Gamification Builds Strong Customer Relationships

Posted 2012-11-20

By Steve Alter

There’s little doubt that “engagement” is now the coin of the realm in the arena of social business. Almost daily, new research announces the importance of customer engagement, companies declare their commitment to engaging employees, and thought leaders such as McKinsey & Company proclaim that we are now in “the era of engagement.”

Such a buzzword may generate excitement, but it’s of little consolation to a business leader watching customers abandon online communities, employees fail to adopt social software and efforts to “get engaged” deliver underwhelming results. At that point, executives often start questioning “the ROI of engagement,” when they really should be asking, “What is engagement, and are we actually doing it?”

To “engage” according to, is “to attract, to involve in intensely; to secure for aid.” Imagine your brand driving those kinds of outcomes with customers and employees, and it instantly becomes clear that engagement is not an activity, a tool or an old-school marketing campaign dressed up in social clothing. Real engagement requires commitment, trust and interaction, building a two-way street that delivers mutual benefit to both parties.

“Gamification,” like “engagement,” is a word that has been so overhyped of late that it seems more useful for a game of Buzzword Bingo than as a business initiative. But with its combination of game mechanics, social networking, interactive media and behavioral analytics, gamification enables real, scalable engagement in ways that can transform your business.


Also like engagement, however, achieving your desired business goals through gamification demands a calculated strategy that goes beyond the “shiny object syndrome,” and an enterprise-ready platform to enable and support your plans.  Here are four basic steps to help get you started and keep you on track.

Step 1: Clearly define your objectives.

How and where are customers and employees interacting with you today? How can social engagement add value to that interaction?  What impact will it have on the business? In social engagement, a failure to plan is definitely a plan for failure, yet too often we see the articulation of clear business objectives overlooked in the rush to implement a new program or platform. Even if your initial efforts were ad hoc and reactive—“Everyone’s in social, we need a Facebook page tomorrow!”—it’s critical to do the strategic planning that will make engagement an imperative instead of a checkbox.

Dell did exactly that on their its way to becoming a leading social business. Initially using social channels in reaction to a series of customer service crises, Dell quickly recognized a larger opportunity to dramatically change the nature of its relationship with customers and shift brand perception. Since then, Dell has strategically embedded social engagement into its business, affecting sales, support and product development by enabling multiple points of interaction with customers and actively joining the brand conversation.

Step 2: Foster current participation and encourage more of it.

Like a traditional marketing campaign, social efforts often focus on creating broad awareness to attract new fans. Yet, every minute of every day, thousands of customers are contributing to your brand value through their participation in social channels: recommending your products, answering customer questions, retweeting news or reviewing your products.  If you are failing to actively engage these customers or employees, you are leaving money on the table. Rather than putting all of your efforts into chasing a new audience, focus on the most valuable activities people are already participating in and understand their behaviors so you can encourage more of it.

Adding gamification to a social environment creates a rewarding experience for your community experts, and as they strive for broader recognition, lets them model an aspirational path for your enthusiasts and casual users to increase their participation and deepen their involvement. Leveraging this natural human desire for recognition and validation not only raises the level of engagement, but also reduces the friction required to do so. Rather than igniting a new fire, you can simply fan the flames of an existing one and watch it spread.

Step 3: Leverage—and act upon—behavioral analytics.

The Microsoft MVP Program remains one of the largest and most successful influencer management programs, with more than 4,000 active community experts worldwide. When evangelizing the program across Microsoft to secure product group participation, executives would often scratch their heads, unable to fathom why so many people would spend so much of their personal time contributing feedback or helping others solve problems for free. We had the same explanations many community experts did—public recognition, altruism, reciprocity, demonstrating expertise—but truly understanding the behavioral dynamics of participants was decidedly more art than science.

Gamification begins to shift that balance by tracking a wide range of individual actions in real time. The Badgeville Behavior Platform, which we partner with for enterprise-class gamification programs, can capture much richer, more granular and statistically significant data, illuminating the “what, when and why” that’s driving user behavior.

Through gamification, we can see what keeps beginners from becoming more deeply involved, what tipping points pull users into active engagement, and how to shorten the life cycle between levels of increasing activity. Armed with this deeper understanding of the motivators for individual and community behavior, the engagement experience can be continually optimized to incentivize and influence those behaviors

Step 4: Demonstrate your commitment to providing value.

All this talk of driving desired customer behavior may have you asking, “What about that two-way street?” With consumers becoming increasingly skeptical— even cynical—about the behavior of brands infiltrating their personal lifestyle, it’s more critical than ever that they perceive real value in their engagement with you.

Joining the conversation and listening to social chatter are table stakes: You must be genuine, you must be responsive, you must act on customer feedback, you must thank people for participation and you must let people know that they are a vital part of your brand. And you must be engaged. Providing value through action is the ultimate reward for customers who want to know that engagement is meaningful.

Beyond the Engagement Checkbox

Just as launching a Facebook page or Twitter feed doesn’t instantly make you an engaged enterprise, implementing gamification is not a panacea for activating customers and employees. The environment must be cultivated to create the conditions for involvement, and it must provide a genuine exchange of value.

As gamification gains momentum, companies that do it right—delivering engagement, enjoyment and reward to their customers and employees—will gain the competitive advantages and differentiation this new paradigm enables. On the other hand, those that see gamification as simply another channel for pushing their message on people or exploiting customer data will see swift disengagement from their users.

People are wired to play games, but no one wants to play a game that’s not fair.

Steve Alter is director of social business strategy at Ant’s Eye View, a strategic management consulting firm that helps enterprise clients such as AT&T, KPMG, Cisco and Starbucks identify and influence high-value social behaviors to drive business results. For more information, visit