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Inspiring Customer Engagement through Gamification Dynamics

Barry Kirk, Vice President, Maritz Loyalty
Barry Kirk, Vice President, Maritz Loyalty

Barry Kirk, Vice President, Maritz Loyalty

Gamification – the application of game design to non-game experience – has been used in the marketing world for decades, albeit under different names. Marketers understand the major challenge of gaining consumers’ attention. Driving ongoing attention is an even bigger challenge. In their quest to crack the code on sustained customer engagement, consumer brands have been using game elements like points, tiers, and challenges for decades to give consumers a reason to engage with and repurchase from their brand.

Most often, these mechanics have been deployed through the framework of customer loyalty programs, particularly those used by airlines and hotel brands. These programs have proven extremely effective in driving increased purchase behaviors and customer retention. In fact, consumers have come to expect them from their favorite brands.  And although few marketers would likely identify loyalty programs as gamified shopping, they are actually some of the most long-standing and successful examples of gamification in the market today.

Avoiding a Common Gamification Misstep

So, loyalty programs can be a great source of inspiration for any gamification project, but only if you avoid one common design misstep. To do so, you must first understand the difference between game mechanics and game dynamics, since both must work in order to drive an effective gamified experience.

 Best practice gamification design starts with a serious consideration of your game dynamics, exploring which human drives will best connect with your experience 

Game Mechanics are the tactical building blocks of your gamified experience.  They are always visible to the customer and are used to construct new interaction points on top of your existing experience. Examples of common consumer game mechanics include: points, tiers, rewards, leader boards and challenges.

Game Dynamics are the emergent behaviors and emotions that arise from engaging in the gamified experience and interacting with the game mechanics. They are the core human psychological drivers that, when brought to life by the game mechanics, make the new experience so compelling.  Examples of consumer game dynamics include: surprise, progress, competition, collaboration and exploration.

Here’s the problem: The designers of gamified consumer experiences will immediately shift their focus on questions around game mechanics while ignoring game dynamics. What should we call our points and how many should we give out?  How many tiers do we include?  What rewards will we offer? What should our badges look like?  Yes, all are important questions. But without first defining what human experience you are seeking to bring to life through these mechanics, you run the risk of creating a series of pretty, but hollow interactions.

This is a misstep because it neglects to understand that “how does it feel?” is more foundational than “how does it work?” Game mechanics with no underlying psychological pull may drive an immediate burst of customer activity, but are often followed by an even steeper engagement decline – a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the “engagement cliff.”

Consumer Gamification Done Right

Best practice gamification design starts with a serious consideration of your game dynamics, exploring which human drives will best connect with your experience. Is your audience best suited for competition or collaboration? Is it for acquiring personal reward or for altruism? Or is it for random surprises, or predictable problem solving? Each choice will change the quality of experience, influence how your customer engages with that experience, and affect how they remember it later.

While determining your game dynamics, keep in mind that people are always driven by multiple motivators. Customers are far more complex than entries in your database. We’re all motivated differently, whether it’s by acquiring stuff or status, building relationships, competing against others or wanting to make an impact for the greater good. The trick is in determining what is most important to your customers, and designing your strategy around the related game dynamics. Only then will you want to add the game mechanics that will bring that strategy to life.

A great case study that effectively illustrates this approach is TOMS, the iconic brand whose “One for One” model provides one pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair purchased. TOMS passport rewards is a gamified loyalty program that lifts giving through the transactional “One for One” model to the next level. Game mechanics include “stamps” that customers can earn both for purchases as well as for sharing social data. Members can also experience “unlock” mechanics that provide access to status features, as well as the ability to redeem stamps for personal rewards or donate them to social causes. But these mechanics are in service to the foundational game dynamics of altruism and collaboration, both of which are reflective of the overall TOMS brand.

The passport rewards program works because its game dynamics first give the experience meaning and relevancy to TOMS’ customers, and then the game mechanics subsequently bring that experience to life in a fun and engaging way. Likewise, using game dynamics to first connect with your own customers at a human level will strengthen their relationship with your brand and drive retention. Establish that emotional foundation and you’ll be ready to select the best game mechanics to make that experience tangible and engaging.

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