Engaging Customers with Game Mechanics

Animal Kaiser @ Timezone
Everybody loves gaming!

The latest buzzword in marketing - especially in online circles - is gaming (or more accurately game mechanics). To some, it has become the new viral, overtaking videos as the holy grail of consumer engagement and interaction. Almost everybody online these days are raving about how game mechanics can change the future of company-customer interactions.

So what exactly is game mechanics all about? Well, according to this source:

“Game mechanics are rule based systems that facilitate and encourage a user to explore and learn the properties of their possibility space through the use of feedback mechanisms.”

Amy Jo Kim (courtesy of Shuffle Brain)

Hmmm... sounds too "cheem" (deep)? Perhaps a more useful way to describe it comes from Amy Jo Kim, who breaks down the participation process into five key points:

1. Earning points - or anything similar like credits, coupons, loyalty, chops, rankings. The use of leaderboards/flightboards are popular here as players can immediately see who is winning (and losing) in the game.

2. Collecting - can be virtual or physical goods such as affiliations to groups, "swords and shields", toys, books, a set of matching crockery etc

3. Feedback - so that players know how well or badly they are doing. Best if this can be provided in real-time

4. Taking turns - an important attribute that helps to develop relationships and build social capital. Allowing interaction is also key.

5. Customization - Anything that allows you to differentiate and tailor-make your profiles. Badges are quite popular here (I have a few on this blog), as well as other elements like design, personality attributes, and so on.

My friend and colleague Kevin Lim has a nice and entertaining presentation on Productive Games which further explains what this is about, peppered with lots of examples both virtual and physical:

View more presentations from Kevin Lim.
Naturally, game mechanics are already applied prodigiously in online and video gaming worlds. Common examples include social networking doyens like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, World of Warcraft (duh...it IS a game), Second Life, Slideshare, Youtube, and Flickr.

There are also physical examples as cited by Kevin, as well as those integrating both online and offline elements. Trendspotter Piers Fawkes has a nice list that you can find here. With the rise of mobile computing, almost every handphone can be a gaming device.

So how can one apply the theories of game mechanics in one's customer engagement activities? Well, consider the following from Mashable (with my own elaborations):

1. Start With Your Vision and Work Backwards

The first thing you need to do is define your end goal. What do you want to accomplish? What are the exact deliverables (followers, fans, visitors, ranking, traffic) that you want to achieve?

2. Make a List of Required User Actions

Next, you need to determine the specific user actions required to realize it. What behavior patterns would they need to adopt in order to sustain your business model? What are the actions that you need them to do and how does that add eventually to your bottomline?

3. Motivate the Most Important Behaviors

Driving any form of user behaviour, games can be used to drive almost any user outcome. Mashable cited Marc Metis, President of Digital Chocolate as saying that “Games have the potential to tap into the full range of human emotions and motivate a wide range of behaviors.”

Plan the games such that specific actions and behaviours are encouraged:

i) Mechanisms should be layered. The most successful games normally have different levels of gameplay, as well as both individual and communal activities. Think Pet Society, World of Warcraft, Farmville and so on.

ii) Pull the consumer toward the most critical behaviors with rewards. As earlier highlighted, this can be in the form of virtual rewards (credits, gold, points) or physical ones (redemption of goods and services).

iii) Mechanisms should be designed for flexibility and growth. Don't lock them into one form of gameplay but allow for modularity and expansion.

4. Evaluate and Adapt

Learn to listen and respond to what your users/game players are telling you by how they play. This requires a fair amount of nuancing and modification of the game play mechanism, rewards, or social dynamics as the activity progresses.

Can you achieve the game mechanic Zen? (courtesy of Mashable)

So what's my take on this?

Well, gaming in the business world isn't anything new. We have been using techniques such as FREE, loyalty points, membership rewards, lucky draws, refer-a-friends, and other similar mechanics to encourage greater spend, higher number of referrals, and increased profit per customer. However, these usually tend to be boring, uni-dimensional and lack the thrills of challenge, interactivity, community-building and sustainability.

Through applying the principles of game mechanics, one can make the experience more immersive than transactional while deepening engagement with one's customer. Embracing the principles of game mechanics require us to understand and consider elements of "play" from the perspective of the customer/user. Make it worth their time, effort, and emotional investment, and think beyond campaign-oriented short-term rewards.

Ultimately though, it is important to think about how implementing gaming elements help to contribute to one's customer equity - whether directly or indirectly so. Consider how relevant a particular game is to your brand positioning and values. While it is tempting to build a Facebook or Foursquare app - everybody's doing it anyway - evaluate whether they help to aid or aggravate your key objective.

Like in any marketing endeavour I suppose, the devil is in the details.

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