Gamification goes mainstream

Customer and employee engagement through game mechanics is the new battle cry.

Increased sales, increased participation, increased engagement. It doesn't sound like a game, but those are some of the goals, and reported achievements, of the new field of "gamification."

Gamification is the process of using game mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems, "taking the best ideas from games and applying them to fields where they are not usually used," explains Gabe Zichermann, a consultant in New York. "It produces a big bump in user engagement quickly and cheaply, relative to other methods. We are also making work more fun, which leads to more and better work done by happier employees," Zichermann adds.

The key phrase is game mechanics; no one is suggesting business software be turned into mythical quests where users slay colorful monsters with flaming swords. But even traditional companies may add some common gaming techniques to keep things interesting, sources agree. These include:

  • Points: Users get points for various achievements. Points can often be spent for prizes, which may be actual merchandise or services, or forms of status.
  • Leveling: Points become harder to get as the user accumulates them, or masters the system.
  • Badges: As with Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, badges become part of the identity of the user, and may appear on the user's "trophy page" or with any comments he or she may write.
  • Leader boards: The user can see where he or she ranks (in terms of points or other achievements). The board may show the top scorers, the user and the ones immediately above and below the user, or the entire field.
  • Community: This can involve collaboration tools, contests and posting comments or sharing content.

The gamification industry is booming. Wanda Meloni, founder and principal analyst at M2 Research in Encinitas, Calif., calculates that gamification industry revenue amounted to about $100 million in 2011, but she expects it to balloon to $1.6 billion in 2015.

"I don't know of any failures yet, but it is still pretty early," notes Meloni. "Companies are still trying to get to the point where they can measure the impact of games, and there may be some cold water then."

"The growth is enormous," agrees Johnny Miller, founder of Manumatix, a gamification vendor based in Redwood Shores, Calif. "It's amazing how everyone wants to gamify everything, from car makers to airlines to clothing vendors and even restaurant chains."

Rajat Paharia, chief product officer and founder of Bunchball -- a vendor based in San Jose, Calif., that claims to have invented the term gamification after the firm's founding in 2005 -- agrees. "People are not content to passively view content anymore; they expect to engage or participate."

There are two main varieties of gamification: customer-facing systems and employee-facing systems. The former are mostly for websites open to the public, while the latter are for employees of an enterprise.

For consumers

Gamification on consumer sites is typically intended to heighten user engagement, so customers will be more likely to come back. The Record Searchlight, a daily newspaper in Redding, Calif., turned to gamification in hopes of keeping readers by raising the level of discourse in the comments that readers can attach to a story, says Silas Lyons, the paper's editor. The company did this by using a badge system from Bunchball.

"Like many newspapers, we struggle with the comment area becoming a complete cesspool with some flashes of brilliance, but it is a point of high engagement with the users," Lyons explains. So the paper added an "Insightful" button next to the existing "Suggest Removal" button.

Readers who get at least three 'Insightful' votes on at least one of their comments receive a level-one badge, with higher-level badges for those whose get at least three votes on each of the ascending numbers of comments. These badges appear both on their trophy pages and on other comments they write, amounting to a reputation rating. Users also get badges for posting content and for reading certain sections, among other things.

After three months, "we saw a 10% increase in comment volume, and the time spent on site increased by about 25% per session," says Lyons. The number of comments that had to be removed also fell noticeably, he adds, despite the overall increase in the number of comments.

Another example is World Travel Holdings, a reseller of cruise vacations based in Wilmington, Mass., which turned to Manumatix for a system to reward customer loyalty. Registered users of the site get points for posting content related to vacation cruises, explains Willie Fernandez, vice president at World Travel Holdings. They can use those points for merchandise including hats, wallets and umbrellas, for free shore excursions on a cruise, or to enter drawings for electronic devices.

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