Gamification: A temporary fad or long-term marketing strategy?

Note: the original version of this post can be found on the APCO Worldwide blog.

Gamification is one of the hottest topics in business today and seems to be on the minds of many of the marketing professionals I’ve come across in the past few months. Incidentally, it is also exciting the gaming and technology industries, as many in this space believe they have inadvertently stumbled on a potentially very lucrative growth area. After all, a recent study by the research group Gartner predicted that 70 percent of the 2,000 biggest organizations will have at least one “gamified” application by 2014.

Gamification describes one of the latest trends in the industry, which uses game design techniques and mechanics to tap into our psychological predisposition to compete, bringing game thinking outside the traditional gaming environment. Common applications include leaderboards, point totals and achievements that are typically found in games – and then repurposed to drive real-world engagement. Companies are taking a second look at their business models, customer retention efforts, marketing communication and internal communication to identify where they can apply these concepts. Even my own company’s HR team developed a “Wellthy Challenge” that uses these concepts to incentivize healthy behavior (weight loss and exercise) with gift cards.

The way these applications have changed over the last few years reflects an evolution in the way we think about engagement in every aspect of business (and indeed communication with consumers). Examples include Microsoft, which found new and different purposes for gaming devices, including supporting hygiene in hospitals. Objective Logistics developed an internal labor software package called MUSE, which creates employee leaderboards based on performance that allow employees not only to compete for rewards but also for better shifts. Then there is the work of Kiip, a small tech startup with a 21-year-old CEO, which created a platform for companies like Starbucks to reward mobile gamers with real-world prizes like gift cards for in-game high scores or achievements. The platform gives consumer a chance to play games they enjoy while testing products and earning rewards – a solution that has, according toBusiness Insider, potentially revolutionized the future of mobile advertising. Move over, Android.

As a result of these successes, more and more companies are starting down this path, but they are also slowly learning that there is a difference between games and gamification. Indeed, Rajat Paharia, founder and CPO of Bunchball, said it best: “Organizations are learning that gamification and games aren’t the same thing – in fact, they’re somewhat orthogonal. Gamification applies game mechanics to non-game experiences, but the goal isn’t gameplay, it is ongoing engagement.”

His warning is valid: Gamification without a strategy is about as effective as indiscriminate distribution of press releases. Gamification concepts are perfect for encouraging healthy competition and driving motivation in some instances, but as always, not all ideas can be applied ubiquitously – and for good reason. Shallow implementation of gamification concepts feel superficial and gimmicky and can result in no consumer engagement or disillusionment. Because the concept is so new, it is difficult to see whether gamification is a short-lived fad, encouraged by the marketing industry, or here to stay to be used in a more meaningful fashion. Recent marketing hype around various online tools indicate there will likely be a significant drop in its mainstream use once companies realize that gamification is not a catch-all for audience engagement.

For now, though, companies continue to find creative ways to use game mechanics to impact their business with no signs of slowing down, and communication professionals are jumping on board. Will it continue to grow in popularity as a sustainable business idea?

Let the games begin.

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