Games are powerful. They entertain us. They develop our tastes, and sometimes our personalities too. From an early age, they teach us about the world.

It was only a matter of time, then, before digital marketers started exploring the opportunities available through the gamification of their channels. This article explores some of the forms of gamification in digital marketing, and offers some tips to take away for your own marketing activities.

What do we mean by ‘gamification’?

Simply put, gamification refers to the use of gameplay elements in a non-game format – it’s an idea that’s especially prevalent in digital. One gamified platform may have heard about is the free-to-use language tuition app Duolingo, which currently has over 110 million users worldwide.

Gamification is used in a vast array of contexts, from fitness tracker apps to productivity planners. Some teachers have been so impressed with the educational power of gamification that they’re predicting the technique will universalise access to higher education within decades.

Gamification in marketing

Gamification is also used, increasingly heavily, in digital marketing contexts. A Gartner survey of Forbes global 2000 companies, published in 2013, revealed over 70% of respondents were planning to use gamification for marketing or customer retention.

So what does this look like in practice? Allow us to talk you through some of the many manifestations of gamified marketing:

  • The progression strand – Of all the game elements used for gamified marketing applications, the most prevalent strand is the graphic representation of progression towards a goal, whether that’s points accrued in the M&S Sparks loyalty card app, or profile completion progress bars on platforms like LinkedIn or PeoplePerHour. In each case, a gamified representation of the customer’s journey towards a goal is used to encourage them to fulfil criteria that will also satisfy the marketer’s conversion goals. Whilst demonstrably ingenious, this technique is nothing new – loyalty tokens were gamifying marketing as early as the 1700s, in a physical format.
  • Gamified products as the vehicle – Marketing in-app purchases within free-to-use gamified products has emerged in recent years as a popular route-to-profit for digital start-ups. One shining example is the gamified coding tuition app Codeacademy, which launched as a free-to-use product in August 2011. In under 3 years Codeacademy established a user base exceeding 24 million users. Codeacademy is free (and highly enjoyable) to use – but if you want to access certain in-depth content and tests, you’ll have to pay for the privilege. This model echoes the long-established practice of giving away free video game demos to attract and ultimately convert customers.
  • Just a game? – Gamification of marketing doesn’t need to be complex – sometimes it’s as simple as adding a great game to one of your channels, with no direct route to conversions. Mini Cooper did exactly that back in 2002, when they added a Mini air hockey Flash game to their site. The game succeeded in acquiring visitors and reinforcing the company’s quirky, fun-loving brand. Simpler still is the far more recent Dino Chrome game from Google Chrome, which starts up if you hit the spacebar while you’re on a ‘Network Error’ page. By setting you off hopping over cacti as a pixelated T-Rex, rather than wallowing over your dodgy connection, Google makes your overall experience more enjoyable. That reflects well on brand and product alike.

Why gamification is so powerful

In one way or another, games invariably encourage the player to complete a journey from A to B (and often then on to C, D, etc.) From the marketer’s perspective, the real power of gamification lies in making those ‘Bs’, ‘Cs’ and ‘Ds’ a point of advantage to their own objectives. The more useful, enjoyable or effective the game, the greater the player’s compulsion to make that journey.

DevHub reportedly saw a jump from 10% to 80% in task-related conversions when they added game elements to their site back in 2010 – a sensational but not unusual success. If it’s executed well, Gamification gets results.

Where to start?

Some aspects of gamified marketing lie outside of the skillset – or at least outside of the work history – of the average digital marketer. Not every company has the competencies to create a flash game or produce an app. Nevertheless, some tactics are on the table for SMEs with good developers on their books. Here are a few of our favourites:

  • Celebrating engagement – identifying ways to reward and celebrate the users who engage with your online channel would be a great first step in effecting an achievable, light gamification of your digital marketing. The Guardian encourage high quality, in-depth debate on their articles by pinning selected comments – marked ‘Guardian Pick’ to the top of the comments section under each article. Digital marketing experts Moz encourage their users to get engage with their community by awarding ‘Moz Points’, redeemable against a range of benefits from free product trials to MozCon conference tickets.
  • On-page calculators – creating an on-page calculator is an extremely effective tool for stimulating the customer into considering the outcomes of a potential purchase. Examples widely in-use today include mortgage calculators, win probability calculators on lottery sites, and prospective savings calculators covering a vast range of product and service types. A radio button is often used to simplify and expedite the interaction for the user. Creating elements of this type is achievable for most middleweight developers – you’ll just need to provide the variables and values they’ll need to base the code upon.
  • Rewards schemes – another gamification technique with relatively low development requirements is the digital representation of reward scheme progress. To make this work in practice, all you’ll need to do is deliver a tally of reward points (or a comparable metric for progress) to a dedicated section of the user’s profile, attractively presented against the context of the rewards the user can unlock by reaching a certain level. The easiest way to deliver the data needed to calculate reward points is by feeding data from your ecommerce CRM to the relevant user’s account. The scope of a task of this type depends on a number of factors – we recommend running it by an experienced developer to get an idea of the work involved.