Rules of the Game: How to Make Gamification Work for Your Incentive Program

Everything you need to know to make gamification work for your organization

Rules of the Game opener

When Erica Juhl, sales operations specialist for Minneapolis-based alternative advertising company All Over Media, was looking for a way to motivate her salespeople, she and her executive team were inspired by one of the most popular games to emerge in the past 15 years -- fantasy football, an $800-million industry that encompasses about 33 million players, according to market research company Ipsos and the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. It's even inspired a popular TV sitcom on FX network, The League.

"We wanted to find ways to motivate them that were different, unique, and fun at the same time, and we wanted to create new habits," Juhl explains. "That's how we came across the Fantasy Sales Team program."

Fantasy Sales Team is a gamified version of fantasy football that works through Salesforce and is meant to boost sales and increase employee engagement. Adam Hollander, founder and CEO of Fantasy Sales Team, developed it when he realized that his traditional sales contests and incentive programs weren't achieving the type of success he had hoped. "My top performers were always winning my contests, but I really needed to focus on the other 80 percent of my team," he says. "It dawned on me that I was demotivating them, because they felt like they didn't have a chance to win.

"At the time, I noticed that a lot of my sales reps were playing fantasy football, so I tried to create ways to bring the passion that they had for it into the office environment," adds Hollander. "I thought, 'What if I create a game where the reps need to push and rely on each other and become invested in each other's success?' Very much like fantasy football where you draft a team of players, I came up with a model where my reps drafted teams made up of other sales reps, and they earned points based on the points earned by the players on their teams."

Since using Fantasy Sales Team this March, All Over Media has seen some improvements. "The biggest outcome of this has been changing our sales team's habits in Salesforce," says Juhl. "It's motivated our sales team to enter information into Salesforce correctly, and to earn points. That information helps our upper management better understand and monitor our sales pipeline."

Achieving that ROI is what makes the initiative a tool rather than just a game for All Over Media. Getting there is a puzzle that many companies looking to unleash the engagement potential of gamification are looking to solve. Here's a road map for how some of the more successful ones are doing it.

In gamification, rewards often come in the form of intangible rewards such as virtual badges or trophies, points, and leaderboards. But experts warn that if you want to use your gamification program to incentivize people, intangible rewards alone may not be enough.

"Another misconception that people have about gamification is that we can replace all of the tangible rewards," says Zichermann. "One idea that people are really attracted to is giving people digital badges for everything. But badges are only meaningful if everyone in the system agrees that they are."

Zichermann believes that, when it comes to gamification, people follow a hierarchy of value whereby status is worth more than stuff. He uses the acronym SAPS (status, access, power, stuff) to describe it. "The first three values are virtual and don't really cost any money; the last is tangible. One of the things everyone hopes for is that gamification will replace real, tangible rewards. But it's not about replacing them. Tangible rewards are still in demand and people expect them and want them." Instead, he says, good gamification applications will allow designers to "scale up the reward system" to include traditional incentive rewards.

"There's a middle ground between tangible and intangible rewards," says Burke. "You can provide rewards that are intangible that lead to a tangible reward." He notes a bank from Spain that created a gamified application to motivate its customers to use its online banking services. "The bank rewarded people or recognized their progress with trophies, and it also gave them points that could be used to buy tickets or be entered into a lottery for some kind of a prize -- such as a trip or tickets to an important sports game. You're providing points to people with no real value, but those points could also be turned into something with potential value for them."

Hollander says that for his Fantasy Sales Team clients, the cost of a reward is not always a measure of its value, either. "It's not just the high-dollar prizes that tend to motivate people. Some companies motivated people just as much by handing out trophies or drinks or dinner with upper management. Experiences and recognition-based rewards are just as effective."

The most successful gamification application isn't limited to the short term, so it's best not to put all your eggs in one basket, so to speak. "Make sure that you're thinking about the next step and the next step," says Zichermann. "If you have 10 great ideas, don't launch all 10 at once. You have to come up with something else in year two or year three, and you'll have fewer resources to work with. So, plan for that."


He adds, "No game is fun forever. It's important to remember that anything to do with gamification is going to require consistent attention. You have to change the game and bring new ideas to the table constantly to keep people engaged." To help your gamification application stay relevant, Zichermann says it's key to find a good design and technology partner.

Finally, there's no better time than now, say experts to get in the game. "Get started now," says Paharia. "This is happening. Companies that are doing gamification today are winning in their markets."

Paying close attention to those who will be using your gamification program is crucial. "It's not as much about the type of program as it is about the type of person who will be using it," says Zichermann. "When we do gamification design for Dopamine, one of our core approaches is that we carefully design the user journey -- how do they get mastery, how do they achieve something for themselves, what do they want to do, what do we want them to do? That's the user journey. To design that, you have to understand who the users are."

