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The Rules of Gamification

Gaming is embedded in us as human beings. We’ve already seen the effects of applying game mechanics to individual marketing campaigns, to every loyalty program in existence, and to tons of Web sites where you might not think “game” at first glance. This is “gamification,” and to make it work, there needs to be a focus on the very human benefits that make games successful: challenge, recognition, tracking, competition and cooperation.

Human beings love games. If you look hard enough, you’ll find game dynamics in everything we do, from education to careers to relationships. We’re all about establishing rules, defining winners and losers, competing and cooperating. So while it’s no surprise we see all of these things in marketing campaigns, it’s also nothing new. For decades, loyalty campaigns that instill customer loyalty by awarding points and prizes have been a mainstay of establishing customer relationships. Now the rise of social media is bringing a different kind of gamesmanship to bear. Facebook is flooded with FarmVille and Mafia Wars achievement. Foursquare is turning everyone into the mayor of somewhere. And Twitter, though most are loath to admit it, is all about the accumulation of followers. Then there’s Klout, which has managed to make a game of all these games, awarding badges and small gifts to those who are best at playing the social game.

Brands want to play, too. And some are doing a good job of it. Pepsi, Starbucks, Hallmark and Nike are just a few examples of marketers who have gamified their customer experiences. “Gamification” — the application of gaming principles, mechanics or concepts to efforts that aren’t necessarily “games,” has everyone talking.

But games aren’t all fun and, um, games. While they might appear to be a safe way to earn engagement for your brand, they must be integrated in an authentic way in order for consumers to want to participate. When considering the prospect of a program using these principles, it’s important to focus on very human benefits that make games successful — challenge, recognition, tracking, competition and cooperation.

These five benefits are the lenses through which we’re approaching any gamification effort:

1. Challenge

As marketers, we’ve been taught to make communication frictionless, easy and direct. But for games, that’s a recipe for boring. The artful application of difficulty to games is what makes them fun, and there exists the same opportunity to create fun in marketing using this principle. Don’t be afraid to challenge your audience but, of course, that’s not the same as miring them in complexity.

2. Recognition

A lot of people go through life without being recognized very often — that’s one of the reasons we have birthdays and Facebook. Games can change that. They recognize achievement, scarcity and excellence in a context that matters to the player. Taking that understanding of context and what truly matters to a consumer creates a flood of creative marketing ideas. Badges, mayorships, little gifts — they can all go a long way to make your consumers feel special.

3. Tracking

The notion of the Quantified Self has taken deep root in our culture. We’re tracking more and more of our lives via sensors, apps and Web sites than ever before. Our workflows, diets and sleep schedules are all now quantifiable using the latest technology, but games have a long history of giving players feedback about their progress and when they’ll finally reach the end. It’s easier than ever before to harness data to enrich any experience and deepen the engagement one has with it, be it entertainment or marketing — or both. Using games can help you help your consumers better understand their performance and help them improve.

4. Competition

This is the most obvious lens to consider when applying game thinking, because games produce winners, losers and everything in between. The rub with marketing is making sure that the audience cares enough and that there are enough relevant rewards to warrant real competition.

5. Cooperation

Throw “teams” into a competition and all of a sudden everything is more intense. As much as people like to compete, they like to achieve things together even more, and social games have taught us lessons about that fact for several years now. Marketers offer things consumers want — making them participants in a gaming experience, and encouraging them to work together toward those wants can be a powerful motivator.

Together, these five lenses create some really interesting programs. We’re using them to bring lively connections to family dinners, create hunts across America for hidden prizes and power a Twitter-fueled race to the Super Bowl. Beyond marketing, businesses are using these lenses to aid them in everything from training to customer service to logistics.

Can gamification get in the way? Of course. But it can also be a profound tool in the marketer’s toolbox. Consider adding game design to the marketing skill set — and treat it like creativity, flexibility, tenacity and any other must-have in the marketing superpower set. Applying what we’ve learned from games to advertising creative, the tracking of marketing efforts and the brand itself is interesting. If it’s also fun, then it becomes very interesting.