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The Problem With Gamification

  |  December 19, 2011   |  Comments

Before you develop a social loyalty program, ask these questions.

It's going to happen sooner or later…your client sidles up to you and asks you the golden question: "What are we doing about gamification?" Sure, you've heard all the great things about gamification, about how adding a few badges and levels to your campaign will instantly increase customer engagement and make instant followers of your brand, and your client believes that it will bring in the much needed key performance indicators to show off during their critical annual business review.

If only.

Now, I'm not an expert on this subject matter, but it seems to me that there is increasing hype around gamification and how it might be the silver bullet to help customer engagement and increase brand loyalty. But the fact is, the act of infusing game mechanics into a non-game scenario is not an easy task, and here is why.

Gamification Tools Are Just That…Tools

The first pitfall that people will fall into is the illusion that to "gamify" a campaign or a site, all you have to do is to assign points to actions that you want the customer to undertake, slap on a few badges and a leader board and finally watch in glee while the numbers crank up. This is compounded by the fact that there is now a plethora of platforms and tools out there that are offering solutions and engines that will provide your site with exactly those rewards; examples of which include Bunchball, Badgeville, BigDoor, PunchTab, FanGager, and many more.

These tools and platforms, by and large, offer platforms and services to help you add rewards to your sites by offering users reward points, leader boards, and badges for tasks accomplished on the site. However, the concept of transforming a product into a game runs much deeper than that in my mind.

Taking a Step Back

Now, these tools and platforms are crucial, but one would need to take a step further back first to explore why gamification is supposed to work in the first place. Riding on the coattails of social media and the successes of gaming companies like Zynga and the like, people started realizing that if you took a non-gaming concept (like a brand), and started rewarding actions in both tangible and intangible ways -customers would receive incentives to engage more with your brand.

It's a simple concept at its core but, in my opinion, it is flawed.

One, it falls into a classic marketer trap - what I like to call the "dangle-a-carrot" hole where every campaign is led by incentives and not the brand or the messaging just to drive numbers and nothing else (an especially exacerbated situation nowadays with the increasing focus on short-term ROI). This does nothing for the brand and is at its worst an unsustainable metrics booster and not much else.

Two, as adoption of cookie-cutter gamification increases, fatigue sets in. As consumers are faced with the disparate badges and rewards from all the brands that they are exposed to, novelty will wear off and along with it their interest as "gaming" will increasingly become a chore. In fact, I do believe we are already at the cusp of this as you see Foursquare, a pioneer of sorts in gamification, constantly revamping and improving its badging system to keep it from malaise.

So What's the Problem?

And I think that's the point. What is the problem that you are trying to solve? And how do you approach it. To be clear, I am not a skeptic of gamification – but I feel that one has to ask a few questions before rushing headlong to gamify everything you see.

Is your brand or product already fundamentally strong enough for consumers to want to interact with it? If so, gamification is a wonderful way to provide more avenues for your loyal and interested customers to further engage with you. If not, don't waste your time and money – you have a much bigger problem that gamification will not be able to solve for you.

The act of playing a game and investing time into earning stuff on your site or with your brand is just that on a consumer's part – an investment. And even if you have built the most wonderful, innovative mechanics around your brand for people willing to do that – they would be investing in your game, not your brand.

The next question to ask yourself: Are you willing to go beyond the simplest mechanics of badging and rewards, and actually invest in the long term? Because, short campaigns aside, you will have to do that like it or not. It is a dedicated investment in terms of thinking, imagining and management just to keep your "gamers" enthused and interested in the long term.

Yes, gamification is a good solid concept (although I can't bring myself to say that it's new), but approaching it with a one-size-fits-all solution is a mistake. Unfortunately, the gamification or social loyalty industry looks like it's headed that way, so tread carefully.

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Adrian Lee

Adrian is the chief of digital marketing and technology in Yolk, a Grey Group company, one of Asia's leading interactive and digital media agencies with over 40 employees headquartered in Singapore. Adrian joined Yolk in 2005 and helped shape the vision towards a company where creative and technology is inexplicably linked to serve the higher purpose of marketing. With this approach, Yolk managed to secure regional accounts such as Microsoft, Cibavision, and Canon. Adrian has 12 years of experience in the digital industry with parts of those years spent in Microsoft being in charge of MSN Search, Portal, and advertising platforms, overseeing the expansion of MSN portal from a single market (Singapore) to five markets across Southeast Asia, part of the team that piloted Microsoft adCentre in Singapore and won "Global Product Manager of the Year" at Microsoft in 2004. His technological background is well complemented with his five years experience in advertising and publishing industry. Technology solutions, which Adrian creates, always serve the purpose of his clients in bridging the latest technologies with marketing strategies to boost their campaigns to their fullest potential. When not knee deep in technology, he produces electronic music under various monikers.

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