Play time: Why you should add gamification to your content strategy

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We just wrapped up the holiday season, but we can still take some time to relax and have a little fun. To that end, today’s post is about gamification ‒ a way to play with your content and turn it into a fun and engaging experience.

Gamification in the context of content marketing

Gamification is a made-up word (as you probably guessed). The notion is to add gaming concepts to content to create an interactive experience. Gaming concepts – or gaming mechanics, as they’re often called in the industry – mean things like points, awards, and wins/losses. We’ll get into those in a moment.

Gamification is often used in the training and education world. For example, HR teams may use it to teach internal staff about new policies. Teachers definitely use it to incentivize learning.

You can use this concept in content marketing, as well. For example, you might try to “gamify” a process, tricky concept, or industry vocabulary.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say you’re creating a new product. It’s bound to change the industry (congratulations!). But, alas, your product is a little complicated to use and understand – at least at first. As a marketer, your goal is to get people to understand how your product works and what it can do, and, ultimately, to get them to buy it, of course.

Traditionally, you might outline how to use the product in a workflow document. Perhaps you create a pamphlet or maybe a poster to show customers how it all works, from point A to point Z. The resulting output would be a stationary document.

But with gamification, you can create a dynamic experience that has potential to further engage – and delight – your potential customers. You can still include those same how-to elements from your pamphlet or poster to teach a concept. But with gamification, you also offer a unique experience that can turn a casual customer into a lifelong fan.

Why use gamification in 2017?

Now, before I get too far, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Gamification was trendy a few years ago and many companies – from Microsoft to Target – were trying it.

So why use gamification now? Is it old-hat? Passé?

The answer is No, and there are a few reasons why.

First, content remains top dog in the marketing world. Related to that, finding new ways to share your content – or reuse it – will always be in style.

And gaming is (still) having a huge moment. As of 2015, U.S. video gaming industry revenue was $23B. Casual games remain popular, too. Angry Birds titles have more than 1B downloads and hundreds of millions of active monthly users, according to a Rand paper. In 2015, there were 75 million Fantasy Football players. The list goes on.

The thing is, humans are wired as competitive beasts. People will always want to play, compete – and win. Gaming, and playing, are in our blood.

So, while the “trend” of gamification may be a few years old, the backbone of it – competition and play – remains relevant.

Benefits of gamification

As I just alluded to, gamification appeals to a primal instinct in humankind: competition. By adjusting the way content is presented and introducing gaming elements, you can educate your audience while appealing to their competitive side. There are a couple other big benefits of gamifying, too:

  • Engaging customers

With a gamification effort, you’re creating not just a deliverable, but an experience. A memorable, hopefully unforgettable experience. I read a book several years ago called “Made to Stick.” The notion is finding “sticky concepts” ‒ those hooky, unique ideas that make customers take note of your brand. Done well, gamification can be one of those sticky ideas. With gamification, you engage them, delight them, and hook them.

  • Time on site translates to customer loyalty

Furthermore, a gamification effort can garner a key metric, too: time on your website. If done well, that’s time well spent. It’s time that your customers – or potential customers – pause other activity and devote minutes or hours to your brand. Invest in it. It’s time they can fall in love with your product and brand.

Gamification can be used to “move customers through different loyalty levels.” A great gamification effort stirs emotion, evokes interest, and encourages long-term brand love. If done well, a gamification effort can turn players into customers and even advocates.

Elements of a gamification effort

So, I’ve spent a lot of time waxing poetic about theories. Let’s get tactical. If you do want to create a gamification effort for your content, there are elements that you need to include.