For example, he says that a live, competition-style gamified sales incentive program would not be ideal for a remote salesforce. "After you define your objectives, you also have to understand your user and what he or she wants," he says. "Why would they use this in the first place? What's their stake in the game?"

For its annual JiveWorld 2013 convention, Palo Alto, CA-based social business company Jive reached out to Bunchball and mobile event app developer QuickMobile to create a uniquely gamified mobile app for its more than 1,800 attendees, most of whom are Jive customers (80 percent) and partners (20 percent) -- tech-savvy men and women ranging in age from 20 to 40.

The main objectives of the app and its accompanying "game" were to encourage networking, build customer loyalty, and increase social media activity. The JiveWorld game included badges, daily challenges to win iPad Minis, and random drawings. App users were encouraged to take photos and share them via social media, as well as to tweet. Compared with 2012, the app saw a mobile download increase of 104 percent, a 50-percent increase in the number of tweets (more than 10,000 in total) during the event, and a 108-percent increase in photo sharing.

"Whenever we look to develop an app or include a game, we always take a look at the attendee profile, mindful of their comfort zones and the actions and activities they would gravitate toward," says Jeff Epstein, director of product and channel marketing for QuickMobile. "For example, if we were developing something for an American Association of Retired Persons convention that has attendees ages 60 and up, asking people to use Twitter might miss the mark because it's not a typical Twitter user base. It's OK to push the envelope a bit, but you don't want to miss the mark."

Ryan Rutan, Jive's developer evangelist says, "The amount of customer loyalty that this generated was infectious; the game brought people together, and we've received so many stories and positive sentiments from people who experienced it. Toward the end of the conference, we broke the mobile app because we had so many people sharing photos through the game. The game was wildly successful -- a combination of both inspiring and instilling behavior in our attendees."

Rutan says that having a gamified mobile app that also tied in with Jive's own social media/community platform ensured lasting connections among event attendees well after the convention ended. "It's great to gamify people for those three or four days at the conference, but we wanted to have that live on. That's why we integrated Bunchball and QuickMobile, and had the app and the game link to our Jive community. It keeps people engaged 365 days a year."

A common mistake among organizations that utilize a gamified application is thinking about the type of technology platform to use first, instead of thinking about exactly how they want to design their program.

"People often start with the technology platform in mind first," says Zichermann. "In practice, it should start with a design decision that helps you choose the right technology -- not the other way around. It'd be like deciding you want to use Microsoft Office or Google Docs before knowing what your requirements actually are."

Focusing on design needs first proved to be beneficial for Jive. Prior to last year's JiveWorld, the company also created a gamified app for its 2012 JiveWorld conference. "It was one of those things where we had a lot of ideas, but we didn't have a good execution of it," says Rutan. "We learned from that. We increased what we could do with the game and learned that you have to structure the gamification in relevant, flexible ways in order to be successful."

Sydney Sloan, Jive's senior director of customer experience and social marketing, adds, "There are many people with expertise with setting this up to integrate it with whatever platform you're using. Don't let the technology behind gamification scare you away. If you have a good idea of what you want people to do, you can always build and grow from there."

And when it comes to design, keeping things clear, understandable, and easy is universally key no matter the gamification program. "It shouldn't be a mystery as to how the game works," says QuickMobile's Epstein. "Have really clear rules of engagement so that people understand what they need to do and what their limitations are."

Rutan adds that including "zero-effort entry" such as giving badges or digital rewards simply for signing up or doing simple tasks is also a great way to encourage participation. "That way, participants already have some skin in the game and they'll want to continue being a part of the program."

Another key incentive? "Always give them something to strive for," says Rutan. "If you design a gamification application correctly, it should correlate with what you want them to do at that time and also give them the best possible experience; it should a be a roadmap they want to pay attention to and follow."

When it comes to using gamification in the workplace, things can get pretty complicated -- there are innumerable ways to define and describe the concept. One thing that all gamification specialists agree on, however, is that gamification is not just a game.


"This is not about making everything a game," says Gabe Zichermann, CEO of New York-based gamification agency Dopamine, and author of The Gamification Revolution. "That always trips everyone up. When it comes to gamification, we want to bring the best things from the game world into the real world."

But the name can be a stumbling block. "It's a real challenge to get people beyond that word -- 'gamification,'" says Brian Burke, research vice president for Gartner, an IT consulting firm headquartered in Stamford, CT, and author of How Gamification Motivates People to Do Extraordinary Things. "Gamification doesn't typically look like a game, and if it does, it could demotivate or disengage people. Another challenge is to get senior management that must ultimately approve these things past the notion that gamification is like games. It's really about motivating people."

