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Success in gamification lies in finding and exploiting a brand’s sweet spot in the overlap between people, play and products

By Scott Thomson, Naked Communications, and Jonny Shaw, Naked Play

Play is the most transformative opportunity available for business in today’s world.
Thinkers such as Pat Kane and Stuart Browne have been arguing for the value of play in modern society for some time – and they make a compelling case. But with the advent of the smartphone, and the emergence of social networks as the most dynamic form of media, business has an opportunity to harness the power of play like never before. And in the new, always on, always connected world, it is now possible for business to ‘play-cast’ as well as simply broadcast.
This is perhaps the most significant moment in the history of marketing-led businesses since the arrival of the tv set and commercial breaks; with the central promise being that by importing elements from the world of play to the world of marketing, we can elicit greater levels of engagement, and earned media, for what would otherwise be only mildly engaging pieces of brand activity.
There are already some good examples out there of brands intuitively building business-changing play platforms. There is no doubt that Nike+ represented a ‘game changer’. And Lady Gaga, perhaps the most instinctive marketer in the world today, made a more recent brilliant move when she launched her latest album with a rich and meaningful collaboration with Zynga (the creators of Farmville). Gaga-ville had unicorns, glitter…plus downloadable songs from her new album.

Lady Gaga launched her new album with a link-up with Zynga. GaGa-ville had unicorns and glitter, plus downloadable songs from the album

But these are only spontaneous and inspirational hits from the bleeding edge of marketing. Most of the time, when brands try to get involved with gamification, it ends up being a dull and directionless sponsorship approach. And while there is a massive opportunity, it is not a straightforward one.
It is our belief, in true gaming fashion, that brands need to adopt the following Five Golden Rules of thumb to maximise their chances of success in incorporating ‘play’ elements into campaign thinking.

1 Know the pitfalls
The modern marketing scene is littered with vacuous and meaningless campaigns that boil down to nothing more than tag-ons to what are real and powerful human dynamics that neither need nor feed off brand participation. And current trends in gamification are unfortunately not immune to this.
It is not enough, for example, just to sponsor the latest EA game franchise. Neither is it enough to get more down and dirty with street play activations that add nothing to the very things they sponsor. Even noble attempts such as Tiger beer’s street football in Asia, which resonate in themselves simply because they provide additional vents for existing football passions, still tend to pose a difficult question; beyond sponsoring such activities, would the gaming elements themselves be any different without the brand or product involved? From the perspective of the participants, most of the time the answer is no. And, even while it may add a bit of authenticity to FIFA12 to have some branded in-stadia perimeter advertising, it wouldn’t add to the actual experience of gameplay, which is what the punters queue up for in the first place.
So, it’s not just about sponsorship. but neither is more active brand participation a panacea for success. For example, while it might be notable that the perennial Obama campaign is signing up for Foursquare, with gamification at its heart, what will be the real benefit in the run-up to the 2012 US Presidential elections? The Washington Post sees it as “further proof that the challenges facing the us have become so complex that conveying information via traditional means no longer suffices”. But the act of a sitting US President becoming ‘Mayor’ of a series of US locations may become a bit moot, and do nothing in terms of adding to Obama’s existing brand imagery among a given social media demographic. It might just prove to be nothing more than a ‘Mayoral Badge of Meaninglessness’, akin, in engagement terms at least, to empty sponsorship.
Even attempts that do register in the short term are faced with lingering questions around their long-term impact. For example, Microsoft ran a promotion last year offering free ‘farm cash’ – the virtual currency of Zynga’s Farmville – to those who became Facebook fans of Bing. It was an apparent runaway success, with an immediate gain of 500,000 new Facebook fans. But are they staying engaged? “We still have the debate,” Bing Worldwide marketing general manager, Wes Nichols, has since been quoted as saying. “Are those friends active and coming back, or did they just friend bing to get the free pig on the farm?”
Brands need to understand the intrinsic short and long-term benefits of any play approach – benefits to participants, plus the benefits to the brand. Otherwise they run the danger of simply providing gamification equivalents of traditional retail promos.
So if, as the above examples illustrate, it’s not just about in-game ads, sponsorship, location-based badges, leaderboards, or even virtual currency… what should it be about?
The answer lies in ‘what you do’ and ‘the way that you do it’.and it demands great strategic diligence. Much more than is currently apparent in the marketplace.

