5 insights that will shape the future of loyalty

What the game mechanics of Cookie Clicker can teach us

You’ll learn about the

  • Workings of incremental game Cookie Clicker
  • Behaviors that make it so addictive
  • Implications for your own loyalty strategy
  • Ideas that’ll set your future loyalty program apart from the rest
5 Loyalty Insights at a glance

What’s Cookie Clicker?

Cookie Clicker is known as an ‘incremental game’: where the main focus is to make a number go up over time.

Sounds simple, but this new genre has been incredibly popular online, spawning a fast-growing community on reddit. Just 10 days after launch on cultural messageboard 4chan, it had more than 200,000 players per day.

How do you play it?

It’s simple:

  • Click the cookie (effort) and you get more cookies (reward)
  • Spend your cookies on upgrades to help you earn even more
  • Achievements are given for reaching key milestones
  • Tiers are unlocked as you progress, allowing for faster / bigger rewards

Similarities to loyalty

Cookie Clicker is similar to the basic workings of a loyalty program — put effort in over time and get rewarded.

But what are the underlying behavioural mechanics that make this game specifically so addictive, and how can you learn from its success to boost engagement with your own loyalty system?

CogLode recommends…

1. Make loyalty incremental

One of the key things making Cookie Clicker so addictive is its incremental system, where the main focus is to make a number go up over time, both actively and passively.

How an incremental system works

  1. Click the button to receive a number that increments with each click.
  2. Automatic-clicker upgrades become available for the cost of a number of clicks.
  3. Earning you automatic clicks per second on top of your manual clicks.
  4. So now progress is always being made towards the next upgrade goal, even when idle.

This incremental mechanic is incredibly addictive, because your past actions have a sustained, exponential impact on your current progress and future rewards. You’re propelled ever-further forwards, compelling you to repeatedly engage with the system.

A lot of time was spent by the creator of Cookie Clicker to achieve the optimal balance between upgrades & rewards, and the passive time and active effort required to reach them, resulting in a sustained engagement with the system.

Crucially, as members earn more points and gain a higher multiplier, the cost of unlocking further rewards goes up proportionately, safeguarding the profitability of the system.

“The smartest loyalty programmes of the future will reward both active and passive engagement with the brand.”

Underlying research

Skinner Box — Our behavior can be shaped by rewarding simple tasks

Goal Gradient Effect 💎 — The closer we are to a goal, the more effort we make to reach it

Endowed Progress Effect— Artificial advancement towards a goal increases our efforts to reach it

Decision-makers should

Understand the potential of incremental mechanics to create a compelling feeling of constant progress within your loyalty system.

See this as a very powerful tool to motivate active users to motivate active users to achieve higher goals faster, whilst simultaneously re-engaging currently inactive consumers with passive progress. To protect the incremental spending structure, further spending is needed to accelerate towards future rewards in any feasible amount of time. This avoids consecutive rewards being unlocked passively with no spending.

Engage your Innovation Team and have them use existing incremental game resources to prototype a simple sandboxed incremental loyalty system. Work alongside them to iterate the system, points, rewards and tiers.

Get your cost scaling right in order to keep a profitable balance of cost-effective reward redemption and loyalty member engagement over the longer term. ⚖

Hire a freelance Quantitative Analyst or ‘Quant’, have them look at Polynomial and Exponential cost scaling. Ask them to report back on how you might adapt your existing loyalty system to become incremental.

Realise that the smartest future loyalty programmes will reward for both active and passive engagement with the brand. The former will fuel the latter, which will itself fuel the former, creating a beautifully-cyclical addictive brand attachment that rewards customers for early adoption and always eventually brings them back for more.

Incremental Loyalty is a new concept that we have identified and briefly introduced here. We look forward to documenting and discussing it in much more detail in the future.

2. Build in spontaneous rewards

At seemingly random and rare intervals on Cookie Clicker, a giant cookie appears on-screen for a short while, before disappearing. Clicking on this cookie unleashes a special state: the screen goes gold and everything visually intensifies, creating a temporarily-heightened experience.

It’s a thrilling endorphin rush. ✨🙌✨

The Golden Cookie Rush

From a reward perspective, during this set period of time, the number of points created is dramatically increased, allowing for significant progress to be immediately made towards achieving the next goal.

There is also a rare concept in the game called the Cookie Chain, where cookies appear for a very short period on-screen. Clicking them in succession leads to a wealth of points created. Not clicking the latest cookie before it disappears breaks the chain. This gets increasingly harder as you progress, but the points are increasingly plentiful.

Underlying research

Variable rewards — we most positively anticipate treats of random value

Limited Duration — we are driven to act when constrained by time

Lucky Loyalty Effect 💎 — we incorrectly assume that more money spent with a brand leads to a greater chance of receiving a random gift

Decision-makers should:

Create random, personalised and meaningful incentives to help members progress up your loyalty spectrum, accelerating their points growth for a set period of time.

