Crowdtwist CEO Analyzes Gabe Zichermann's Gamification Theory: Status, Apps, Power and Stuff

Gamification is no longer confined to the secret walls of dark occults. As game mechanics become prevalent and draw attention as the rise of social media once did, its important for companies to learn from the past and avoid being ensnared by the hype.

Gamification is no longer confined to the secret walls of dark occults. As game mechanics become prevalent and draw attention as the rise of social media once did, its important for companies to learn from the past and avoid being ensnared by the hype.

The following is a guest post by Irving Fain, CEO of Crowdtwist in light of Gabe Zichermann‘s gamification summit in SF recently.

Gamification does not equal long term, sustained loyalty.

You don’t have to go far these days to hear someone in the blogosphere or technology press talking about game mechanics often described as “gamification.” In a world where our daily lives have grown infinitely more complex and are filled with a never-ending stream of distractions, everyone is looking for ways to capture their users’ attention span. Zynga, Playdom and the plethora of other online game developers have shown us the power of coupling an engaging and fun game with a network of friends to drive repeat visits and new revenue generation. While there are lessons to be learned from what these companies are doing, we need to be wary of an oversimplification of what “gamifying” a property really means.

Gabe Zichermann has emerged as the foremost thought leader in this space. If you haven’t already heard him speak or read his writings, you should check him out. He’s spent years researching the concept of “gamification” and was talking about the subject long before the blogs were abuzz with the “G word.” One of Gabe’s central premises is that people are motivated by four primary factors, what he refers to as SAPS: Status, Access, Power and Stuff (in this order). We’ve all stood in line at an airline terminal watching the folks with Platinum or Gold status board ahead of us, and then rest comfortably seated as we struggle to fit our bags in what space remains in the overhead bins. We think to ourselves how nice it would be to have that level of status and access. Now how does this principal apply to the sites that we visit every day?

As expected in an inherently virtual medium, much of the work around “gamification” online thus far has been of the virtual sort. Take Foursquare for an example: you check-in at venues and earn virtual badges in return for your loyalty. What can you do with these badges? Nothing really, in principal, though Foursquare quickly figured out that in order to keep people coming back there needed to be a tangible reward to the user for checking in or becoming the “Mayor” of a certain coffee shop or restaurant. At some point, displaying a virtual badge gets old. I’ve had many people tell me recently that they tried Foursquare, but stopped using it because they didn’t see the point. Again, a badge for the sake of a badge in the long run does not keep a user coming back. There needs to be more.

This ties back into Gabe’s four incentive factors, and I would argue that there is an overarching theme which sits above all of these benefits for a user: Community. What is Status, Access, Power (and even Stuff) without a Community around you to validate it? Would the airline passenger getting on ahead of all other folks on the plane really care if the flight only held three other people? Probably not. Therein lies a critical piece of what the social gaming companies do that has allowed them to be so successful; they are built upon an existing Community, so there is immediately validation and meaning around achievements. Without validation, what is an achievement really worth?

It’s for these reasons that the concept of “Gamification” shouldn’t be oversimplified. While the virtual systems which are being put into place daily across the sites we know and love are valuable and make the experience of being a user more fun, I’m not convinced that they’re sustainable for the long term. You see, while the airlines have always relied on Status, Access and Power to keep people coming back, they’ve also recognized the need for Stuff to complete the offering. Oftentimes, it’s the Stuff that leads to the other three.

Some of my Status and Power comes from the fact that I took a vacation to Colorado last year, all on miles I earned. I was excited to tell my friends and family – my Community – that I spent a week in Colorado snowboarding and, on top of it all, didn’t spend a dime to get there. This is the Stuff the airlines provide that leads to an effective SAPS-based program.

This is a principal that shouldn’t be lost online. Nothing is more powerful than the Status, Access and Power we get from displaying our stuff to our Community. Plus, isn’t it a lot of fun to get free stuff!? Therefore, the companies that will ultimately win in this burgeoning space are those that can provide the SAPS within a smaller Community (your website, game, health program, etc.), and at the same time provide us with real world value – the Stuff – that helps to bolster our larger Status and Power in the Community overall.

About the author

Irving Fain is Co-Founder and CEO of CrowdTwist, a social loyalty and real-world rewards platform based in NYC. CrowdTwist allows artists, brands, publishers and companies to increase engagement and revenue as well as gain a deeper understanding of their cross-platform audience.