Creating a game is hard enough, says Rajat Paharia, founder and chief product officer of Redwood City, CA-based Bunchball, a gamification specialist. "Making one with an ulterior motive is even harder," he adds. "Gamification is not about games at all; it's about data-driven motivation."

"If you're going to do gamification, do it for the right reasons -- to accomplish and solve business goals and know those goals ahead of time before you dive in," says Hollander. "Gamification is a lot more than just leaderboards, badges, and trophies. It's not just an environment to earn points. It's about what business results you want to drive and problems you want to solve. You want to make sure that whatever you do aligns with that."

While gamification experts agree that gamification is not just about games, they do differ somewhat in how they view its main objectives and applications.

When Paharia founded Bunchball in 2005, he set out to provide a gamification platform that would use data to enhance and improve performance. "Gamification is about motivating people through data, capturing the data that we generate when we interact with systems, and using it to motivate better performance and drive success," he explains. "It's like having a thermostat for your business -- something that's constantly regulating, monitoring, and driving change."

Paharia adds, "Today, many of us work within formal systems like Salesforce. We have all of these kinds of platforms with structured data. So, gamification is the new weapon that we have to drive better performance that you didn't have before. In the next few years, organizations that are not taking this data and using it to increase engagement and create a better experience will get left behind." This year alone,

Gartner estimates that 70 percent of the world's top 2,000 companies will use at least one gamified application.

For Zichermann, gamification is a resourceful avenue for employee engagement. "It's using the best ideas from games outside of entertainment, borrowing heavily from loyalty programs and games to structure solutions that are designed to increase engagement," he says. "It's creating engagement with people. If we really want to change behavior and create engagement, we have to think about it differently and be creative, and that's where gamification comes in."

For Bunchball's Paharia, "engagement is a byproduct of what we do with gamification. Engagement is too broad to really be measured, so it's never a main goal when we design a program; we want to see better performance."

A case in point, Paharia says, is Applebee's, which has nearly 2,000 restaurants worldwide. "They had all this point-of-sale data but it was always going to franchise managers. Now, however, by using gamification, they looped it down to employees so they could see how they are doing and how they compete. That same data is being given a second life, and being used in a different way to drive a meaningful business outcome. There's no magic behind this -- all this data is sitting there; you just have to know how to use it. That's where gamification can help."

Gartner's Burke, however, says that while there can be some overlap between gamification and motivational incentive programs, they are not one and the same. "At Gartner, we define gamification as the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their individual goals," he explains. Whereas traditional incentive programs offer tangible rewards for individuals who achieve organizational goals, gamification doesn't necessarily have to include those types of rewards, and it's more about reaching individual goals. When a gamification platform can align individual goals with organizational goals, says Burke, that's when you can use gamification to motivate people.

Initially, says Burke, gamification was much more focused on consumer loyalty and engagement. "Nowadays, though, when you look at the total number of gamification applications, that focus has clearly shifted," he says. "Organizations want to motivate employees to perform, change their behaviors, improve their health, etc. Those customer-focused applications haven't gone away, but there's tremendous growth in employee-based applications for gamification now."

At Bunchball, Paharia defines five major uses for gamification: increasing employee sales; improving service; improving training; increasing collaboration; and building loyalty. No matter what your organization's specific goals are for using gamification, there are some universal ground rules for making sure your program is successful. Here's what the experts had to say.

First things first: a good gamification program begins with clear, identifiable, and measurable objectives. "Often, people come to gamification with different goals and motivations, but at the end of the day, the way you should start it is with a mission statement with some measurable outcome," says Paharia. "Don't be vague. Be specific, like wanting to increase channel partner contribution by 40 percent, for example. You need a clear, measurable goal and from there, you look at key performance indicators to measure success."

He adds, "Ask yourself: 'What are the key behaviors that you need to motivate or encourage to move the needle?' This is not just about something you want to try; you need to accomplish a business goal."

When it comes to listing those organizational goals, says Burke, you also need to consider individual goals. "If you can identify where individual goals overlap with the organization's goals, then that's really the sweet spot for gamification," he notes. "A lot of companies are challenged to think that through. They want employees to be more productive, so they will place some kind of incentive on productivity, which sounds like a good idea, and sales contests have done this for decades. But this is not necessarily a good strategy for gamification."

Instead, Burke says, following a model similar to that of Fantasy Sales Team is a much more effective use of gamification. "Gamification can help salespeople follow known successful sales processes. It can be used to provide triggers, reminders, rewards, and recognition to help people do their jobs better and will ultimately lead to increased productivity. So, when a salesperson receives a proposal, and gets a reminder to follow up with that customer, that is more likely to result in a more successful sales process."