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Is gamification the future of marketing?

If you’re reading this right now, there’s a chance you might wake up in a few years with a new job title: Chief Engagement Officer.

If you’re wondering what that means, I highly recommend checking out Gabe Zichermann’s work.

I had the pleasure of catching Zichermann’s session “The Future of Marketing is Gamification” at mesh marketing a few weeks ago. He gave a similar presentation at a Google Tech Talk in October (video here) if you’re interested in seeing it for yourself.

He set up his discussion by talking about the proliferation of games with premises that don’t, at first, seem like fun (e.g. diapering a baby, farming, waiting tables) but that are huge game successes. Ever since, I can’t help wondering what a gamified version of my life might look like – even with all the dull, tedious things I have to do…


I love the idea that all of the things we ‘have to’ do can actually be fun.

It immediately made me think of my experience with using Freshbooks, a cloud-based invoicing solution for freelancers and small businesses. The task of invoicing meets the criteria of dull and tedious in my world and until Freshbooks came along I hated tracking my time and sending out bills. Their system congratulates you on entering time (everyone needs a little encouragement) and they have a way to track your billing stats against industry averages. This feature even has a lightweight gaming function that generates ‘report card banners’ for your website based on your performance in relation to peers in your industry. Overall, the value-adds of excellent customer service and fun, surprising touches make the software a pleasure to use.

Pleasure is the new P.

Zichermann suggests that we add ‘Pleasure’ to the 5 P’s of marketing after Product, Price, Place, Promotion and People (or Positioning, depending on who you ask). And why shouldn’t pleasure be an extension of great customer experiences? For now, great user experience means: It works and it’s easy to use. It meets my needs. I think that in the near future, great user experience will also mean: It’s fun. Even the most dull and tedious things should be fun to take care of. And when you’re rewarded for doing things that you have to do anyway, you’ll do them more often. With gusto.

But what makes things fun? Just because something was fun once doesn’t mean customers will return again and again.

Gamification is like a loyalty program but it’s not about stuff. It’s about status.

Loyalty programs reward customers for their loyal buying behaviour. Generally, they reward customers with ‘stuff-based benefits’ – points, discounts, special offers. Using the SAPS acronym, Zichermann explains that people value status above stuff in this order:

S – Status

A – Access

P – Power

S – Stuff

This might seem counterintuitive but Zichermann makes sense of it this way: When you architect a ‘player journey’ to reward people with status, access and power – you create meaning inside of the mechanics. It becomes more about your identity within the interaction and less about receiving a Pavlovian reward for ‘checking in’ or harvesting your crops.

For example, one of the big problems that I have with foursquare is that there is no record of my past mayorships. That burns. I want the recognition and some historical identity attached to my profile, not the free coffee (not that that ever happened either). Long-term result? My level of engagement has dropped dramatically. And why can’t I see how ‘close’ I am to stealing a mayorship back from the lying/cheating/fake ‘regular’ that currently holds the title?

Leaderboard design is a critical part of the game.

One thing that is in the Google Tech Talk that Zichermann didn’t have time to talk about at Mesh was how the design of leaderboards has changed since the arcades of the 1980s (which you can find at around the 30-minute mark). Good ones are more social and relative now – the player sits in the middle of the leaderboard and shows friends above and below them so that the top players’ scores don’t act as a disincentive to participate. Unless the user is actually in the Top 20. Then you show them the real leaderboard like an old Pac Man game.

Game over. Press start.

I think it’s important that gamification is not seen as a trivialization or cheapening of customer interaction. If, as Zichermann supposes, a modern Shakespeare would claim that, “All the world’s a game,” then it might be time for us to collectively revisit what we mean by ‘game’ and extract the concept of ‘fun’ from the pastimes of our youth. If sending out invoices can be fun, why can’t your customer interactions be fun? With a few exceptions I think it would be a mistake to brush off the concept no matter what business you’re in.

Customer experiences – even the most mundane – can be more rewarding and pleasurable (for all involved) if you think differently about your customers’ motivations. Help them do what they already want or need to do and if you can make it fun or pleasurable and social – even better.

Image courtesy of Activision’s Pitfall (1982) via grain edit.

Kyra Aylsworth More posts by Kyra Aylsworth