How Gamification Techniques Can Strengthen Incentive Programs
Making work, or typically mundane tasks, more interesting and even fun by using the principles and tactics of game theory and mechanics has proven over the past few years to be one of the more effective strategies used by incentive program designers to drive and improve employee engagement.
Not that the idea of "gamifying" an incentive and reward program is anything new, said Ira Ozer, president and CEO of Engagement Partners, Chappaqua, N.Y. "Game mechanics and dynamics have been used in the incentive industry for more than 100 years. They just weren't defined that way. More recently, many brands today give premium items away free when a purchase is made, often for a limited period of time; others provide them for continuity of purchases, such as gas stations giving away dishes with the ability to collect the whole set over time. Most companies run sales and employee incentive programs that use points, badges, leaderboards, recognition and rewards and have done so from the earliest days of the industry."
But just because you've set up a leaderboard doesn't mean your incentive program can generate the same results as it might if that program adhered to the best principles inherent in a well-thought-out, scientifically designed gamification model. "If you don't do it right," warned Rodger Stotz, chief research officer of the Incentive Research Foundation, "it will fail."
An understanding of basic game mechanics and dynamics helps, Ozer said. Game mechanics relate to elements including giving people "points" for participating in various activities, using "leaderboards" as a form of social recognition and competition to rank people against one another, "badges" to recognize accomplishments, and "awards" as a way to reward participants for their efforts. Awards can be intangible, such as the joy and sense of accomplishment people feel by playing the game, as well as tangible awards, which includes merchandise, gift cards and other items for value.
Game dynamics relate to the process by which the sponsoring organization wants participants to play the game—in other words, the specific path they want them to follow, such as: A) enroll in the program, B) watch a short video, and C) take a quiz. The dynamics of the game often change over time and often with the input and progress of the participants.
Gamification, in summary, applies the "coolest" elements of games that make them engaging to drive interaction, competition and other gaming behaviors in a non-game context, Stotz said. "Those non-game contexts can be anything from work, learning, health and fitness, civic engagement and meetings, to incentive program participation and more."
The true elegance of the idea, in conjunction with several poster children of gamification success (such as FourSquare) have popularized this concept. Startups from every industry are building gamified apps, and consultancies—big and small—are helping companies implement gamification strategies.
Gamification is great at getting people to care, said Greg Greunke, vice president, partners and customer success, Think Smart One, San Francisco. "Competition, the element of surprise, all those elements can make an incentive program more interesting."
The ability of participants to invite others to join in the game and play with them is a huge contributor to engagement. Continual promotions and rule changes are also important ways to keep the program fresh and exciting for participants.
But the program is even more successful when participants are already passionate about the topic being gamified, added Stephen Baer, managing partner, The Game Agency, Los Angeles. "For example, last year, in support of the launch of Rock Band 4, we worked with videogame publisher Harmonix to roll out a gamified brand ambassador program called the Rock Band Road Crew. This program encouraged fans of the game to participate in gigs, earn points and redeem rewards. Gigs included spreading the word about the games (tweeting, instagramming), taking polls and quizzes, and hosting game parties."
The ability of participants to invite others to join in the game and play with them is a huge contributor to engagement.
Participation was off the charts for the eight weeks that the campaign ran, Baer said. "Why? Because the program simply formalized things that people were already doing and incentivizing them to do it even more."
Technology, in general, has made gamification more applicable to senior executives who want to see hard data and results, Greunke suggested. Although gamification is mostly about psychology, not technology, behavior tracking is where technology can really help.
"If one of the key benefits of gamification is to provide an environment where you can measure behavior, that's where software is really effective," Greunke said. "You assign something with points, you give it a value for certain behavior. Then, when you add that to social media it creates competition and bragging rights.
"Here's the trouble with just having a leaderboard posted on a wall, though," he added. "It's only those people in the office that can play it. But when you gamify something on a website, and you make it layered into a platform they are using, like a salesforce, then it becomes much more interesting for the participant and for the person who is running the game."
The most engaging tool in a gamification campaign is a game itself. If properly designed, games are completely immersive and as a result require a significant amount of attention. Points, badges, leaderboard status and prizes alone simply don't move the needle. Effective design does, Baer said.
One of the most successful large-scale gamification programs now is from Starbucks, Ozer said. Starbucks revamped its loyalty program in May. Here's how it works: Participants are given "Starpoints" for a variety of activities, for purchases with different point values depending on type of product, time of day and other factors and also for using their auto-reload payment feature, mobile app and other actions. Participants also earn the Gold level, with a variety of benefits, for their ongoing loyalty.
