Brands that failed with gamification

Adam Kleinberg

Monsters are very powerful. You need awesome weapons to kill them.

This is why game mechanics are such an integral part of games. They measure and show your progress toward getting awesome weapons so you can blast monsters to bits.

Gaming is huge — a $60 billion industry. Yet, 84 percent of marketers had no plans to include games in their marketing efforts in 2011.

Marketers want weapons too. They want to blast the money out of their customers’ wallets. Thus, it makes sense that taking cues from the game designer playbook would help them do that.

And so a buzzword is born: gamification. What is gamification? It’s is the application of gaming principles in non-game experiences to drive desired behaviors. Those principles include:

  • Game mechanics: Tactics like progress bars, badges, and leader boards
  • Game dynamics: Similar to strategy templates (for example, avoidance is the dynamic at play when you come water your digital crops each day in Farmville so they don’t die)
  • Currencies: Different ways you can reward “players” for progress

And progress in undoubtedly a powerful motivator. In 2010, Harvard Business Review released a study showing overwhelming evidence that progress was the single most influential factor in keeping people motivated at their jobs on a day-to-day basis.

Gamification is, in essence, a bundle of tools for measuring and rewarding progress.

Some of those tools are nothing new. User experience designers were using progress bars long before “gamification” became a trend. But now that they’ve got a jazzy catch phrase to wrap them in, they’ve gained the attention of those seeking yet another tool to help manipulate consumer behavior in a digital world.

It’s also worthwhile repeating that games are not the same thing as gamification. Marketers often fail to make that distinction. The examples in this article reflect that.

So are you ready to break out the joysticks and get your game on? Do you have visions of badge-laden brand evangelists clawing their way up your leader boards, clambering for the honor of being your biggest fan?

News flash: Strategy doesn’t start with tactics.

There’s a lot of hype around gamification. And while it is a powerful tool, that doesn’t mean it’s a magic bullet. The truth is that some very impressive brands have failed miserably in their oafish efforts to latch onto the next big thing. The successful application of gaming principles requires a very deft hand.

How can you avoid such a painful fate? Here are five mistakes you can learn from and avoid.

The mistake: Being pointless

It’s tempting to look for cookie-cutter solutions — especially when gamification vendors like Bunchball and Badgeville offer “turn-key” solutions that promise to motivate your customers to action.

“Let’s go out and buy us some gamification!”

Unfortunately, audience psychology doesn’t work that way.

Let’s start with the basics. If you just throw a bunch of gamification tactics up without actually having a point, you will fail. Worse than being ineffective, you run the very real risk of alienating your customers.

Even those vendors eager to sell you their flavor of turnkey gamification will tell you that if you’re not strategic about how you use these tools, you won’t be successful.

Game mechanics like leader boards, leveling up, badges, or progress bars can be powerful tools for motivating consumers if leveraged thoughtfully. But in and of themselves, their value equates to zilch.

The culprit: Zappos

Zappos is known for its brilliant marketing. It is a leader in social media. It has taken customer experience to new heights. (Just call its hotline and ask for help getting a pizza delivered). You’d expect the Zappatistas to nail it when it comes to gamification.

That’s why it’s such a shocker when it flops so oafishly. Zappos rewards its customers with a VIP program. The free shipping associated with that status rocks.

It also gives out badges, points, and levels. For what? Who knows? The company doesn’t tell you. You just get these random badge icons that magically show up on your profile page.

What do they mean? No idea.

What value do they have? None.

Why would you want them? You wouldn’t.

The company has also created this elaborate interactive experience where you can explore a virtual world and discover…links to the same products you could already get to through its site navigation.


The pointlessness of this awkward application of gamification is hurtful to the Zappos brand image — in front of its most important VIP customers.

A word to the wise: Think before you gamify.

The mistake: Confusing badges and value

I’ve got sad news for you. No one — I repeat, no one — cares about your badges.

They might care about what those badges represent. But the little pictures you put on their profile page? They simply are meaningless.

People are motivated by a variety of currencies — things that are valuable to them. Those things can be financial rewards, status and recognition, doing good for a cause they care about, contributing to their community, or entertainment.

Badges might make people happy because they depict currency they have earned through specific behavior. But badges are not currency.

The success of Foursquare has made marketers quiver with badge-envy. Badges were a core part of the original Foursquare experience. Their novelty and serendipity created entertainment value that fueled their early adoption and gave Foursquare an edge over its geo-location rivals.

Today badges remain part of the Foursquare experience, but at a much lower level. Despite its first-mover advantage and notoriety with badges, they are one of six items that “define” me on my user profile.

Yet, the temptation for some is too great. Even the geniuses at Google have confused “badges” with “value.”

The culprit: Google

Did you know that you could earn badges on your Google+ profile just by reading articles on Google News?

Now, Google will do you the awesome favor of telling you what you are interested in reading about based on what you read about!

Because, presumably, you are a moron?

Ask yourself a simple question: Are you now motivated to go read articles on Google News and collect some badges?

Kindly, Google has made the default setting that only you can see your badges. This is great because I don’t want you knowing that all the articles I read are about conspiracy theories, combating foot odor, and Snooki.

Unfortunately, I don’t want to remind myself about that either.

Thanks a lot, Googlers.

