If Life's a Game, Why Isn't Your Website One?

Why Playing on People's Irrational Desires Can be Smart

By Published on .

Peter Daboll
Peter Daboll
In today's world, Shakespeare's words need an update:

"All the world's a game; And all the men and women are merely players."

This is the future of business-to-consumer relationships.

What do I mean by that? Games have been one of the most consistently sticky, rewarding and fast-growing digital channels because they understand the irrational motivations that fuel humans. And it's time we borrow from them to make our other marketing channels more engaging.

That's because if we keep following the assumption "if I build it, people will come," we'll fail. This just isn't true on the web. Yet marketers keep throwing up sites in hopes that they'll build an audience. I read recently that marketers will spend at least $65 billion on their own websites in the next 12 months. The undeniable shift to "marketer as publisher" is happening. My friend who runs a media agency predicts that "owned" media will soon have a bigger consumer impact than "bought" media. But as marketers rush to create content, they had better figure out how to get consumers to visit, participate, and return frequently -- something they have been unable to achieve in the past.

I'm not suggesting that you turn your site into a bunch of games, but I am suggesting you apply the mechanics that have helped games attract and keep audiences interested.

These are tools based on our underlying needs -- aspiration, status, altruism, social connection, self expression and competition. (For full disclosure, this is something that my company Bunchball is working on.) Using game mechanics is like giving site visitors a GPS system -- helping them navigate and explore what you want them to see while earning, learning, participating, redeeming and best of all, returning.

What makes these game mechanics work? Clues can be found in the relatively new field of behavioral economics, the study of human irrationality. This field is in contrast to rational economics, which studies rational behavior. Behavioral economics exposes our crazy side -- the side that doesn't always do what we think or say we are going to do.

Remember the famous line in "M*A*S*H," when Major Houlihan said, "Oh Frank, you are so above average"? People are desperate to be above average and because of this, they behave in ways that are competitive, status-seeking and aspirational to prove they are. This behavior can be used to get people to do things they might not otherwise do. An example of this is the motivation of most people to earn more points than the next highest person on a leaderboard. If there is activity -- like watching a video or inviting a friend to join -- that will help them achieve more points and earn a more favorable position, people will do it.

In one study, 70% of students thought they were above average. Another random sample of drivers revealed that they believed they were in the 85th percentile or above when asked about their driving skills. Obviously both examples represent mathematical impossibilities. If a majority of people view themselves as "above average," then they think "I can earn those points, achieve that trophy, be on that leaderboard" -- when they are exposed to digital challenges.

Another such principle of game mechanics is around the use of points to motivate behavior. Humans love points: we love to earn them and redeem them for both virtual and real reward. Given almost any points system, regardless of how meaningless, we will optimize our behavior to achieve them.

The New York Times wrote an article a couple of years ago entitled: "Using Ice Cream to Understand Frequent-flier Miles." The article covered a study in which a group of people were given a choice between two simple tasks -- a six-minute task and a seven-minute task. Completing the six-minute task would earn them a gallon of vanilla ice cream; the seven-minute task would earn them a gallon of pistachio ice cream. The seven minute task was more work, and the reward was a less popular flavor, so less than 25 percent of the people opted for that.

The researchers then brought in a new group and framed the experiment slightly differently. In this version, the six minute task earned a payoff of 60 points; the seven minute task earned a payoff of 100 points. The researchers then told them that anyone who finished with between 50 and 99 points would be given a gallon of vanilla ice cream. Anyone with 100 points would get pistachio. This time, more than half the people picked the 7 minute task -- and the pistachio. Lesson learned: The addition of meaningless points actually created more value for the less popular flavor -- and changed people's behavior. Understanding and acting upon knowledge of how consumers think they behave and how they actually behave allows marketers to optimize programs to exploit them.

According to Comscore, "casual games" is one of the few categories that continues to grow in visitors and time spent across all demographics. People love games, and we've proven that game mechanics provide the most powerful consumer motivators. If you can create your own brand experience that captivates and engages the consumer, you can navigate the relationship to your benefit.

Or, you could end up like the site of a large shampoo brand I recently visited -- attractive design elements, but one of the most boring sites in the world. Even though there was a login option, I couldn't imagine any consumer wanting to return. And that's why this multi-billion dollar global brand could only generate about 10,000 monthly visitors -- a reach of less than 1/100th of 1 percent.

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Peter Daboll is CEO of Bunchball, a company funded by Granite Ventures and Adobe Ventures that enables brands to measure and drive consumers' most valuable behaviors. Clients include Hearst, NBC and Comcast. Mr. Daboll was most recently Yahoo's chief of insights. Prior to that he was president-CEO of ComScore Media Metrix, president and chief operating officer of MarketTools, COO of MediaPlan and exec VP at Information Resources Inc.

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