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."