Gamification in Marketing: Engage Your Customers to Grow Revenue

Your best future customers are your current customers.

They’ve already leaped the biggest hurdle – they’ve proven that they’re willing to buy from you.

And, that’s a powerful predictor for whether or not they’ll be willing to buy from you in the future.

The probability of selling to an existing customer is 60-70%, while the probability of selling to a new prospect is 5-20%.

That’s a huge difference.

But, it’s not enough to sit back and expect existing customers to keep coming back for more. You’ve got to provide motivation. And, one of the most effective ways to do that is to “gamify” your customer experience.

What is gamification?

As a team of researchers at the University of Waterloo explains:

Gamification is the use of game elements in applications that are not games. For example, a user experience designer can borrow elements from games, such as quests, stories, and badges, to motivate users to interact with a product, system, or service.

Gamification changes the way customers experience and interact with your business. Game elements trigger a multitude of psychological responses – motivating people to happily continue spending or to spend more.

If you’re just starting your business and writing your business plan, consider ways you can incorporate gamification into your marketing and sales plan.

And, if you’re running an existing business and are ready to increase your revenue (while providing your customers with better user experience), consider ways you can tweak your marketing and sales to include the principles of gamification we discuss below.

How are businesses using gamification?

It’s possible to add gaming elements to nearly any business process or system; making gamification an incredibly flexible technique.

Some businesses gamify their internal processes to build engagement and adherence to policies. For instance, a business may gamify the travel expense reimbursement process in order to encourage employees to keep better track of their travel expenses and submit them in a timely fashion.

Other businesses gamify their customer-facing processes to create a better user experience, build brand loyalty, and encourage customers to continue making purchases. This could take the form of tiered loyalty rewards programs, point systems that can be cashed in for more product, or even earning rewards in exchange for engaging with the business in various non-purchase ways.

As you can see, your imagination is the only limit to the possible applications. But now let’s look at why gamification is so effective.

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Gamification and social proof/conformity

Gamification taps into a number of powerful human drives. One of the most powerful is the desire to belong.

Humans have an innate desire to conform to those around them (at least to some degree).

Historically, this willingness to subvert individuality in exchange for social acceptance ensured that when a person needed help, they could count on others for aid or protection.

That instinct is still strong. As we shared previously:

In 1951 Solomon Asch, a social psychologist, designed a study testing whether a lone subject would, when questioned, give the obviously correct answer if they were surrounded by subjects giving an obviously wrong answer. The study revealed that 37 of 50 subjects conformed to the larger group and gave the obviously incorrect answer. Asch later reflected,

“The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black.”

The instinct to belong to a social group is undeniable. Displaying social proof (showing that other people are doing it and feel good about their choice) can motivate people to subscribe, click, or purchase.

Many games incorporate social elements in their gameplay. This may manifest as direct competition against other players, collaborative play where all participants work together toward a goal or community elements where participants share personal status updates or indirectly compete against other players’ results.

Creating a sense of community within a gamified structure activates people’s desire to belong.

Action items

  • When creating your gamified system, build in elements that create community.
  • Enable users to share their results on a scoreboard.
  • Show comparisons to other user’s performance (“You scored higher than 70% of other users!”).
  • Share recommendations based on users with similar profiles.
  • Allow users to add “friends” so that they can monitor their performance or directly engage with them.
  • Enable people to share pictures of themselves on your website or on a social network, using or wearing your products, with your branding proudly displayed in those photos.
  • Include opportunities for both competitive and collaborative interaction to appeal to the widest swath of users.

Gamification and the need to complete

“Shave and a haircut…

Two bits.”

People hate to be left hanging.

Songs get stuck in our heads when we hear only snippets. Cliffhangers compel viewers to watch the next episode. And, every gamer ever has said, “Hold on, I’m almost finished with this level.”

This need for completion is called the “Zeigarnik Effect” after a 1927 study by German psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik.

Zeigarnik’s study tested how well subjects recalled a series of interrupted versus uninterrupted tasks. Zeigarnik reported:

The results obtained from our first 32 subjects indicate an average memory advantage of 90 percent enjoyed by interrupted tasks.

26 of the 32 subjects remembered interrupted tasks best, with only 3 subjects experiencing stronger recall of the tasks they were allowed to complete. Subsequent tests repeated and confirmed the initial findings.

And, furthermore, when the participants were interrupted,

The subjects objected, sometimes quite strenuously, and were loath to stop even when the experimenter insisted upon it.

In non-scientific terms, interruptions make us bonkers.

Once we start a task, we want to complete that task.

But, why is checking an item off on your to-do list so deeply satisfying?

Every time we engage in a task – any task – we use mental and physical resources. Dedicating these resources causes varying degrees of stress depending on the complexity of the task and the obstacles we encounter.

But, completing a task relieves that stress; while we will feel more stress if we are prevented from completing it.

Games place manageable (often enjoyable) obstacles in players’ paths to keep them engaged in the overarching goal. Your business can do the same.

Action items

  • Break complex tasks into smaller bite-size pieces to create regular positive reinforcement as users complete each step.
  • Interrupt the completion of larger processes with pleasant diversions to compel users to complete the task.

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Gamification and incentive theory

Everyone likes rewards.

In fact, there’s an entire complex system in our brains dedicated to recognizing rewards. Our ancestors relied on that system to ensure that they found the rewards that were important to their survival – food, safety, and sleep.

Science writer Deborah Halber explains for

Two things drive human actions: necessities — food, sleep, avoidance of pain; and rewards.

While these foundational needs are still important, our brains’ reward systems recognize and reinforce a far wider range of rewards today.

Halber goes on to explain,

Any object, event, or activity can be a reward if it motivates us, causes us to learn, or elicits pleasurable feelings.

This captures the essence of the incentive theory of motivation – which states that “actions are often inspired by a desire to gain outside reinforcement.”

Games typically use a variety of rewards to keep players engaged – first there’s the pleasure of playing the core game itself. But, it’s the supplemental reward structures many games use that businesses can most easily implement.

In games, users can:

  • unlock new “achievements”
  • earn new tools, weapons, or in-game perks such as character customization options
  • receive a celebration for completing a level (ex. the fireworks when you reach the castle at the end of a Super Mario level).

You can incorporate these same practices into your online customer interface. Rewards – and the anticipation of these rewards – will keep people coming back for more.

Action items:

  • Find ways to reward people for interacting with your business.
  • Award users with points for completing tasks like checking in on social media, sharing content, or referring customers. Apply these points to their account to earn rewards or purchase discounts. This is a win-win because it provides a great incentive to others and at the same time, helps you to build a strong brand and improving your brand image.
  • Create a tiered loyalty system that rewards people with discounts or bonus gifts for making purchases.
  • Provide perks like games or exclusive products to reward bigger the completion of bigger asks.

Most people prefer fun, even when doing mundane things.

And, if you can make the process of doing business more fun, you’ll give existing customers a compelling reason to keep coming back.

Combine this with the three psychological principles above, and gamification becomes a powerful tool for growing your revenue.


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