Gamification is the new Crowdsourcing

If you’ve been following my blog for the last couple of years you know I’ve written a lot about crowdsourcing (Ed. Note – You can find all my crowdsourcing-related posts here). Even wrote a little ebook on the topic with the help of many friends. The same sorts of conversations and buzz I heard with crowdsourcing I’m now hearing with game mechanics, or ‘gamification’ as it is often called. A term greatly disliked by many people who take this stuff seriously. And that in part is the crux of this post. Terms quickly get thrown about (like ‘viral’) by people who aren’t really sure what they are speaking about.  I’ve already started writing on this a bit, and hope to continue to do so.  I’ll be looking to tap into a wide variety of practitioners and skeptics with the goal of providing an objective and balanced perspective on the subject. Here are two people that I recently had the chance to exchange correspondence with and I thought they both had worthwhile views on the issue. First, a brief note from Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group. Brian’s also a driving force behind the Pivot Conference taking place in New York this October (sign up here to attend). I asked Brian about the future of game mechanics and questioned if 2011 was the year this practice went from insider knowledge to over-exposed and misused (jumping the shark as it were):

Brian Solis: Before I can answer, I can’t believe that Happy Days culture is still alive. When will jumping the shark finally jump the shark? I believe that in social media as anything jumps the shark it means it’s starting to take a strong foothold within the mainstream. This is good because that means we, as everyday people, have a say in the direction of new media and how we discover, share and learn. Game theory and gamification hold promise in engagement, personalization, and rewards. It will make for better website experiences, for more enriching exchanges in social and mobile networks, and I believe it will also help reinvent our education system.

So, a very positive spin on things from Brian and I agree with him for the most part. I think there are some lessons from crowdsourcing that we can take though. Not every website or brand is ideal for game mechanics, and it’s important to understand the science as well as the art to getting it right. On that note, I spoke with Laurent Courtines who has worked with online communities for over ten years, first managing and establishing the fantasy sports community and for the last five years leading community and social initiatives at AOL’s He is the  founder of the The Blog at and can be found musing on the Internet at He was kind enough to answer several of my questions and I thought his responses were worth sharing in full:

Rick Liebling: Two years ago Crowdsourcing was the buzz word every marketer was spouting, now it’s ‘gamification.’ What should marketers know before jumping into this area, whether it’s branded social games or social rewards in a community?

Laurent Courtines: I’ll sum it up in a list form:

1. It’s not easy.
Think it through. Always think to yourself,  will this be fun?  If it’s not fun to you,  it won’t be fun for your audience.

2. You can’t just slap badges on your content and expect people to become more engaged.
Affinity items and badges systems are ongoing.  Once your audience gets a taste for the rewards, they will want more.  Be prepared to support your campaign for a long time.

3. Study!
Play games,  think about what makes a game fun.  Go back to your childhood and think about games you played. What made Monopoly, Shoots and Ladders or Q-Bert fun? Make a list and find the fun.

4. Don’t over-complicate things.
You don’t have to have ALL the game mechanics all at once.  It could just be a leader board for your site calling out the most active participants, or a simple progression bar to show you how far you have to go to complete an order. (LinkedIn is a good example of how great a little progress bar can be. You always want to fill in your profile)
It’s little features that can help a lot!

5. Trust the experts.
As a marketer, trust the game designers and producers.  Usually, they are the real game lovers and understand the game audience much more than you do.  If you have an idea for a branded game, trust the game makers when they say no one wants to play a game with Clorox all over it.  Do simple things like sponsor the game to be ad free for a while (most online games have a pre-roll ad). Give something to the player that they can appreciate.

Overall, I think the game mechanics being added to non-game events are good. We just have to realize that there is work involved.  It’s not a magic bullet and has to have focus.


I think you’re going to hear and see a lot on this topic in the second half of this year. I’m looking forward to following the developments.

CMO Social Media Challenges: Community Building and Game Mechanics

If you’re a CMO there’s a decent chance somewhere along the line you built, or inherited, an online community. You’ve got 200/2,000/20,000 people milling around on some site, doing things. Reading articles, favoriting videos, posting comments, etc.  A good portion of these “members” probably haven’t done much recently and you’re starting to wonder what the point of having this community it.

