Everybody likes games, especially ones they can win. Retailers are tapping into the psychology behind the oh-so-human attraction to competition and the thrill of victory by gamifying aspects of their offerings to entice shoppers with bonus discounts, prizes and other rewards.
But what exactly is gamification? To gamify something is to apply the basic elements of a game, like scoring points, the feeling of winning, tracking and comparing progress with others, and competition, to some other activity. The strategy is multi-fold. First, capitalizing on the technology craze. Everyone has a mobile device in their pockets at all times, that’s a whole lot of windows to give customers access to your product. Millennials are quickly becoming the predominant consumer group, and no one uses their mobile devices and apps more than them.
It also creates a positive brand association. The feeling of winning releases endorphins and other pleasure chemicals into the brain. You’ll want to keep going back to that app or that mini game to get that positive reward. If you just happen to see a company logo or ads for its products in the meantime, all the better.
Of course an engaging app gets repeat visits, which creates multiple touchpoints to alert a loyal customer to a new product or service that might interest them. If they’re immersed in playing the game or invested in visiting the app repeatedly for the latest update or deal, that’s a captive audience, and a set of eyeballs you can engage directly with.
One often cited example of gamifying a rewards program is Starbucks. Using the store’s app, customers earn stars for every dollar spent, earning free coffee and other loyalty bonuses as they accumulate. It’s easy to use, the app is intuitive and it’s fun seeing the stars pile up in the digital Starbucks cup. It entices customers to spend more money to see their star total grow and thus “win” this game.

Even something as simple as eBay’s bidding system is a form of gamification. Think of how much more exciting competitively bidding with someone over a coveted item is than simply clicking “add to cart” and checking out. The adrenaline pumps and the heart races as the final seconds of an auction’s conclusion tick-tick-tick away. That’s exactly the point. Part of the appeal of eBay is that it fosters that competitive spirit, and the model has served it well for more than 20 years.

Brick-and-mortars themselves can incorporate gamified elements into their stores. Anything from scanning a hidden QR code to checking in online from the store or tweeting a certain hashtag can be turned into something that offers points or unlocks special promotions to shoppers. They can even incorporate things like leaderboards viewable to anyone with the app, or “challenge your friends” capabilities. This adds a competitive aspect to see who can rack up the most points or check-ins, thus encouraging repeat visits to the store or app. Most apps tie in with a brand’s social media presence, helping spread the word about your latest high score, which could boost your reach to new customers who might be motivated to give the app a try (especially if there was a reward in it for them, perhaps?)
The investment in getting an app up and running can be minimal, especially since the customer will be accessing it using their own hardware and internet connections. At the very least you’ll want to partner with a solid app developer who can iterate on your ideas for what the app should be. The resulting app should be attractive, easy to use, and, above all else, fun. Colors, animations and sound effects all matter when creating a sticky app. The incentives offered should be easy to obtain, but not so easy that it spoils the challenge/reward aspect of the experience. Giving away an occasional free coffee or a 10% off birthday coupon to loyal customers is a small price to pay for the engagement possibilities a gamified app offers.
Apps have given brands a major new avenue through which to reach audiences of potential customers who may be aware of your brand but are in no way engaged with it. Turning something mundane into a game is like catnip for people. You want to beat your high score, you want to see those points rack up, and you want to get something for your efforts at the end of the day. Even if you have to spend a lot more money than the reward is worth to get it, that feeling of satisfaction when your playing finally pays off is well worth it.