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Gamification_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


Most small businesses probably don't associate fun and games with the challenges of keeping their pipeline filled with customers or boosting the productivity of their employees. Yet gamification—applying the features of entertainment games in a business relationship—can provide unique advantages for building brand awareness, strengthening customer loyalty, and driving employee involvement. We asked three experts to explain how small businesses can win at the game of gamification.


Meaningful rewards

Games have been used to reward loyal customers for a long time, such as the simple but effective "Buy 10/Get 1 Free" campaign. While that kind of promotion still works today, customers also respond to intangible benefits, too. "At the core, it's not [about] giving the customers free stuff, but rather on giving them non-cash rewards that they find really meaningful," says Gabe Zichermann, author of The Gamification Revolution and chairman of GSummit, a conference about how businesses can use gamification to accelerate their growth.  


Zichermann has put key parts of the gamification strategy into a model that focuses on four elements: Status, Access, Power, and Stuff. "Status is giving people something that recognizes them and allows them to feel special, such as knowing someone's name when they walk in the door," Zichermann says. "Access is giving people the opportunity to do things they can't buy. For example, being able to see a new collection of clothes early." Allowing customers to bring a friend along to a reserved sale is an example of empowering them, while Stuff is anything free, such as discounts or coupons.


Advances in technology now allow small businesses to mount more sophisticated games and rewards programs that were previously possible only for the biggest companies. "You could have a system that looks for your best customers and gives them an instant quick little reward," Zichermann says. "If you and your customer have a Facebook relationship, you could play their favorite song easily on the Spotify in your store when they walk in the door."



Business owners can use gamification to manage employee behavior, too. According to Zichermann, using software to set up a reward program to administer an Employee of the Hour contest "provides employees with the right feedback on the job in real time, drives their behavior, and makes work more fun. Those kinds of ideas have become increasingly core." Employees, especially millennials, respond to work environments that are more social. "You can create and incentivize the right kind of social interaction," Zichermann says. "It may be very good, for example, for your employees to mentor each other on the job. So why not put that up as an actual thing they can do [as part of a game]?" 


Leveraging social media

The first step in implementing a gamification strategy is determining the ultimate goal of the game, such as generating additional sales or acquiring more repeat customers in a certain timeframe. "You want to start small," says Michael Trow, president of Atlanta, Georgia-based Alderbest Solutions. "Make it short-term goals that can be replicated over the year or however long you want it to be."


Social media platforms can play key roles in a gamification strategy, whether they are applied internally or with customers. For example, Trow says that you can inspire camaraderie among employees by rewarding them based on the number of blog posts they write or the forum questions they answer. This has the added benefit of encouraging communication and sharing knowledge among different departments in your business.


"Social media lets you add layers to a contest," Trow says, which can drive customer involvement in quick, easy ways. For example, the game can instruct customers to like your business on Facebook and then share it with their friends—generating points for every step they take. "Having that structure and purpose ultimately makes it more rewarding for everybody," Trow says. "You're actually giving structure to it, saying [to customers that] this is the purpose of them being here and engaging with you, and this is what we're going to do to reward you."


Mobile gamification

In addition to social media, mobile applications can work especially well in a gamification strategy. Case in point: Perka, based in Portland, OR and New York City, helps retail merchants and consumer brands identify and connect with their best customers through a mobile loyalty platform. "It's essentially like taking a punch card or a rewards card and putting it on a phone," says Jon Coon, senior design specialist.


Like Trow, Coon suggests that a small business decide on the type of behaviors they want to encourage before deciding on a gaming strategy. Another key element is to leverage the distinguishing characteristic of the business. "Where is there a unique value proposition that your business provides?"  Coon says. "For instance, maybe you're a sandwich shop and you have certain names for your sandwiches. You could provide some type of reward or incentive to recognize people by naming their own sandwich."


Because Perka's core product is a mobile app for both IOS and Android devices, customers can use their smart phone to keep track of the number of points they've accumulated, which can often drive them to visit your store more often. The app also lets businesses add things to the game even after the game is in progress—such as sending out special offers to your most loyal customers to give them special status. Knowing your customer is key. Says Coon: "Once they start engaging and you start learning more about them, you can ramp up and add these things—layering them on top and adding over time to keep it fun and interactive so it never gets stale."