Recently  you’ve probably been hearing more and more about something called gamification. Or maybe it was called Game Mechanics, or Game Theory, or Social Gaming or Social Rewards. It would be understandable if you were a little confused. Even the people working in the space seem to have a difference of opinion about the merits and validity of some of these terms. Gamification seems to be the least accepted by those involved in this area, see examples here and here, so let’s toss that aside for now. For the purposes of this article, let’s agree to use the term Game Mechanics. So, what do you need to know? Is it something you should be pulling into your community engagement strategy? If so, what are some first steps you should be taking?  Here are 5 tips to get you started:

1. By a loose definition, Game Mechanics are already all around you.

You’ve probably got a LinkedIn account. Remember when you were first signing up and they kept telling you to do one more thing to complete your profile? They even told you what percentage of your profile was complete (Your profile is 85% complete, just link your Twitter account and you’ll be all set). Whenever you’re given encouragement or incentives to do just a little thing, that’s Game Mechanics at work. As you start to think about this in your daily activities, you’ll see how prevalent it is. So don’t think of this as some strange voodoo that only tech savvy people will want to engage with. You’ll be much more comfortable with the concept once you start to be aware of it and how it works on you.


2. Take a deeper dive by reading some books

I’d recommend to great books on this field:

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal,PhD. She’s a world-renowned designer of alternate reality games — or, games that are designed to improve real lives and solve real problems. This TED Talk by McGonigal lays out some of her big picture thinking:

If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.

Also try Game Frame by Aaron Dignan, CEO of Undercurrent.  Here’s a video he created to promote the book:

If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.

See what I did there? You’re a busy CMO, you don’t have time to read those books cover to cover, but you can probably bluff your way through a conversation on game mechanics now thanks to those videos. Actually, here watch one more. This presentation from Jesse Schell at the DICE2010 conference is very interesting as well:

If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.


3. Understand what you want to do

Like all of Social Media, you can do a lot of things with Game Mechanics. Before you go down this road, know what you want to do. What sort of behaviours are you trying to effect? Otherwise you’ll end up with a confusing experience for people. You want to have a clear understanding of your goals and the actions you want people to take. Remember though, what you want and what the members of your community want may not always align. Now it’s entirely possible that you’ll be conflicted about this and will need some help. Enter…


4. Work with the experts

If you watched the videos above you realize that this is pretty sophisticated stuff.  You can’t just slap a badge on something, or give away points. Even this can be a tricky proposition though. Give a read to this post by Adrian Chan when he looked under the hood at the people who put together the game mechanics for the mobile social network game SCVNGR. Look around a bit and check out companies like Badgeville or Gamify.

5. Hire an in-house community manager

If you don’t already have this person, go get one. Engaging with people is a hands-on job, you need someone who is devoted to shaping and guiding your online community. This person will be monitoring community activity and is responsible for providing status reports (among other things).  They need to have an intimate knowledge of the brand, the technology and the community. This is an in-house position even if you have an agency (that’s another thing they do, communicate with the agency).


Hopefully this is enough to get you started and asking your agency or internal team smart questions. If you are involved in this industry and you have things to add, I’d love your comments as well.

Empire Avenue: 5 Stages of Believing

It might take a little while, but you'll start to see the value.

I continue to see wide-ranging discussions and viewpoints on Empire Avenue.  I understand the naysayers and their issues, and I’m skeptical of many of the Kool-Aid drinking adherents, but I’m coming around on the platform. Here’s my evolution, one I think others have gone through and many more still have to: The Five Stages of Believing

Stage One: Denial

No, Empire Avenue is just another horrible “vanity play” for all the ‘gurus,’ ‘ninjas,’ and ‘experts.’ I’m not playing that game.

Translation: I have no idea what Empire Avenue is about, but I read a tweet saying it was stupid and a waste of time.

Response: Yeah, that’s what I thought initially too about Empire Avenue (and Twitter and Foursquare and…). It’s a natural reaction and one I think most people go through. The question is, are you a person who enjoys novelty and is willing to put in a little effort?


Stage Two: Anger

Argh! I can’t believe how annoying people are. I don’t care what your share price is, can’t you just go back to tweeting about your lunch plans?!

Translation: Why is everyone having fun over there without me?

Response: Yes, it is annoying when people start talking about their little inside worlds publicly. But you’ll get over it, or learn to tune it out, or maybe, just maybe, you’ll start engaging with those people in a new and different way.


Stage Three: Bargaining

Ok, I’ll check out Empire Avenue, just to see what the fuss is. And I’ll play, but just for a day or two to see how silly this all is.

Translation: Wait a second, this looks like it might be fun. Wow, the game mechanics are pretty intriguing. Huh, a lot of people I know are playing, but tons I don’t know are as well. And several big brands are in here too.

Response: The game mechanics are pretty killer. There is a ton to do on the site, but ultimately, it’s about the people. There are plenty of people on Empire Avenue you’ll want nothing to do with (they’re easy to spot). But I’ve found a whole universe of people I never knew and have already started have interesting, smart conversations with many of them.


