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Gamification: Four Mistakes and Pitfalls to Avoid

$html.esc($author.firstName) Zichermann By Gabe Zichermann on October 10, 2014

Doing great work in gamification requires diligence, commitment and an ability to spot the hazards. This is the seventh installment in an eight-part series by gamification expert Gabe Zichermann that examines how loyalty marketers can integrate gamification strategies to increase engagement.


If there is one figure to make marketers rethink their game plans, it is this: More than 80% of employee-facing gamification initiatives are destined to fail.

This is according to what the research group Gartner reported earlier this year. And although this is an entirely different category of gamification than loyalty marketing – and the hit rate is much higher – these findings still carry an important lesson for all those involved in advance engagement strategies: Doing great work in gamification is hard, and it requires diligence, commitment and a longer view.

Fortunately for marketers, while each loyalty situation is unique, we can identify a few common mistakes and pitfalls to avoid. Staying clear of these obstructions isn't guaranteed to make your project a success, but it certainly can help earn the organization's ongoing support and deliver the best experience to your users. Following are four tips for avoiding the pitfalls.

First, it's imperative to set reasonable expectations for any gamified loyalty intervention being explored. Many of the gamification case studies I've shared (and hundreds more on our website, gamification.co) demonstrate triple-digit increases in engagement and substantial revenue growth at launch. But these metrics are not always sustainable. When sharing these outliers with the management team, it's important to set reasonable expectations for what the company can accomplish and not set yourself up for disappointment. A good rule of thumb is the "12/20" rule. With 12 months of continuous focus, you should be able to lift one key engagement metric by 20%.

In most organizations that would be a huge win, but it also points us in the direction of two more pitfalls.

Don't use two-step metrics. Most organizations, wholly reasonably, focus on the bottom line. As a result it’s often expeditious for loyalty marketers pitching new proposals to offer a top-line metric improvement from the get-go (e.g. if we implement this program, we can generate a 2% revenue lift). This approach should be avoided at all costs, because many factors and variables affect whether a multi-step metric becomes a performer. Instead, I suggest companies focus on a metric they have direct control over.

For example, if you are working on a physical retail project, you can offer to improve the "customers in the door" metric or the "time spent looking at window displays" metric. Similarly, if the team is working online, it should consider the time spent on the site or clicks per visitor rather than revenue. Then the team can connect those metrics to revenue using the internal customer funnel ("If I bring in 10% more clicks, they should convert to sales at 10%.") This will ensure maximum organizational success for the project.

Similarly, it's key to maintain focus for 12 months or more. Although a gamification project can be launched in 90 days or less, it's critical to see good customer gamification as the product of a medium- to long-term focus on results – a focus that requires an agile approach. This means that over the course of the 12 months following launch, your company and its gamification partner work closely to optimize the offering. Don't expect that the program will be amazing right out of the gate; give it time to get the interactions right. This is called "game balancing" and it requires sustained effort.

The 12-month focus also should help beat the temptation of thinking of a gamification program as a short-term project, or "test," which is almost always a bad approach. Rather, in this mental shift, it's key to unlearn another dysfunction of loyalty marketing to offer everything at once. In traditional loyalty program rollouts, marketers often are accustomed to making the best offer to the customer immediately. But in gamification design, it’s more effective to slowly reveal the complexity of the program and leave the customer always wanting more. Instead of a giant prize to salivate over, a longer, "thinner" trail of breadcrumbs can help keep the user interested longer, and give you the bandwidth to offer more interesting rewards over time. This helps keep the program cheaper, more agile and – ultimately – more interesting to the customer.

I've seen many of these pitfalls first-hand in working with our clients across a wide range of industries. Although they are but a few of the most obvious issues to avoid, spotting them in advance can markedly help improve one’s gamification efforts. Like many loyalty programs, our goal in designing great gamification is not only to learn the lessons of others, but also to design entirely unique interventions that are creative, meaningful, effective and deliver on brand promise.

Learning from the lessons of others can help create the lasting engagement and value your organization demands, while helping you achieve professional and market success.


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 (dopa.mn) 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 StartOut.org.

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