The mistake: Creating a game no one wants to play

Just because you build it doesn’t mean they will come. It’s very easy for an agency selling a million-dollar idea to tell a marketer:

“Zynga does it! Why can’t you?”

First of all, Zynga doesn’t have an agenda other than creating games. You do.

Second, Zynga has a platform with a hundred-million-plus users to which it can market its games. You don’t.

Third, Zynga has a playbook to drive engagement and virality that it has developed by analyzing billions of data points over the past several years. You don’t. And neither does your agency.

Yet, some marketers can’t resist the limelight associated with being labeled “an innovator.” So they do things like this.

The culprit: Marriott

Last year, Marriott launched a Facebook game called “My Marriott Hotel” to recruit employees for its management program. It’s essentially FarmVille in a hotel. You can select from an ethnically diverse array of characters to play general manager and set up your own Marriott.

Woo hoo.

The first iteration includes one chapter, which depicts a Marriott kitchen. The player buys ingredients, such as lettuce for hamburgers. Buying lettuce. Sounds fun.

The player also hires staff, choosing from a range of experiences and salaries, and buys stoves and kitchen utensils. During rounds in the kitchen, players have to direct tickets to cooks and inspect food orders for quality before sending them out to customers.

That’s an awful lot of investment for a very limited audience. I suspect that someone at Marriott has come down with a case of Shiny Object Syndrome.

The company said it would roll out chapters depicting other aspects of the hotel business this year. Unsurprisingly, those chapters have yet to materialize.

I’ll go out on a limb and guess that Marriott’s budget for this program has gone up in smoke.

The mistake: Obscure gameplay

One of the foundational concepts in game design is gameplay.

A game is structured play, usually for fun. Gameplay is a player’s interaction inside the game.

Duh, you say. Perhaps.

But in order for your game — or your gamified non-game experience — to be engaging, people have to understand how to play it. You need to be as intuitive as an iPad to a 4-year-old. Or you need to teach them the rules.

Yet it’s a complete shocker that such a simple precept is so regularly forgotten.

The culprit: Klout

Klout calls itself the standard for influence. Gamification is core to the experience. It gets a lot right.

Klout wants to reward people for their social influence. It realizes rewards are critical, so it has made them the key to its monetization strategy.

Based on my Klout score, I am rewarded certain Klout Perks. I love these Perks. In the past few months, I have gotten free Pop Chips mailed to my home, a Chevy Volt delivered to my doorstep for me to cruise around in for the weekend, and a free $10 lunch when I downloaded the GoPago app on my iPhone.

The problem is that I don’t know how to play the game.

I check my Klout score more often than I care to admit. I’m hooked on Perks. Over the past few months, however, my Klout score has dropped from 57 to 51.

I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what I could have done differently. I don’t know what I can do to reverse the tide.

Klout defines the Klout Score thusly: “The Klout Score measures influence based on your ability to drive action. Every time you create content or engage you influence others.”

This doesn’t help me understand how I can play the game better.

At the same time, I have figured out how to game the system. I’m very active on Twitter and Facebook. I’m not active on Google+. When I connected my Google+ account to Klout, my score dropped 10 points in a week. So, I unconnected it.

I’m sure this is not how Klout intended for the game to be played.

Klout also allows you to give “+K” to influential people. This has no impact on Klout scores, however. According to Lynn Fox from Klout:

“+K does not currently affect a user’s Klout Score. It’s an indication that a user has influenced someone else in their community about a particular topic, and it can affect how you are ranked as an influencer in a particular topic on Klout. For instance, Klout says you are influential about internet marketing — if you receive enough +Ks from the community about internet marketing, you might be placed on the top 10 influencers list for that topic, but it does not affect your score.”

So, the one part of the gameplay I thought was intuitive is actually counterintuitive.

The moral of the story: Don’t confuse your users.

The mistake: Looking for magic bullets

Strategy should precede tactics. You shouldn’t try to gamify an experience because it’s a sexy buzzword. You should do it because you have a problem to solve and gamification is an appropriate solution. That requires looking at your digital experience holistically.

There are no magic bullets. Fundamental problems are fundamental problems. All the badges, leader boards, levels, and virtual goats you can dream of aren’t going to change that.

A few months ago a client (who shall remain anonymous) came to my agency hoping for us to use gamification to increase trial conversions for its online product; people were signing up, but then never using the product.

When we conducted an audit of the client’s digital experience, it quickly became clear that gamifying the experience would be a useless endeavor unless the company first addressed some significant shortfalls in its product user experience and contact strategy.

Fortunately, that client was open to the recommendation. If we had just given the client what it asked for, the project would have been a miserable failure.

Failing when you take a smart risk is one thing. Failing when you have blinders on to reality is another. Always make sure you know what it is you’re trying to achieve — and that you’re not adhering to a preconceived notion of a magic bullet solution without truly understanding what your problem is.

Don’t gamify without asking “Why?”

There are many brands successfully applying gamification to enhance their marketing efforts. As you’ve seen, however, there are many stumbling blocks along that road as well.

The critical difference between success and failure is “Why?”

Why am I doing this?”

Why will my customers care?”

Why will this strategy solve my problem?”

If you’ve got good answers to these questions, it might be time to inject a little play into your work. If not…

Game over.

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