By Shyam Bhardwaj

It’s not a new idea, but it’s finally hitting the mainstream. Gamification, it would seem, is the “it” strategy of the moment. Google Trends shows a rapid climb in its online frequency since 2010. A full 70% of the Forbes Global 2000 plan to use it for marketing and retention.

Gamification applies game thinking and mechanics to non-game contexts, and the results are typically very positive. Companies across far-ranging industries are using it to engage, teach, entertain, measure, and improve their overall user experience. If you’ve ever been told – or said – to “make a game” of something, then you inherently understand the principles behind it.


The fundamental idea behind the very large umbrella of gamification is to apply game thinking and strategies to everyday, ho hum activities. In short, to make the mundane more entertaining. To appeal to our basic human desire for competition, achievement, rewards, and status.

The concept, despite not having the name “gamification” applied to it, has been around probably as long as modern humans. Turn something into a game or competition, and people both young and old are more likely to engage, participate, and do what we ask them to do.

How easy is it to convince a typical child to clean up their room or pick up their toys? Not very. But turn that desired action into a competition between two or more of them – to see who can “clean their room the fastest” or “put away the most toys” – and you suddenly have some very eager participants on your hands. Add an earned reward to that – title of “Master Toy Picker-Upper”, or two M&Ms for each toy – and the engagement level increases even more. You’ve likely used this idea in competition against yourself, too…especially while trying to master a new skill or develop a new habit (flashcards in a set period of time, then trying to beat that, or increased number of pushups from one day to the next). We thrive on competition, reward, and status.

Best of all? This works in the world of marketing, promotion, and upselling, too. And more and more companies are using it to drive their campaigns.

In the Professional Sphere

Gamification does not necessarily mean turning an activity into an actual game. It might, but it just as often means using gaming mechanics like points, levels, status, and rewards.

Loyalty programs like frequent flier clubs build upon this notion. Members receive points (i.e. miles) each time they fly with a particular airline, and those points can be used for rewards (i.e. free flights). This model enjoyed tremendous success. For a while.

The airlines quickly realized the system had to evolve to better reflect true gamification: they added additional rewards (electronics, spa packages, jewelry, and so on), they created several tiers of membership that were only reached after certain achievements, and they included additional methods for obtaining points.

The frequent flier clubs now hit all the checkmarks of successful gamification:

  • earned rewards
  • the element of surprise, or at least variety, in those rewards
  • achievement, status, and competition amongst members, especially in trying to reach the top tier of the program

Use gamification in marketing by gifting your customers with virtual rewards (points, miles, tokens, coins, etc.) for specific behaviour. Allow them to use those items for prizes, levels, status, and titles.

At its best, gamification is invaluable for driving conversions, improving ROI, and measuring and motivating your customer base.

How to Use Gamification

The foundation is simple. Include game mechanics like levels, points, rewards, and status in your campaigns.

  • Create a website where you can establish an online community. Social media makes this ridiculously easy. Here, participants can engage with each other and your company.
  • Determine an appropriate reward for the campaign. Points, titles, prizes, cash, early access to a product, service, or promotion. What behaviour or achievement will unlock them?
  • Tie achievement to levels. X number of points will unlock the next level up or bump in status and title.
  • Create a leader board to stimulate competition amongst participants. An extension of this might include progress meters for each individual user showing how far they have advanced (how many points/rewards they’ve earned), and how far left to go until the next level or reward.
  • Distribute achievement badges for specific actions that can be displayed on their account profile.

Some Real World Examples

  • McDonald’s Monopoly promotion very effectively encourages consumers to a) frequently visit the restaurant (the main goal for the campaign), b) compete against others, c) instant win game pieces, and d) collect game pieces on their way to various cash and prizes.
  • Online forums that award points to members that contribute and answer questions, with various tiers/titles available based on their point totals.
  • Spin-To-Win or Scratch-and-Win digital campaigns that virtually allow customers to “earn” a dollar or percentage discount off their total purchase at time of checkout. This encourages a) frequent visits during the campaign period, and b) upselling, as consumers want the biggest “bang for their buck” and tend to spend more to save more.
  • Cloud platforms that award points and/or badges based on user behaviour including sharing photos and files, referral bonuses, and number of linked accounts.
  • Points/badges for completing a specific task such as a consumer survey or clicking an affiliate link or “checking in” at a particular location.
  • Bonus points/rewards for checking in at numerous locations, or sharing a certain number of photos, or referring multiple friends to the service during a set period of time. A time constraint of some sort is an effective engine in gamification.
  • Starbucks and its My Rewards program that awards stars for each visit and purchase. Stars are used to advance to the next level, which allows even greater discounts and benefits.
  • Untappd and its platform for beer lovers. The company bestows badges and status to its uses based on their various achievements, actions, check-ins, and engagement.

Anything can be gamified. If you can distribute a reward tied in some relevant way to your product or service, you can gamify. If you can create an online community to foster engagement and competition, you can gamify. If you can appeal in some way to our human nature and desire for socializing, achievement, learning, and status, you can gamify.

Whether its wrangling children, collecting consumer data, learning a new skill, or increasing sales and revenue, gamification has shown itself remarkably successful and reliable.

We all love to win, and achieve, and compete. We all love to be recognized for that. Include it in your marketing and promotion, and watch the “players” come to you.

Shyam Bhardwaj is the VP of marketing at Calgary SEO agency. He runs day-to-day operations of content and growth marketing for SMBs. He frequently writes about start-ups marketing, social media and SEO. Follow him on Twitter: @shyam_bhardwaj