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Game Mechanics for Loyalty Marketers

$html.esc($author.firstName) Zichermann By Gabe Zichermann on May 12, 2014

This is the fourth in an eight-part series by gamification expert Gabe Zichermann that examines how loyalty marketers can integrate gamification strategies to increase engagement.

As established in my previous columns, the foundation of gamification is powerfully rooted in behavioral economics, human psychology, game and user-experience design. These are many of the same core design concepts inherent in loyalty-program design and marketing, so it’s no surprise that the connection between gamification and loyalty runs deep.

In fact, early discussions around gamification borrowed heavily from the loyalty design lexicon. Now, with five years of experience under our belts, we have a series of tactical approaches for gamification by loyalty marketers that we can readily deploy and that will make a significant difference in the process.

Although there is a wide range of mechanics and meaningful foci for loyalty marketers, I’d say the most important are: competition, cooperation, instant feedback and recognition.


Competition is a core part of many game interactions, but its role is often misunderstood.

In the loyalty setting, competition usually takes the form of limited-availability resources, such as upgrades, that are zero-sum for the consumer. In gamification, the goal of competition is to motivate specific behaviors, not to make the player feel bad for having lost. The most common way this competition is expressed is through a leaderboard, or ranked list of players by score.

Leaderboards can be powerful guiders of behavior, as Air Canada learned with one of its eponymous campaigns in 2013. The key to that program working was not simply in ranking customers by miles flown and/or spending (or suppliers by popularity or spending), but rather by focusing on specific behaviors that can be driven by a competition mechanic. In Air Canada’s case, it was to push users to explore a wide range of routes and destinations and to maximize miles flown during the promotional period. If it’s well designed, and the audience is competitively inclined, leaderboards can really influence behavior.


The downside? For every winner, there have to be some losers, and unfortunately the classic design of leaderboards leaves too many losers. This is where cooperation comes in – the gamification mechanic that allows users to collaborate on a goal together and achieve their objectives.

Though mechanisms like leaderboards may still be used, the goal of co-op play is to get a group of people to focus on beating a shared goal rather than beating each other. One example from the gamification world is FoldIt, an online game through which users work collectively to solve major science problems, such as HIV structure. Though we are each pushing for our personal best, we’re also in service of a common objective. Imagine using this around social responsibility campaigns, crowdsourcing activities or even team challenges in loyalty – it’s powerful stuff and a great way to improve meaning.

Instant feedback

Because meaning develops over time, engagement is key to ensuring users have a great first experience and keep coming back. That’s the role of the instant feedback game mechanic, a design concept that puts the emphasis on rewarding users early and often.

In the classic loyalty sense, this means an instant reward for users the first time they fly or stay, rather than waiting for them to attain the first status tier. It may provide a better sense of both reinforced value and whimsy, and ensure users that their loyalty will be rewarded over time, even if the recognition takes the form of a simple badge or even text message.

The general guideline is to provide a referential reward in the first interaction – and also within the first 60 seconds. Consider how to optimize the program sign-up flow to reduce the form field entry and expedite the pay off. Retail folks have been doing this for a long time, but it can happen without giveaways and in every context.


Ultimately, well-recognized interactions will bring the user a feeling of achievement – that they’ve made the right choice by expressing loyalty to a product, service or brand. What they want from the brand, in return, is recognition – acknowledgement that their loyalty is worthwhile.

While core program designers are often in a push-pull challenge to manage recognition, for many customers actual recognition comes only when something goes wrong, or in contrived settings that are increasingly available for purchase (not just through loyalty).

Gamified recognition, however, can happen all the time and should come with a bit of surprise. Consider a range of approaches, including sending an unexpected badge to a user for a job well done (Great third flight this week! Thanks for calling us!), a robocall from the company’s CEO (a popular reward in Nike+) or even a special piece of merchandise that can only be received by elite users. Either way, peer recognition is always worth more than company recognition, so if you’re using a co-op or competitive approach, there’s an opening to raise the meaningfulness of recognition there.

Regardless of which gamification mechanics you use, a wide range of approaches are available and these four are but a small sampling. The best way to understand these mechanics is to take a workshop and to evaluate existing programs’ approaches you find engaging, seeking to understand what they do well and what they don’t.

No matter what choice you make, the mechanics ultimately need to be in service of a journey – that long-term arc of mastery and progress that the player is taking while part of your program.

In our next segment, we’ll discuss how to craft that journey so it satisfies you, the player and the system.

The Gamification of Loyalty – An Eight-Part Series
  1. Loyalty and the Engagement Crisis
  2. What is Gamification?
  3. The Science of Gamification
  4. Game Mechanics for Loyalty Marketers
  5. Using Gamification to Guide the Customer Journey
  6. Intangible Rewards and Gamified Loyalty
  7. Gamification: Four Mistakes and Pitfalls to Avoid
  8. How to Gamify Loyalty

Meet The Author

Gabe Zichermann

Gabe Zichermann is CEO and founder of Gamification.Co, a clearing-house for news, insights and research on gamification, and EQ magazine. He chairs the GSummit, where top gamification experts share knowledge about customer and employee loyalty.

Gabe also is co-founder of strategic consultancy and product lab Dopamine ( where he works with leading brands and start-ups to bring engagement to every corner of their enterprise.

A highly rated public speaker and author, Gabe's books include "The Gamification Revolution" (2013), "Gamification by Design" (2011) and "Game-Based Marketing" (2010). Gabe resides in New York City, where he is co-director of start-up accelerator The Founder Institute, and a board member of

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