  • Goals: Set at least one. What is the point of your game? Are you trying to train customers how to use your product? Do you want to teach them concepts or vocabulary – such as the names of all of your products ‒ so that these become engrained in their casual conversations?
  • Scoring: There must be a way for players to know how they are tracking against the goal. A common tactic is to award points for completion (or partial completion), and keep score. Then, show those results on a scoreboard – often called a “leaderboard” in the gamification industry.
  • Winners: Not only must you keep score, but also ensure that you incorporate the concept of winning. This can be winning a round, winning the game, or winning a prize. Remember, you can win a game against other players, or even yourself (think Solitaire).You may also incorporate the concept of losing, but that is less of a positive approach. Keep it to winning, and players will understand what a non-win means but won’t be discouraged.
  • Rewards: We all like to receive rewards for a job well done, whether it’s a sticker like the ones you used to get in school for an A on a spelling test or that latte you treat yourself to after a trip to the dentist (surely it’s not just me who does this?). So keep your eye on those prizes. In terms of gamification, a prize could be a tangible thing like points that accrue and can be traded in for actual prizes. It can also be “cloud” prizes, like bragging rights for being at the top of the leaderboard.
  • Time: A ticking timer elicits a little pressure and fuels competition. That’s why many games – from board games to video games – have one of these devices. For gamification projects, I’ve found a 15 to 30-second timer works well for each question or task. Any more than that and it becomes too easy, unless the question itself is very complex.
  • Levels: Some would argue that this is required, but I don’t necessarily agree. A single-level gaming experience can be fun and effective. More levels might cost more money to develop, too. That said, if you really want to go after that time-on-site metric, you will want to build in multiple levels or challenges to keep players playing.
  • Addictive traits: This one is potentially touchy, but hear me out. What I mean is you need to give people a reason to want to keep playing. This doesn’t have to be manipulative, like using subliminal messaging. It can be as simple as inserting a “Try again?” question screen at the end of the round. Make it easy for them to keep playing, and they will.
  • Fun! Please don’t forget this. A gamification effort shouldn’t be a slog. It shouldn’t be boring, nor feel like work. It should be entertaining. The concepts can be challenging, but the experience should be light. It should be easy and unfussy to understand and play.

“If you distract workers with the idea that they are playing the game, they don’t challenge the rules of the game,” says the New York Times. Makes sense, right? After all, the old adage is “time flies when you’re having fun.”

Assembling a game: Think like an instructional designer

Many educational institutions employ “instructional designers” ‒ people who fill a role that is part teacher, part psychologist, and part construction worker. They understand content, the way human minds work, and how concepts should be outlined and presented for effective consumption. They build these blocks together to create effective tests, courses, and curriculums.

It’s important that you think like an instructional designer as you develop a gamification effort. Or, hire someone who has this skillset.

In order to successfully create an effective and logical game, you need to move into the educational mindset. For example, you should consider the order in which your content is presented. This is not a hodgepodge, but a journey. A curriculum, even.

Think about the style, too. Not just the color and aesthetic, but the layout of the actual game content. If you want to create a quizzing-style game, would it be better to have multiple choice answers, or use a matching method?

You need to make sure the answer pool is deep enough, too. Nothing is worse than the same “wrong” answers appearing over and over. That doesn’t teach anything other than process of elimination.

Final thoughts: Gamification best practices

  • Keep it simple. Like most things, the simpler, the better. Don’t let your game take too much time to explain or try to test too many concepts at once. Stay focused.
  • Eliminate ambiguity. As you’re writing your questions and answers, think like “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek or the writers of Trivial Pursuit. Make sure your questions are clear, with no gray area. Otherwise, you’ll cause confusion and frustrate your audience.
  • Make sure you can measure results. I probably sound like a broken record by now, because I always talk about data, but I cannot stress enough that you need to have some way to measure your results. Call it ROI, call it metrics, or even call it “before and after” ‒ just make sure you can tell if your effort had an effect. For example, do players show increased competence in concepts after playing your game? Find a way to test that, and keep measuring it. This can help you convince your boss to keep a budget line-item for gamification in the future.

So, what might you create? As you’re putting together your plans for the year ahead, consider adding this playful channel to the mix.