Stage Four: Depression

My stock price is so low, and what’s all this jargon mean? I’ll never be able to figure this out!

Translation: Whoa, did I miss the boat on this? Holy smokes, how am I going to figure this all out by next week? Shit, my clients are going to start asking me about this.

Response: Yeah, it’s pretty daunting at first, and really easy to make an etiquette faux pas. But when you stop trying to make a quick buck, or figure out how to game the system and instead try to engage with people and provide value you’ll see things become much clearer. That’s right, despite Empire Avenue’s ‘game feel,’ it stills works best according to general social media guidelines. Be in for the long haul, provide value and show interest in others and you’ll find yourself ‘winning’ in no time.

Stage Five: Acceptance

Maybe I was wrong about this whole Empire Avenue thing? There does seem to be (potential at least) for some real value, on multiple levels.

Translation: Ok, maybe if I can join #SocialEmpire or Team Zen and pick up some tips from The Cabal…

Response: Once you get past the obnoxious spammers urging you to buy shares (it can be like a Moroccan bazaar at times) and start investing time in the site you’ll start to see opportunities open up. If you are a marketer, there seems to be several ways to get brands involved. If you’re just playing for fun, this is more compelling than Farmville or Angry Birds in my opinion. So get over yourself and stop worrying about winning and just have fun.

You can find me on Empire Avenue under the stock symbol (e)RICKL. I’m also the CEO of the Advertising Index.

SXSW Day 1 – On game mechanics and agile agencies

Day 1 at SXW in the books.  Very easy to get overwhelmed by this thing. An absolute crush of people and so much content to try to absorb. I’m just going to focus on a couple of key themes that popped up during panels I attended and in conversation with people I caught up with.

Buster Benson

1. Cooperative Gaming

I’ve been really getting in to game mechanics recently and how they can be used to shift behaviour. The first session I attended focused on cooperative play which I found quite interesting. The speakers, Thor Muller and Buster Benson talked about how the best games strike a balance between competition and cooperation. I think Zynga, the makers of Farmville and Cityville among others, do a great job of this. You’re always being pushed to get to new levels (and make a place better than your friends’ place), but you often need the assistance of others to advance. Benson is the brains behind Health Month, which looks really intriguing. He’s added several layers of game mechanics to help you (and your friends) maintain a healthy lifestyle.  Benson had a really good insight on mechanics when he said,  “don’t create a mechanic for specific behaviour, but rather create to drive participation.”  That’s the big barrier. Once they are participating the rest gets much easier. Other great tips included, ‘create mechanics for adding new players’ and ‘add mechanics for assisting other players.’  All this puts the focus on creating a more cooperative environment and here’s why this can be so important: If it’s purely a competitive environment and one player takes a massive lead, participation from other players will drop off.


Allison Mooney

2. Agency Business Models

I’ve written about agency business models frequently in the past, and it’s a topic that continues to intrigue me. Google’s Allison Mooney moderated a panel of extremely heavy hitters (Ben Malbon, Matt Galligan, Rick Webb & Rob Rasmussen). The conversation focused on the need for agencies to move quickly, to produce something right now rather than to continue to shape and refine ideas. But there are many challenges both internally and externally. Breaking down barriers between creatives, planners and developers was cited as a need as well as having a ‘translator’ to facilitate the internal communications but also as a go-between for the agency and the client. Several panelists talked about the need to not fall in love with ideas, and in fact to be able to kill ideas quickly. Ideas need to be strong enough to hold up. It should be able to live on (a platform) rather than simply for a moment in time (campaign).


Ultimately, what I keep hearing – in panels, conversations, blog posts – comes down to a simple notion. The hierarchies that were built up over the 20th century don’t apply anymore. Job titles and functions have little meaning. Bureaucratic process holds less and less value.  Collaborators and co-creators are more important than maintaining rigid control. Everything must be fluid now. It must be built to be fluid. Create, revise, build, kill, create, revise, build, kill. It never stops.  The best brands (and agencies) understand that.  It’s something people in the PR industry need to think about. How can we create platforms that live well beyond mere campaigns.

Social Media Week: “Future of Mobile Gaming” DeBrief

It’s Social Media Week and last night I attended the Future of Mobile Gaming panel discussion that featured John Swords from, Nihal Mehta, Co-Founder of Buzzd, Peter DiBart, Creative Director at Edelman and Andy Ellwood Director of Business Development at Gowalla. The panel was led by Adam Broitman, also of It was a wide ranging discussion that touched on a variety of topics that really speaks to the wide open nature of both gaming and mobile.

