How Marketers Use Game Mechanics to Engage Consumers and Analyze Behavior

by   |   March 5, 2013 2:22 pm   |   0 Comments

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Chiquita Brands partnered with Twentieth Century Fox and Bunchball on a website with games to earn badges for downloading coloring pages and playing film clips from the animated movie “RIO.”

Competition is fierce on the Topliners website, where individuals strive to move up the leaderboard and earn points and badges. But Topliners is not a game in the traditional sense; it’s the community site of Eloqua, a cloud-based provider of marketing automation software, which uses game mechanics to drive certain behaviors among its approximately 9,100 members—a concept called gamification.

This technique, which is fueled by big data analytics, is being applied across many disciplines, including sales and human resources. Marketers are also showing interest in the highly engaging tool that research firm Gartner says started as a trend around 2010. “If you’re able to crack the engagement code, then you’re able to ultimately impact both the top and the bottom line, which is the biggest challenge for companies today,” says Chandar Pattabhiram, vice president of worldwide marketing at Badgeville, a gamification platform. Gamification, he adds, “is a natural fit for marketers.”

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These business users are adding gamification to their community sites, websites, and other platforms to motivate customers to do things like comment about them on social media, download whitepapers, and watch videos about products. But the marketer’s benefits don’t end there: Companies can analyze those kinds of actions to determine which users are their most vocal advocates, which customers may be part of a new segment interested in a new topic, and which products are attracting the most interest.

There are a number of actions Eloqua, which recently became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Oracle, wants its target audience (primarily marketers) to take. Eloqua awards points and badges for sharing success stories about using its products, for instance, for users helping each other with technical issues, and for visiting Topliners often. The site is open to both Eloqua customers and prospects, and while many discussions are Eloqua-related, others focus on general marketing topics, like how to attribute revenue to campaigns and the use of infographics.

A number of members are demonstrating loyalty not only to the community, but also to Eloqua, which relies on annual subscription renewals. Customers who are members of Topliners have almost tripled the renewal rate of those who are not, according to Heather Foeh, Eloqua’s director of customer culture. (Foeh says she recognizes users who that join Topliners may already be happy and engaged with Eloqua’s products, and that they may not be renewing as a direct result of their participation on the site.)

Gamification often works so well because it appeals to some of our natural instincts – to want to achieve, to receive both rewards and recognition. Eloqua has seen this firsthand. It initially launched Topliners as a limited point-based program in January 2011. But the site really gained momentum after July 2012, when it started showing members where they ranked on the leaderboard and added many more ways to earn points. “We immediately saw a ton of uptick in interest in it,” Foeh says.

Gamification, meanwhile, produces data about game users that analysts can mine for insights. “These programs are based on data and they generate more data so now I know a lot of new and interesting things about users – the kinds of behaviors they do, when they do them,” says Rajat Paharia, founder of Bunchball, Eloqua’s gamification provider. “That feeds back into the system to help you optimize the system and drive more of the desired, high-value activity, like loyalty, engagement, participation – whatever it is you’re trying to get more of.”

What Does (and Doesn’t) Engage Marketing Game Users

Gartner researchers predict that by 2014, 80 percent of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives primarily because of poor design. Nicki Powers, an engagement strategist with Maritz Motivation Solutions in St. Louis, shares three mistakes to avoid with when designing a gamification program:

  1. Introducing a set of missions that are all attainable within the first visit. “Early wins are important and I don’t discourage having things that are achievable right out of the gate,” she says, “but you definitely need to inspire goal setting for the longer term.”
  2. Awarding only points. Don’t overlook the value of “emotional currency” like forming social relationships with other website users, which can outweigh other parts of an experience. “You wouldn’t want to walk away from social relationships you’ve formed even in the face of a bad experience,” Powers says.
  3. Failing to focus on the individual. Some of us are driven by competition, others by personal achievement. “Giving people a lot of different types of game mechanics to interact with and giving them choices about which ones they want to interact with is extremely important,” Powers says. “You don’t want to lose [different] player types because you implemented a program that appealed to your own drive.”

Paharia has had clients use gamification to boost engagement with short-term marketing campaigns to drive sales. In 2011, for instance, the banana supplier Chiquita Brands International partnered with Twentieth Century Fox’s animated movie RIO to engage children and their parents with a co-branded microsite layered with gamification. Participants could earn badges by taking actions like watching movie clips, downloading coloring pages, or playing games; a sweepstakes would only be awarded after the community won a total of 100,000 badges.

“You do a lot of advertising and try to drive people to these marketing things you’ve spent a lot of time and effort on, and then you need to figure out, ‘How do I get people to engage, to participate?’” says Paharia. “That’s what gamification does.”

Participation is high on Brigham Young University’s gamified sports site, BYUtvSports. It launched in June 2012 and now has “hundreds of thousands” of registered users, according to Ryan Holmes, director, digital media at BYU Broadcasting, a service of the school. 

The site incentivizes visitors to view, rate, share and comment on content produced by the university and to upload their own videos and photos. Creating a profile and surfing the site are two of the many other ways that help participants advance through social ranks that start with “Recruit” and end with “Hall of Fame.”

Having fans contributing to the site’s creative offerings and feeling a sense of community reaps rewards. “From my perspective, the [user-generated] content is valuable in and of itself because content is expensive to produce,” Holmes says. “But it also endears [users] to their team and they are much more likely to make donations to the university or to BYUtv when they see the value we’re trying to create for them.”

Mindy Charski (email: is a Dallas-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @mindycharski.

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