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I wrote this for a great site and colleague. The original post is available here at Gaming Business Review

We all have those words and phrases that make us cringe.  For me they span from ‘viral’ to ‘branded mobile app’ to ‘make it digital.’  So many terms in marketing and business really lose their meaning due to our oversaturation and misrepresentation of their meaning.  For most folks, we know a ‘viral video’ is not something you can sit in a conference room and plan.  You can’t schedule a ‘viral’ situation.  You can, however, create incredibly engaging content with a strategic plan that may, in the end, result in a lot of views, shares and comments.  But to truly get a branded content video to go ‘viral’ is like finding that last unicorn in its true form; it’s an urban legend.

Right now, a similarly intense discussion is going on around the term and definition of “Gamification.”  The origin of the word can be traced back to about 2007.  Some say that it really wasn’t birthed until Jesse Schell spoke at DICE.  However, I’m not here to split hairs over who coined it, who’s the expert, who’s for or against it, I’m here to speak on its behalf as a misunderstood and overly simplified methodology.

A lot of gamers and game industry professionals hate the term “Gamification” and I don’t blame them!  It’s often used (and abused) by advertisers, PR agencies, and marketers in a way that they feel insults their industry’s blend of art and science and reduces it to a marketing catchphrase.  Rather than getting defensive about semantics, however, the games industry should take a step back and realize their opportunity (read: make money) to help brands and marketers leverage the psychology that makes their industry so successful and unique.  People play games for hours, and often replay the same game numerous times to see a different outcome or earn a different achievement.  Games like Farmville and Mafia Wars, despite their visual limitations, are revolutionary in the ways that they have discovered to tap into human psychological drivers.  Marketers and brands seek to replicate this phenomenon, but what they need to realize is that it’s much more complex than simply giving a ‘badge’ or incentivizing an action.

What the heck am I saying?  Basically the brand and business landscape has a lot of marketers and businesses looking for the next ‘thing’ to help engagement, socialize their content, build brand loyalty, lift KPI’s, etc, etc.  Social media and social media marketing are currently the newest crazes to hit the industry and be seen as the best new marketing approaches to solving business and marketing problems.  Gamification is often positioned to be something you can ‘plug-in’ for instant engagement into a marketing plan.  THIS is where the issue lies.

Much like ‘digital’ or ‘social,’ Gamification is not a box to check-off or drop into a PR/marketing plan.  There are complex elements involved that require strategic thinking, consumer insights, goal analysis and a clear brand definition to create successful execution.  To successfully “Gamify” you must first decide that your brand and your consumer are right for game mechanics.  If you add them simply to increase click-throughs, or entries in a sweepstakes or loyalty program database, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you are not implementing game mechanics and thus you are not using gamification.   Do this to get that is not a game, it’s a reward. So what is gamification?  How can marketers learn from and leverage it?  And how do we all play nice in the game sandbox?  Here’s my take:

  1. “Gamification” is not an app or a singular program; it’s a methodology that should be used to create a strategic approach to a business and/or marketing problem that leverages consumer behavior and psychology.  The application of this strategy and how it is executed needs to be authentic and relevant to the brand and the consumer.
  2. Remember that gamification adds the fifth “P” – Pleasure. The four P’s of marketing are: Product, Positioning, Pricing, Promotion and gamification introduces Pleasure. Games are successful because they enhance a consumer’s life; they give them a sense of pleasure.  People do not continually engage with a game because it’s work that they have to do, or because they are going to earn a coupon.  They play because they enjoy it.  Build your gamification strategies around adding fun and enjoyment, not around delivering a coupon to ‘drive to purchase.’
  3. Consider the consumer first, brand second.  Is your consumer the type to find enjoyment out of this? What types of game mechanics would/do they respond to (there are hundreds)? Where does it make sense in a consumer’s interaction with your brand to implement these and increase enjoyment, if any?
  4. To succeed in gamifying, marketers, strategists and brands should constantly learn from games and the consumer behavior that occurs within and around games.
  5. How does a game bring/intrigue consumers into playing?  How do they keep them there? How does the game keep the user feeling accomplished and feeling pleasure from the experience? Why doesn’t frustration lead to quitting; or how long until it does?
  6. Include these elements or versions of them into your brand programs where appropriate, to help build and increase engagement, stories, content and overall brand adoption.  Not sure what the psychological pulls are? Ask some game theory and game mechanics experts!

Remember, games are not the holy grail.  Even big budget, high-profile games built by professionals fail sometimes! Just read the comments and ratings of a few game publications.  Adding a game mechanic is not the Midas touch.  Seriously, consider why you’d integrate game theories into your brand, how your consumer’s psychological profile would respond and if it makes sense for your product.  Then you can successfully consider gamification as an option in your marketing/branding plans!

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