As users vie for badges and mayorship on FourSquare, and boast about achievements on XBox Live, one thing has become amply clear: gamification is here to stay. Categorically defined, gamification is the use of game mechanics in non-gaming contexts. It encourages user loyalty, improves application ‘stickiness’, and helps promote an app through viral, social channels. A retail chain rewarding loyal customers with prizes, and an XBox Live game offering gamers unlockable achievements and points are both examples of gamification.
Consumer web startups can benefit significantly from adding gamification to their websites/ apps. As evidenced from the success of startups such as FourSquare and Klout, gamification can enhance customer engagement and encourage repeat use. Well thought-out rewards can also bring viral traffic to a website as users share their rewards with friends and followers on social media channels. A slew of case studies by gamification startup Big Door reveal how adding game mechanics can boost engagement, loyalty and revenue across a disparate group of companies. According to Gartner, by 2015, almost 50 percent of companies that “manage innovation processes will gamify those processes”.
Gamification entails adding features that reward user loyalty without impinging on the user experience. An intrusive, artificially implemented reward/badge program will detract from the overall experience and can actually deter growth. Gamification – which can be as simple as the red “new notification” icon in Facebook – ought to be deeply integrated into the website design and must feel like an intrinsic part of the user experience to be successful. A good example of this would be FourSquare, which is built around rewards and badges. The idea is to tap into everyone’s inner competitive spirit.
Gamification must also allow for spread through viral channels. Klout is a good example: by awarding ‘Klout points’ and badges to users, it encourages users to share their rewards with fellow Twitter users, which increases the company’s brand awareness. In any well-structured app, “virality” through social media integration should be built directly into the gamification features.
Gamification is not, however, the mere addition of random rewards distributed arbitarily. There must be actual effort involved in unlocking an achievement or badge. At the same time, the rewards must not be too difficult to achieve either, as that can discourage users. At the heart of good gamification is maintaining a balance between reward and effort. Thus, extensive testing is intrinsic to any effective gamification deployment.
How to Add Gamification to a Website
Depending on the scope and scale of your website, you have two ways to add gamification: build a native system from the ground-up, finely tuned to your site’s requirements and structure, or, utilize a turn-key gamified rewards program such as Big Door, Badgeville, etc. The former option may be cheaper cash-wise, but will also require significant input in terms of designing and distributing badges/rewards. For most websites, the latter, turn-key solution is a better alternative.
It must be noted here that not every website can benefit from gamification. An informational website that requires little user interaction (such as Wikipedia) won’t see any gains from adding game mechanics. Other websites are perfect matches. One of the the best examples is the Stack Exchange family of sites (most notably, Stack Overflow).
Any gamification process should begin by creating a repository of badges/rewards and linking them with effort. The badges and rewards should be clearly demarcated into beginner, advanced and expert semantic categories (you can always break these down further). Earning a reward in each category must be consistent with the amount of effort required to progress from one category to the next. Winning a beginner’s badge, therefore, should be very easy, whereas an expert-grade badge should require loyal, consistent use.
Typically, completing an action is rewarded with a badge. For example, completing a single lesson on Codecademy wins you the ‘First Lesson’ beginner’s badge (since this requires little effort). Completing 25 exercises, on the other hand, implies that the user has spent a considerable amount of time with the application, and is thus, rewarded with the ’25 Exercises’ badge.
The badge design itself should blend in with the rest of your site’s design ethos, but stand out enough as to be worthy of sharing. FourSquare’s badges, for instance, tend to be beautifully designed and creatively named which encourages sharing and aids in viral growth.
The fundamental trick to adding game mechanics is testing and balance. Higher-tier rewards must be significantly difficult to achieve. At the same time, each significant user-milestone (completing 10 lessons, sending 15 invites, etc.) must be rewarded with a badge to encourage further engagement.
Some websites that use gamification effectively are: FourSquare, StackExchange, Codecademy, and Klout. This presentation presents some salient points on gamification and is a worthy starting point for diving further into this topic: