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Want To Get Gamification Right? Build a Community First

Written By: Mariya 5 January 2011 Other Posts By: Mariya

For any consumer-facing company, attention is money. Acquiring new customers requires that you grab their interest long enough to convince them that your product  is deserving of their time and cash. Doing this effectively is expensive and elusive. Failure in both startups and storied corporations is rooted in the inability to attract new users and keep existing ones happy.

Enter gamification, the strategy du jour for increasing customer engagement and stickiness. For those unfamiliar with this buzz word, gamification is the application of gameplay mechanics to traditionally non-game activities like professional networking or local business patronage. Popular mechanics include progress bars, leaderboards, achievements, and virtual goods. With the success of startups like Foursquare, which applies gamification techniques to location-based services, companies new and old have been scrambling to gamify their products and services. Some investors won’t even entertain funding a consumer-facing startup unless game mechanics are incorporated in their business plan.

As with any new paradigm, gamification is frequently misunderstood and misapplied. A plethora of competing tools have cropped up recently that allow consumers to “check-in” to virtually anything, from TV shows to sporting events to news articles.  With all the fragmentation and competition, companies have to do more than slap on basic mechanics like badges and leaderboards in order to earn user interest and loyalty. If you want to apply game mechanics effectively, keep these tips in mind:

1) Think Community First, Game Mechanics Second

According to Keith Smith, CEO of BigDoor, a site or product needs to have an engaged user base for a gamification layer to be successful. After all, mechanics like leaderboards and badges only matter to users if they can show off their achievements to a relevant audience. Virtual goods increase in perceived value if they can be displayed or shared within a community. Being able to engage in activities with friends makes those events more enjoyable, increasing user retention and evangelism.

Building a community boils down to getting people into the same room and talking to each other. If you don’t already have a community, try tapping into the social graphs of Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, etc. Third-party login systems can be effective ways to kickstart a community. If you run a popular website and have many fly-by users, try using tools provided by gamification platforms like BigDoor, One True Fan, Badgeville, or Meebo to activate your passive audience. No matter what method you choose, always keep in mind: how can I make my product more social?

2) Design the Right Rewards for Your Users

People play games for all sorts of reasons. Some want an intellectual challenge or an immersive fantasy experience. Others have a “killer” mentality and want to defeat their friends in public battle. Games like Farmville appeal to yet another type: the casual gamer who prefers social, collaborative actions. Similarly, for game mechanics to work, you have to design them to fit your users’ personalities and motivations.

As you build a community, pay attention to how the overall experience of your product satisfies different types of users. Keith recommends categorizing users as Consumers, Contributors, Evangelists, and Players. Of the four, Players are the most important, as they comprise the 1-5% of users who love your product,  will pay for premium functionality, and do everything that the other three types do. Designing private perks and public rewards for Players incentivizes engagement, evangelism, and stickiness.

A great example of a well-design reward is the Hashable Top 100 party thrown in New York City last year. Hashable is a game-changing professional networking site that has successfully cultivated a strong following among movers and shakers in the NYC startup scene. By introducing a local leaderboard and throwing an exclusive party for the users on it, Hashable appealed to the innate desire of community members to connect with other influencers and be acknowledged for their networking prowess.

3) Bring in the Experts

While plenty of resources exist for learning about gamification, you may be better off hiring an expert to develop your game mechanics. Hashable hired Chris Carella, an experience game designer, to tweak their game elements and reward systems. DevHub, a startup that successfully turned website-building into a game, worked closely with BigDoor to execute their gamification vision.

When evaluating potential partners, look beyond their technology platform. You want to bring on a gamification partner that either has deep domain expertise or can integrate you with a rich ecosystem of users, vendors, content providers, and advertisers.

Recommended Resources
1)      The Gamification of Everything by Margaret Wallace (Gaming Business Review)
2)      How To Use Game Mechanics To Power Your Business by Shane Snow (Mashable)
3)      The Gamification Encyclopedia
4)      Books on Gamification

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