity of these stories up an extra notch, that take them out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. Shaun of the Dead is a romantic comedy, with zombies – what does it take to make you realise how much you love someone? Day of the Dead is about the conflict between science and violence, with zombies – it asks how should we solve our problems and which is the better route forward. And Land of the Dead is a story of class struggle, with Zombies.

The Walking Dead has the cast and the characters to generate enough storylines, but it also needs to remind us that they are not living in the safe, familiar world we are used to if it is to keep our attention.

So for that reason, for Season 2, please, MORE ZOMBIES!

Google +1 and Facebook Like – two sides of the same coin?

Yesterday, Google launched its +1 button, an attempt to make search more social by using your friend’s recommendations to influence and enhance search results. At a basic level, the +1 button allows you to ‘+1’ information available on the web, indicating that you have found it useful in some way and that you recommend it to others.

How much this will affect search results remains to be seen. I must admit to being vaguely sceptical about its effectiveness. After all, there are billions of pages on the web and the chances of your friends +1’ing the same information you then discover via a search seems a little small. Of course, this is a slight simplification, +1 results will be also be used to give context to the popularity of a page – a more human Google PageRank. But then this is no longer your friend’s recommendation, but the wisdom of the crowds. Will it have the same effect? Possibly not.

Google +1 might be likened to the Facebook ‘Like’button; on the surface it seems to perform the same function. But, no, it’s not the same. And the reasons why provide illumination on the challenges that Google faces.

I’m sure most of us are familiar with the phrase ‘go where the fishes are’. On the whole, our friends don’t exist in Google, they exist in Facebook. Where as Facebook is a destination, Google is the map. Clicking a Facebook ‘Like’ button shares your preferences with a captive audience in a central place, encouraging comments, and building conversations and engagement.  +1’ing a page puts your preferences out in the ether, waiting to be discovered. Oh, and only if you have a ‘standard’ Google account; Google Apps users, you’ll just have to wait until Google Profiles works with Google Apps. For all the traffic and advertising revenue Google generates, it doesn’t have the close relationship with its audience that Facebook does, and in the end it may cost them dear.

Google’s ex-CEO, Eric Schmidt, admitted on stage at All Things Digital’s conference that Google had failed on social:

[Schmidt] repeatedly fell on his sword about missing the social/ identity revolution. He said four years ago he wrote memos about it, but did nothing about the memos he wrote. “I clearly knew I had to do something and I failed to do it,” he said. When asked why he responeded he was “busy, but the CEO should take responsibility and I screwed up.”

+1 is part of the long journey back towards social for Google, but the question has to be: ‘Is too little too late?’

Scribd – the wrong way to use Facebook personalisation

Scribd – Where the World Comes to Read

Scribd is the world’s largest social reading and publishing company. We’ve made it easy to share and discover entertaining, informative and original written content across the web and mobile devices. Our vision is to liberate the written word, to connect people with the information and ideas that matter most to them.

Or, alternatively:

Scribd – Where the World Comes to Look at Your Facebook Data.

Just a few weeks ago I wrote a post about how data was the future – and the past – of the internet, and how it could be used to really improve the user experience. Sods law states that just days later I’m faced with an example of how to use it to destroy the user experience.

I read articles every day, everything from white papers to blogs to news stories. It was only a matter of time until the document I wanted to read was hosted on Scribd. I don’t have a problem with that, and initially it all seemed pretty good. Yes, I needed to log in to get hold of the document, but Facebook Connect was available and that should have eased the process. All cool so far.

It was here that things seemed to take a stroll downhill.

First, there was the odd policy of having to upload a document before I could download a document from the site. At this point I didn’t have anything ready to share, so I declined and decided to read the document online instead. A bit like SlideShare. Odd, usually you would give users an opportunity to try a service before deciding to participate in it, but not a problem.

Scribd – I get a few emails

Then came the emails. 9 emails. All telling me that I was being followed by someone. Impressive I thought… for approximately two seconds. My next thought was ‘unlikely’. Unlikely that two of my Facebook friends happened to be online at the same time and had both seen me join the service. My spider-senses were tingling.

An hour later they were deafening. Especially as my wife was following me on Scribd. She is on Facebook, she also writes a blog, but she most definitely wasn’t on Scribd. Being inquisitive, I clicked to view her profile. Apparently she joined in January 2011 – before I did.

Scribd – Julie’s ‘profile’ – note the joining date

So not only is Scribd grabbing my friend’s information from my profile, its also creating accounts ready for them. It’s just plain wrong. That’s their data, not mine, and they haven’t given permission for Scribd to hold their data; I’ve given Scribd permission to hold and use mine. And yes, I do see their name and picture being used in conjunction with an account as being a breach of that trust. They are associating their service with someone who they don’t know and have not had any interactions with.

And at no point have I had the option to opt-out of this happening.

Being kind, very kind, I can see a reason why they might act this way. After all, if you’re a Facebook Partner for the Personalisation product, you want things to look good. But if your service only has a small user base then the chance of a group of people you know stumbling across your account  – or even more unlikely, a group of people you don’t know stumbling across your account – and choosing to follow you, is very small. I can imagine the product brainstorming meeting that morning: “Hey, I’ve got a great idea, let’s just create a load of accounts every time someone logs in using Facebook! Brilliant! That’s thinking out of the box!”. Unfortunately, yes, it is out of the box, and for all the wrong reasons.

I’m not the only one who has had a similar reaction to this behaviour. Rohit Mishra made similar points in his blog post in February; although he found out what was happening in a different way. They’ve also got called out in Wired last September. You would have thought that they had learned their lesson by now, but obviously not.

Data sharing – executed correctly – has the ability to create immersive and rewarding social experiences. I think we should all take a look at Scribd so we know exactly how not to do it.

**** UPDATE 29th September 2011 ****

It was brought to my attention by a tweet from Laurence Buchanan (below) that Scribd isn’t the only site in Facebook’s Instant Personalisation program. Rotten Tomatoes also takes the same approach. You can find out more at Techcrunch about the initial partnership.

To check the veracity of the claims, I visited the Rotten Tomatoes site. Without logging in or creating an account (this will become important in a moment) I did see my friends movie likes and dislikes. Imagine my surprise when, upon visiting the application settings page in Facebook, I was greeted with the following.

Rotten Tomatoes application setting in Facebook

I really don’t remember giving them permission to do anything…

If you want to read more about this, I’ve looked further into Facebook Instant Personalisation here.