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Gamification and the Lessons of Loyalty Programs

Sometimes in business you hear sweeping broad statements, confidently delivered by someone, that just make you want to run up to the nearest wall and start repeatedly banging your head against it.

This post is about one such occasion. An old agency-hand delivered a sweeping verdict on gamification recently that invoked the same feeling of wanting to immediately harm oneself: ‘It just doesn’t work’, opined the silver-haired fox, replete with skinny jeans, waistcoat and quiff. ‘I’ve tried it with XXXX’, just didn’t get the results we were looking for’.


I got up from the desk, approached the wall at speed, intent on ramming my forehead just left of the ornately framed picture of Andy Warhol, but thought better of it and diverted just in time to the coffee machine to my right. Taking a deep breath and filling up on caffeine I turned, smiled and politely enquired into how they had used gamification and for what purpose.

The striking thing about the next 30 minutes was how this individual, who actually turned out to be quite charming, intelligent and creative, could have missed one of the fundamental aspects of how you make any gamification program work. If he could make this mistake, then so could others of his caliber and this needed addressing.

The protagonist at hand here had used gamification for a brand to drive repeat engagement with consumers on Facebook and their website. They had devised some content and some activities for people to interact with, using a points system and leaderboards as the framework. With some pretty hefty targets, performance had not met their expectations.

However, it was easy to understand why. They had missed the most important part of any gamification program. Empathy. The question should always be ‘Why would people re-engage?’ To earn points is not a reason, nor are leaderboards. These are gamification tactics that help fuel results, but consumers need a proper goal to drive behavior for them to really work.

The program this agency had deployed was like a Nectar points or an airline miles program, but where the points had no intrinsic value. Gamification programs must learn from real-world loyalty programs. Points, badges, levels and unlocks are great mechanics if they are linked to a value exchange where achievement means something. Whether that be access to exclusive content, entry into competitions, earning prizes or discounts, earning redeemable real-world loyalty points, or getting exclusive access to events by achieving ‘super fan’ status.

The worst thing that brand marketers can do is not seeing things through the eyes of the consumer. If you can’t categorically answer why someone would want to enter your gamification program and progress within it. And, if you can’t clearly define what the value exchange is for your fans, then you know who to blame if you don’t get the results you want.

On the other hand, if you look at the sheer size and value of traditional loyalty programs that reward repeat consumer purchase and behavior, you will get a sense of how powerful gamification programs can be, when linked to a value exchange. Rewarding customers for behavior that supports commercial goals is one of the oldest and most lucrative forms of consumer marketing.

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