2 Look before you leap (do a Play Audit)
Different kinds of play and games are more appropriate for certain tasks, certain audiences and certain brands. The role of segmentation and targeting are absolutely fundamental to how we develop and execute traditional message-based ‘push’ marketing, But when it comes to gamification, brands are largely still operating in a ‘strategy free’ zone. This is a glaring gap, and at Naked Play, our dedicated unit in this space, we are going about the business of trying to plug it.
The key to leveraging play dynamics for brands lies in unlocking the sweet spot in any overlap between people, play and products. As an industry, we have largely been good at unearthing the relationship between people and brands. But we have yet to fully import an understanding of how and why people play, how games fulfil fundamental human needs, and where the sweet spots are for brands. Each of these areas, and their intersections have to be fully ‘audited’ which is the focus of our three remaining Golden Rules.

3 Understand play basics (what lies beneath)
Products and brands fulfil needs, be those needs lower-order physical ones or higher-order socio-emotive ones. And play dynamics fulfil needs, be those short-term entertainment needs, social connection needs, or longer-term needs associated with learning, skills development, or social bonding. We need to provide brands with up-to-date maps of play dynamics, outlining the behaviours and emotions typically involved in different types of play behaviour. Most of the evidence (from work done by Nicole Lazzaro, Richard Bartle, and Nick Yee among others) points to clusters of behaviours and emotions being associated with different kinds of play. While this can vary across cultures, there are fundamental commonalities, such as the need to explore, copy, learn and adapt to environments, which are all fundamental human building blocks. Messing about with our existing skills-sets in new environments is what has actually kept us alive for thousands of years.
At a bare minimum, there is a chance for brands and products to at least be associated with such needs. But these attempts ideally need to go further than mere association and should actually help elicit such behaviours and associated emotions.the best route to emotion is not just about telling people brand stories, its about doing stuff with and for people.
Emotional bonds are often a by-product of what we do, not vice versa, and play is often the key to unlocking emotion, not storytelling. Or, as this Chinese proverb illustrates: “Tell me and I will forget, involve me and I will feel”. The sweet-spot for gamification is, therefore, often a question of brand-funded utility.

4 Understand brand roles (what can brands add)
Brands cannot approach these fundamental behaviours like a ‘zero-sum game’. It’s not enough simply to provide
content and ask people to sacrifice some of their attention in return. If a brand demands attention around moments of exploration, they cannot do so in a manner that even partially detracts from our time spent exploring. Brands have to act as tools that facilitate or augment the needs fulfilment that games represent (be it exploration or to compete or to connect).
For example, in Japan in 2010, Uniqlo Lucky Switch was a new blog widget that turns pictures into a simple online lottery.
Consumers were asked to paste a Uniqlo Lucky Switch into a blog, flip the switch, and watch the picture instantly turn into an online lottery. Winners received a free original bag; those that did not win saw information related to that day’s 31-day campaign of daily limited goods. It was an engaging success and a great example of branded utility that tapped into some fundamental human gaming and sharing dynamics.

5 Map people differences (typologies of play)
Our fifth Golden Rule relates to the fact that people have different propensities for different types of play.
Richard Bartle attempted to illustrate this some time ago by referring to different types of personalities involved in the very specific environment of early multi-user games. The Bartle Test, which grew out of these early attempts at gamer classification, has now been taken by almost a quarter of a million online gamers. each have been classified as Explorers, Achievers, Socialisers, or Killers.
Bartle himself tells us he never intended these classifications to be reflective of all human play typologies and contexts, but it has provided a good, if limited, starting point for understanding different dynamics.
Nick Yee has tried to validate bartle’s play typologies based on available data, but there is a real need for a map that is reflective of play dynamics in a broader context beyond the limited world of multiplayer online games.
At Naked Play, we believe that different types of people can be mapped against broad behavioural dynamics (figure 1). Imagineering refers to our need for exploration and fantasy. Mastery refers to our need for goals and skills development. Social bond refers to our need to connect, co-operate and compete. Personal Value refers to our need for wider meaning, focus or balance.
Our play audit does the following: maps people typologies based on responses to lifestyle questions on syndicated surveys; filters this by geographical market for cultural nuance; maps where products fit on this map based on reported usage; and isolates sweets spots for specific game platform developments.
This provides guidelines in terms of what kind of consumer in what market will respond to what kind of gaming approach, how much of a stretch a gaming platform it is for a given brand position, and what gaming elements should be involved in platform development. It helps our clients answer questions such as ‘should we up the ante in terms of points, rewards, badges, community connections, or competitiveness?’
And it can help from both sides of the brand and game development fence. From the perspective of brand, it can help improve brand reach (by isolating core play segments); improve brand authenticity (by mapping where brands and play fit); and improve brand imagery by mapping brands against play-induced emotions.
From the perspective of developers, it can help improve game relevance by matching game ingredients with target play typologies; improve game authenticity by mapping where games types and people fit; and improve game contents by mapping game elements with induced emotions.
Given the potential scope for brands, and the growing scale of the games industry, this is an area that demands strategic diligence.