Whether it’s when McDonald’s first rolled out its Monopoly game in the ‘80s or modern-day digital examples such as Nike+ Fuelband, the world’s top brands have long indulged in gamification to bring some fun to consumers’ lives, create a sense of loyalty, and add a little play to their traditional marketing push. The numbers don’t lie. As studies have shown in recent years, gamification is now a multibillion-dollar tool that has taken on an increasingly pivotal role in a brand’s marketing strategy. And as AR and VR take center stage, brand games will only become more commonplace.

But are all the fun and games truly worth the hype to those companies that haven’t dipped their toes in yet? Before rolling the dice on creating a game, brands new to the playing field should first address and tackle certain challenges that come with embracing the tactic.

All the same mistakes

Brands must understand that their traditional ways of creating a marketing campaign — ideas, design, build, launch and repeat the cycle — are worthless when  building a game. Forget the usual surface-level goals: A marketing campaign integrating gamification strategies must be an engaging game first, and marketing campaign second.

Traditionally, marketing campaigns, online and off, are designed to raise awareness, prioritizing reach over everything else. Gamification success, however, relies on users to keep coming back and playing.  This is where most make mistakes, investing heavily in paid media initiatives when, in the case of a gamification-focused campaign, the focus should be on engagement and growth – not just immediate awareness and eyeballs.

In essence, having a longer-term strategy and execution plan on how to continuously scale and grow the initiative is key. That difference between the business objectives of a marketing campaign and those of game-building requires a different process and thinking behind design and execution.

Above: The Mars brand game for Cisco.

Image Credit: The1stMovement

The guide to gamification

For brands looking to think differently and integrate gamification into their campaign, here are a few tips to take into consideration first:

  • Tell the right story
    All marketing efforts, unlike sales efforts, should be about telling a story that resonates with your specific audience.  With that in mind, any gamification strategy has to support and enhance the brand or product story that needs to be told, or better yet, create a game story that supports and enhances the brand story.This was the challenge we faced when we collaborated with Cisco to create the Mars Network Challenge, a game designed to explore a new way for the brand’s audience to explore and interact with their new product, DNA. Making sure to set our sights on engagement allowed us to stay focused in creating a timely, compelling, and resonating story.  This included enticing our target audience of engineers by making them the “heroes” of the story centered on using Cisco technology to aid in the Mars migration while also modeling it after popular viral mobile games – easy to play with no instructions, endless levels and multiple ways to beat them.
  • First make it fun and engaging
    “Fun” and “engaging” are two adjectives that are often associated with good game design, and these apply to brand games, too. Marketers shouldn’t be afraid to take the opportunity to create a fantasy world or story and immerse players into that world to generate the engagement they desire.

Nike recently took this to heart with Reactland, a three-minute game that’s triggered by visitors who were testing out Nike’s Epic React shoes on treadmills in Nike stores across China.  After creating an avatar, users are invited into a virtual world where they can bounce off of clouds, encounter pandas and frogs, and ultimately receive a 10-second clip of their game play to share on social media.

  • Find the “hook”
    For any gamification to work successfully, you have to find ways to entice players to keep coming back and there are a lot of game design practices that successfully achieve this goal. Specifically, the idea of rewards and a leaderboard can serve the needs of players and marketers when used appropriately, and deliver further investment in any game.

Arguably one of the most successful uses of this gamification strategy is Starbucks Rewards, which offers a great deal of incentives for the users to continuously re-engage with the Starbucks app through a combination of points, stars, and even product giveaways and downloadable, digital gifts.

  • Create a platform, not a campaign
    Unlike a standard marketing campaign, successful gamification initiatives should be designed and launched incrementally and iteratively.  Taking a page from the success of viral mobile games, they should have continuous improvements — like new rewards, skills, levels and powerups — to keep players continuously engaged within a brand ecosystem and moving down the marketing or sales funnel.

This is a key strength of Fitbit, for example. By creating not only a campaign, but a platform to gamify fitness, the brand incorporates an extensive list of features that not only keep users coming back, but moreover, creates a dedicated community of brand advocates in the process.

To game or not to game

Of course, not every strategy requires that you build a game. But any marketing effort can be improved by simply recognizing and integrating any useful gamification elements – whether it’s a competitive drive, fun gameplay or the feeling of victory won by skill, strength, or luck.

As technology, market conditions and consumer behavior evolve, the line between games and marketing campaigns will continue to blur. And in this digital-first world, being empathetic to the needs of the customers will be crucial to marketing success. Remember, consumers don’t want to be sold to, but rather crave an experience with brands that’s fun and engaging – the real reasons why people play games in the first place.

Ming Chan is CEO of The1stMovement, an independently-owned digital agency with offices in Los Angeles, Denver and Hong Kong.