Houzz_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott. is adding more small business owners to its invite list.


Its now easier than ever to get your work, goods, or services in front of the 23 million unique visitors that are perusing the pages of the platform every month. Launched in early 2009, has seen vigorous growth that has made it the center of the online universe for those in Americas $300 billion market of home remodeling and design.


More than 350,000 contractors, decorators, architects, artisans, and others have created Houzz pages, uploading more than 3 million photos that have proved magnetic to followers via the Web, on its recently upgraded mobile app, and through its biweekly newsletters seen by millions of users. Houzz is altering the social-media interaction between customers and the professionals they hire, giving small business owners far greater insight into what clients and potential clients really want.


To that end, Houzz has been flinging open its doors, helping more professionals get in on the conversation. Among its recent new offerings: expanded access to its Houzz Pro+, its paid local marketing program (up from its initial 12 test regions); Houzz Site Designer, a set of easy tools that make it easier for anyone with a Houzz page to build a free, sleek Web page for either traditional or mobile screens; and its Real Remodeling Costs interactive guide, with input on prices, materials, construction considerations, and advice from regional businesses.


Building websites is not the business these folks are in, says Liza Hausman, vice president of community at the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company. It tends to be expensive and time-consuming and often folks have websites that are out-of-date from a content perspective or arent optimized for mobile devices. Were trying to take the effort that they put into that away, so they can focus more on doing the work they do and market themselves in the best way possible. 


However, the most intriguing new component for home-goods entrepreneurs is likely the recently added marketplace feature, which is enabling vendors to now sell goods directly via Houzz. A bit like the arts-and-craftsy Etsy, the Buy on Houzz option is offering items that reflect the look and style of the site, from hundreds of vendors listing more than 650,000 items to date. Houzz breaks the categories down by rooms and by items, with the ability to search within each for certain price ranges, too. Houzz collects a 15 percent fee on all sales, and fulfillment is left to the vendor.


While still in its early days, vendors on the marketplace say its been good for business so far.


Houzz_PQ.jpgKelly Eberly, a textile designer in Greenwich, Conn., recently expanded her Houzz exposure, moving several decorative pillows from her Kee Design Studio onto the Buy on Houzz marketplace. So far, she says shes been seeing an increase in traffic from the items to her website, though no sales to date. Compared with Etsy, where she also has a shop, Eberly says the Houzz support services were very receptive and helpful; less beneficial, the Houzz feature lacks the built-in analytics that are built into the Etsy model for sellers.


Still, Eberly says shes feeling very encouraged by her Houzz shop, particularly because of the number of users that go on the site and a recent request for photos that will be included on a future Houzz newsletter. Im keeping my fingers crossed that I will be getting more traffic that way, and Im sure I will, she says.


Greg Sheres has a 100 percent success rate in sales on Houzz so farand its completely by accident. Its the latest iteration of the business for the furniture designer, whose works were coveted among celebrities and Wall Street types. For years, he sold his works wholesale to retailers, most of whom dissolved in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. Now Sheres is based in Victoria, British Columbia, and hes only recently started venturing into online sales.


When a colleague on a hotel project asked him to look at an image for reference on Houzz, Sheres said he had no idea what it was. But he signed on, filled in a profile, and checked a box that identified him as a seller. Figuring why not? he uploaded a few photos, too, and then forgot about ituntil a few months later when he started getting emails from people about a particular dining table, asking where they could buy it. I hadnt even gotten around to marketing it, he laughs.


Now hes signed up on the Houzz marketplace, too, which he finds easy to manage and in the company of consumers with an eye for the out-of-the-ordinary. Sheres sees it as the next evolution for his line of work.


I can change my offerings so fast, he says. Houzz has been truly empowering for an artisan. Before, wed have to go do craft fairs or art galleries, which can be costly. With this, you dont have to rely on anyone to accept you into the show.


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