Four Things Marketers Can Learn from Game Designers….

After attending the 2011 Game Developers Convention I reflected upon the key learnings.  Please keep in mind that, like most of the readers of this blog, I am not a traditional game developer.  However, I found it rich with applications that had everything to do with marketing.  
Here are 4 big learnings:
1) Focus on intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards to encourage loyalty.
2) Have a clear vision, launch fast with minimum required functionality and maximize the fun.
3) Know your “game mechanics”… a proven tool box for better marketing.
4) Games are like TV shows… get your brand in the game.
1) Intrinsic Rewards:
Game developers have one critical goal… to get customers to “play” again.  But the question this year was, simply: What’s the best way to do this? Customer retention, lifetime value, conversion… concepts forged in traditional circles of CRM practitioners are alive and well in the world of games.  However, today, leaders in the game design world seem to be tackling the issue differently from most marketers.  Many of the main speakers seemed to be railing against the overuse of these metrics.  
Many of the key GDC 2011 speakers, leaders in the game industry, said that heavy metric focus creates boring games (marketing) that you have to pay people to play (watch/engage).  That sounds very applicable to marketing today with it’s focus on promotions, points and sweepstakes.  While these tools will always be a part of the marketing mix, are there other psychologic levers we should be pulling?  Levers that improve the enjoyment of the commerce experience whether a game, a store or a website.
Many of the speakers were calling out themes that have recently been highlighted and elevated by Daniel Pink in his book “Drive“.  Pink concludes that human beings are more motivated by intrinsic desires for autonomy, mastery, and purpose than external rewards.   This arena of human motivation study is exploding right now and clearly inspiring game designers.  For example, Scott Rigby, President of IMMERSYVE, brought his immense game design experience and PHD in Clinical Psychology to his fantastic speech at GDC.  He was deeply critical of the overuse of external reward for actions in games (marketing) that actually diminish the perceived value of the game (company product or service).
The goal is to create mechanisms and messaging that gives the user a chance to learn and master the flow of your business.  Imagine being able to be a Southwest Airlines Elite Traveler not based on your ability to spend a ton on travel but on your ability to learn the best places to go and to help others plan incredible trips.  Imagine a retailer, like Ann Taylor, giving our badges to shoppers that help other shoppers dress the best for their workplace… depending on the type of industry, geography, time of year and business event.  In the end, humans are seeking to be appreciated for their innate creativity, problem solving and ability to learn.  When we get in that groove, that some experts call “Flow”, we find that our daily challenges fade and our mind relaxes.  That’s a moment you want your brand to associate with whenever possible.    
2) Clear Vision, Fast and Fun
Mark Skaggs, VP Product at Zynga, and lead developer of games like Farmville and Cityville spoke about creating a core game experience that was fun first.  He felt that having a very clear and strong leadership voice on a project was critical.  The team just built better games with one clear vision of the final game.  He also emphasized getting out there first, fast and with the minimum required functionality to be a winner.  He believes that there’s still tons of expansion opportunity on Facebook even with the tightening of social and viral messaging from apps (and marketers in general).
As a marketer, Mark’s message about single voice made me remember the power of clear product vision.  This voice may not be from the VP of Marketing (and can change by project) but it is critical to producing a standout experience.  
I was also delighted by Mark’s focus on FUN.  I know this sounds odd, but retail and brand marketing has become a world of spreadsheets.  I believe we are too focused on pushing consumers through hurdles.  Streamlining checkouts to warp speed, cutting labor in store and squeezing the funnel.  We are financially tweaking the minutia of promo pricing instead devising FUN stories about our products and services.  Today, on most sites, a customer literally enters and leaves with ZERO BRAND RESIDUE.  The consumer might easily be asked: “Who was it that you just did business with?” And I fear the answer is.. “some site“.  It’s time to stop and re-inject the fun.   Take a few seconds at your next marketing meeting to simply ask the question:  Is our core experience fun?  How can we bring a little more play to our game.
3) Game Mechanics… Use the Toolbox
Raph Koster, VP of Creative Design at Playdom, was incredibly insightful during his presentation.  He exhaustively outlined 40 different game mechanics that easily could be described as marketing or loyalty techniques.  He recommends leveraging mechanics like:  
a) Helping:  Allowing players (shoppers) to help each other and be recognized for it, 
b) Status:  Provide players (shoppers) with ability to reach certain status levels.  Our loyalty programs do this in some cases but most solely focus on money spent.  There’s other things to reward and the rewards don’t need to be cash discounts.  
c) Bidding:  There are some exciting things going on in bidding in ecommerce.  Of course, Ebay is the killer example, but there are ways to leverage this in almost any business. 
d) Rituals:  Sociologists across the world have identified that cultures perform rituals when people’s roles or status change… birth, graduation, marriage.  There are ways that we can celebrate the cross-over of shoppers to new levels of status in our business?  What really happens to a customer when they become a VIP?  Anything?  Card in the mail?  Your brand can have incredible rituals that involve friends of your shoppers.
As you seek innovation in your marketing, consider whether there’s something to learn from these incredibly smart and creative game designers.  After all, isn’t your website, store or restaurant, in its own way, a game to be played and enjoyed.  If not, you are simply providing a commodity and there’s little loyalty and profit in that approach.  The game is on, marketers!  How will you play it?
4) Games Are TV Shows
Here are some of the datapoints:  Over 200 million monthly active users playing the top ten games alone.  40% of time spent on Facebook is on social games and half of the folks on Facebook have played a social game.  Think of it as any other form of entertainment or media.  In that light, it represents one of the largest untapped advertising opportunities for brands large and small.  But if these facts don’t impress you consider this:  The GDC 2011 conference had a record attendance at over 19,000 people.  With that as only a portion of the global creative energy flowing toward game development, you can be sure that this trend is only beginning.  Marketers should begin testing game ad programs today.  
Peter Leech is CEO of Social Shopping Labs a consulting and technology company providing custom social promotional games for retail and consumer brand promotions.  
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