Over the past few years, The Game Agency has worked with one of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies to train their sales force across a number of products. Specifically, the company was engaged to support sales meetings ranging from 250 to 4,000 people. These meetings run a few days and include a myriad of details about their drugs, overcoming buyer objections and selling techniques for sales reps.
All events are structured like this: The trainers give 45 minutes of presentation on huge monitors and sales reps are told that after each session, they will be required to play a game on that session's topic. This keeps everyone actively listening. During the session break, teams of sales reps huddle around a touch-screen monitor at their table and play a 3- to 5-minute game or activity. The games and activities were seamlessly integrated into the presentation through an event management tool called Motivate Live.
By playing a contextually relevant game, the sales reps were actively participating in their learning; and, in immediately using the information to play the game, the data was being driven into the long-term memory areas of their brains to help them better retain and access this information in the future. In addition to improved learning, the games also produced a treasure trove of data for the trainer. For example, by analyzing the incorrect answers and the length of time required to answer each question, the trainers could determine which material was not well understood and quickly follow up with additional information on the topic. If improved learning and retention and data analytics weren't enough, there was no doubt that the combination of games, points, badges and prizes made learning more fun.
What Can Go Wrong?
Your gamification program should not come across as manipulation, but rather as an authentic way to help participants achieve objectives or experience a brand's products or services. It has to be a win/win program.
Unfortunately, a lot of companies are attracted to the buzzword, gamification, "and apply it like lipstick on a pig," Baer said.
Just seeing a leaderboard and believing that is gamification is backwards thinking, Stotz said, agreeing with Baer. Don't gamify your program without really understanding the nuances of how to design it.
"One of the critical aspects that you need to be concerned with is defining exactly the behavior and the activity that you want," Stotz said. "Many times I hear people say, 'Well, it is simple. I want more sales.' If you just want that, establish an incentive program with appropriate rewards. But when you are looking at gamification, you are really trying to engage people in some behavior that is going to move in the direction of supporting sales. Some people who have not been involved in gamification do not take the extra effort to look at the specific behaviors that they need and then how to focus and engage people in that, through the use of these game mechanics."
Stotz urges program designers to understand what might be the unintended consequences of a poorly designed game. "As with anything else," he said, "we can get tunnel vision in looking just at what we are trying to do. And there are examples of organizations that have tried to do something and found out that it causes unintended consequences. You have to realize that with any game, people can be gaming the system. So what you try to do is design it, think about unintended consequences and try to minimize the opportunity for people to game the system."
Stotz described a system that rewards people for doing something, a specific task, but there was an individual who realized he could sit at a computer and repeat the same action and earn points, which was not the goal of the game. The goal was to do something in concert with the overall objective of sales or engagement.
Building stop points in the game can help mitigate these kinds of obsessive behaviors. An example would be to limit a specific behavior by setting a daily maximum number of points for that activity, he said.
When you gamify a program, you need to incorporate the whole science and art of gamification and look at how you engage people through a series of activities that builds over time. The focus should be on the desired behavior for a longer duration.
The Creative Process
Don't think of gamification as that final coat of paint on your incentive program. Gamification is really a process, and it has to be creative. Try something out and see how people respond. Use feedback to make it more interesting, because if it is not interesting, it is not a game.
With gamification, you have to create excitement. The game can't be predictable, in terms of who is going to be the winner, or in terms of what is going to happen. "But it also has to be fair," Greunke emphasized. "It has to be surprising. If it is boring, it is not fun. The same person can't win all the time. Or you can't cheat in order to make that person win, otherwise it is no fun. And, most importantly, it has to be repeatable. Think of a game, a baseball or football game. The World Series happens every year; all the games that lead up to it happen every year, so you reset every year. It is interesting because there are different winners. You can't predict who is going to be the champion. That is what makes gamification fun."
A successful gamification strategy requires a clear understanding of your business objectives and the motivations of your audience. If your audience isn't intrinsically motivated by the topic you want to gamify, Baer noted, then you are better off trying something else.
"Take my employees as an example," he said. "They are all gamers and all competitive by nature. Some of them don't want to fill in their time-sheets, no matter how many points, badges or prizes I offer them. Solving this business problem requires more than a cookie-cutter gamification solution. On the flip side, these same employees are fitness enthusiasts and actively use Fitbit, a gamified fitness device, because it enhances something they already love to do. They can't get enough of the competition, socialization, regular feedback and rewards."