Much of the early discussion focused on the overall trend of ‘gamification’ that seems to be permeating all of Social Media right now. This topic warrants its own (or several) posts, but a couple of points I’ll make here. First, on the issue of how this all got started. Swords mentioned it being a bit like Boy or Girl Scouts and I think there is some relevance there – more on that in a minute – but I also think there is a wider cultural element. My guess is that many of the developers working now grew up in the 90s and were the children of Soccer moms. These moms rewarded their children with micro-payments for just about everything they did. Good test score? Let’s get ice cream! Cleaned your room?  Here’s a cookie.  Having lunch at McDonalds? Happy Meal!

Game Mechanics - Taking over the world one achievement at a time.

Of course any time a trend catches fire you see saturation in the marketplace and, as Broitman pointed out during the discussion, not everyone really knows what they are doing, or why they are doing it. He warned that we’re going to see, “a lot of shitty gamification in the next year” as brands jump on this trend but do so in a ham-fisted way. This leads into my second point: Boy Scouts v. Brocoli.

When you’re in the Boy Scouts, you earn a badge as positive reinforcement for a goal accomplished – making a belt, going on a hike, doing charity work, etc. This is not unlike the achievements earned during video games. You do something positive within the context of an environment you choose to engage in and you are rewarded. This is the good kind of gamification.  People love playing games (or being in Boy Scouts), the reward just adds another level to the fun.  The other kind of gamification, and the one that was/is pervasive in many homes is of the “eat your broccoli and you can have dessert” variety.  This is a very short-term approach and ultimately isn’t going to yield results for brands. At some point, no matter how big the reward, people will stop eating your broccoli.  (Full disclosure: I like broccoli, but you get my point).  This gets to Broitman’s point I believe. Brands are going to try to to jam game mechanics into a situation where it doesn’t belong, just like they did with crowdsourcing and the results are going to be suboptimal.

Potential Winner: Companies like Badgeville, which offer white label Social Rewards and analytics platforms for web and mobile publishers, stand to gain greatly as brands realize that game mechanics are a science that requires real understanding beyond what a traditional (ad, digital, PR) agency may have.

This whole field is fascinating though and I’m looking forward to reading Aaron Dignan’s new book, Game Frame, which comes out March 8, 2011 for more on gamification.

Later in the discussion Ellwood shared some fascinating information on work that Gowalla recently did with Disney Parks (Disclosure: My agency, Coyne, also works with Disney, but not on this project).  Gowalla added dozens of check-ins throughout the part to add another layer of engagement for fans. The program served a variety of functions. Ellwood described how there are more than 1 million people who have annual passes to the Magic Kingdom. These people have seen and done everything there is to do at the park. For them, this added a new experience without Disney having to spend millions of dollars developing a new attraction.

The Gowalla ckeck-ins were also used to drive people to certain parts of the park. Ellwood explained how people checking in were given instructions to go to a TRON-themed arcade to receive special discounts or prizes. He mentioned how a similar system could be used to direct traffic flow within the park, sending people to empty restaurants when others are filling up.

Another aspect of the discussion revolved around console gaming and how that experience could be transferred to mobile gaming. While Swords argued that in many cases the console

Connecting console gaming and social rewards may be the next big play.

experience wouldn’t translate well (I agree) there is an area where I feel console and mobile could benefit each other quite well, social sharing of console game achievements. We recently purchased Kinect for the Xbos 360 (I highly recommend it) and Kinect Adventures is one of the games that comes with the system. I was amazed at how badge iconography was used, and immediately thought, “those look just like Foursquare badges,” more specifically, like Nerd Merit Badges. As I listened to the discussion it occurred to me that it would be great if I could could Foursquare or Gowalla recognition for my in-game achievements. So, if I killed 100 bad guys in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, I’d get a cool badge in Foursquare because my Xbox Live account and Foursquare account were connected. And just like when I become mayor somewhere, a tweet would be sent out alerting my friends of my in-game achievement. I would sign up for that in a minute, and I thin you’d see a massive new influx of people to the Foursquare or Gowalla platforms. I’ll be interested to see which of these two leading Location-based Services is first to make deals with Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo. When I asked Ellwood about this he agreed and said that it’s very likely we’ll see this soon.

Overall there was some terrific ideas put forth. Clearly, mobile gaming, in all its forms, is an area that is only going to grow. The most interesting part is that right now we don’t know exactly what’s going to take off. My hunch is that we’ll see developments we didn’t expect to see take off and push the field in whole new directions, but ultimately the win is going to be had by the players that can make mobile gaming social as well.