Game-Based Marketing: The Ever-Growing Trend in Social Media

Ever wonder how much of Twitter’s success hinges on the simple fact that you can see how many followers you (and others on Twitter) have? How about why more than 50 million monthly users play Farmville on Facebook?

Answers to these questions begin with an understanding of game mechanics, which encompasses a range of rules and theories aimed at positively engaging human behavior.

What Worked Then Still Works Today

Without delving as far back as we could, a common early example of game mechanics in marketing was the creation of the frequent flier program by American Airlines almost 30 years ago.

The game mechanics that made American Airlines’ program successful then are the same making others successful to this day: collecting, points, access, status, rewards.

Because these mechanics are now being focused around driving online engagement, often within a social network, we are witnessing the emergence of a new market of developers and best practices dedicated to helping companies “game-ify” their marketing.

Gamification and Funware

Yes, two more buzz words for your collection. As Gabe Zichermann, co-author of “Game-based Marketing” discusses, almost any task can be designed in a way to make it more fun.

Zichermann, who coined the term Funware, is one of a growing number of experts helping companies understand gamification. Beyond the impression-based concept of inserting brands into games as a marketing tactic, Zichermann challenges us to consider a new paradigm where the brand is the game.

What do the game makers know?

Game Mechanics Work When it Comes to Engaging People

Game company SCVNGR understands this so well they even made “Game Dynamics Playdeck,” a game to help their employees keep game mechanics top of mind.

Erick Schonfeld first published SVNGR’s playdeck on TechCrunch, which includes a comprehensive set of definitions and examples of game mechanics — but even greater insight (along with all contents of the playdeck) can be gained from Adrian Chan‘s expert follow-up post, “I Just Killed a Social Game Mechanic.”

Game Makers Understand the Importance of Fun

Part of that reality translates to a short shelf life for copycat development endeavors that apply uninventive game mechanics only to prod actions towards empty marketing objectives.

I spoke to Zac Brandenberg, CEO of Meteor Games at length about this. Meteor was spawned from the cofounders of, an early virtual gaming venture that sold to Viacom for $160 million in 2005.

Brandenberg’s message to me was loud and clear: “Simplicity is current, but audiences become more demanding for the next best thing. The design of (social) games are evolving to become real entertainment, not just for motivating a click that expands a friend base.”

From a marketing perspective, Brandenberg acknowledges the most successful games of the future won’t necessarily be the ones with the largest user base, and from a monetization perspective, smaller audiences (perhaps still in the millions-per-month category) are frequently more engaged, the more tailored the game is to their interests and entertainment levels.

Practical Takeaways

  1. We as marketers need not become gaming experts to benefit from game mechanics. Watch Amy Jo Kim’s presentation on MetaGame design. The steps she outlines should motivate you.
  2. Game mechanics can have a limited focus, and still be very effective depending on your goal. The Hello Kitty app referenced in “Social Intelligence for Facebook Marketing” takes one simple (but powerfully effective) cue from applications like Farmville — sending people virtual gifts. From virtual to real, the new Ford Focus campaign on Facebook is predominantly tapping into the charity-based game mechanic — enabling multiple participants to not only win something, but also direct $10,000 to the charity of their choice.
  3. Become a better marketer by getting familiar enough with game-based marketing to identify which human desires are fulfilled by game mechanics. Bunchball’s Gamification 101 white paper covers several key topics pertaining to this in detail.
  4. Companies will continue emerging to fill new needs. Each of us have opportunities to learn how we can apply and even create our own context for game-based marketing — and as the field continues to grow, new companies like Big Door, a game mechanics platform provider, will step in to help.

Want to learn more about social gaming? Check out Search Engine Watch’s new Social Gaming section.

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