Disclose scarce offers to a subset of customers. Work in particularly-rare, attractive rewards into your system, limit and expose the number on offer and communicate amongst customer batches via your CRM. Exposing the scarcity of the offer triggers a competitive mechanic that compels us to take action and ‘win’.

Bind specific rewards to a particular strategic context you’re trying to nudge. For instance, if you want to motivate higher footfall in-store, trigger a rare reward that’s pushed to the user’s device only when connected to the store WiFi or within GPS range, potentially after a given period of time.

Hold back on a too-aggressive push notifications campaign or you’ll annoy customers. Preserve them for rare rewards and those with higher prior campaign engagement.

Add more random promotions for higher tiers. The Lucky Loyalty Effect states that members feel more likely to receive such a reward as they spend more money with you. Therefore, they’ll feel more likely to win and be more likely to engage with such promotions than other customer segments.

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3. Provide personalisation with a Loyalty Tree

The Cookie Clicker system offers multiple tiers and upgrades, disclosed and sequentially unlocked by the number of cookies that you have.

At 20 cookies…

To limit distraction and prevent overwhelming users, only the next few tiers are shown. This keeps the player focused on their current goal and creates a sense of curiosity about what might be next.

At 90 cookies…

The next tier is structured so that it’s the only realistically accessible tier to unlock. For instance, the third tier requires points of a magnitude larger to unlock. The great thing is that unlocking the tiers allows for points to be created more quickly, accelerating you ever-faster towards the next tier.

However, along with these tiers, Upgrades offer a number of ways you can choose to spend your points.

Cookie Clicker’s Upgrade system, allowing for you to boost points creation in different ways

This part of the points redemption system is open to player choice and preference. What they choose will sculpt their experience within the system.

Underlying research

Ikea Effect 💎 — We place disproportionately-high value on self-made products and experiences

Progressive Disclosure — We prefer being shown complex ideas in steps

Curiosity — We have a deep-seated motivation to know more…

Decision-makers should

Give users a choice of their path of progression within the loyalty system. Everyone is unique and will enjoy different rewards or engage in different ways, so create a uniqueness to each member’s loyalty program. Waitrose — a leading UK supermarket — have started to do this with their Pick Your Own Offers loyalty feature on particular products, but it could be taken beyond product choice and to higher brand-level rewards.

Create a sequential unlocking of loyalty benefits at each tier based on a simple preference for either A or B; not too much choice to overwhelm, but enough so that it allows for individual preferences to be made.

Choice is good for cost management. Knowing that members will have to choose between A and B means that you can add more benefits to the system but at the same time not worry about the cost implications.

Disclose tiers relative to member progress, so as to get the balance of offering aspirational next steps but not too many steps so as to overwhelm. Two tiers above, max.

Know that this is more suited to advanced loyalty programs (supermarket / multi-vendor) where the rewards system offers a wider variety of possible outcomes — less so for a small coffee shop.

4. Protect earned status

There is no concept of penalties within the Cookie Clicker system. You’re always moving forward — an immensely-positive feeling. Crucially, it’s just by how fast, that’s all…

Supporting research

Negativity Bias 💎 — We’re more affected by the bad than the good

Loss Aversion — We feel more pain from losses than joy from equal gains

Sunk Cost Effect 💎 — We’re reluctant to pull out of something we’ve put effort into

Decision-makers should

Refrain from taking away earned status from loyal customers. A good example of this is with British Airways’ Executive Club. Currently, if you don’t spend above a certain threshold by a certain time, you’re knocked back down to a lower tier. Penalising customers with a growing sense of loyalty to your brand is dangerous, and you’re at risk of losing them if you create this negative experience.

Brands will have to work much harder to win the customer back, as the relationship falls back to one that’s based purely on future, now-less-likely transactions. A loss for both the company and the individual.

Create a system that is biased towards the positive. Simply, instead of penalising, speed up progress for the fully-engaged, and slow it down for those less so.

Streak. Layer a streak mechanic on top of (not replacing) your program to reward consecutive periods of spending. Use this to allow accelerated points earnings, motivating repeated spending. Some loss aversion may occur as a steak ends, but nowhere near that felt with a tier loss.

5. Share in a higher purpose

In the latter stages of Cookie Clicker, you can give it all up, cashing in all your efforts for a higher-level experience. Your contribution is converted into ‘prestige chips’, capable of unlocking new features and dramatically changing both your next play and attachment to the system.

Underlying research

Noble Edge Effect 💎 — products of caring firms are seen as superior

Entourage Effect 💎 — VIPs feel greater status when their rewards are shareable

Trivialisation Effect 💎 — We prefer a thank-you over a small monetary reward

Decision-makers should

Know that offering customers a special ability to be altruistic with their earned rewards is a powerful way to bring a deeper sense of meaning to their loyalty.

“Use loyalty to create a connection that transcends from the solely transactional to the ideological.”

Offer Points With A Purpose. Allow the ability to donate points to a company-defined cause, combined with a reciprocity pledge from your company to match the contribution. Along with felt goodwill, this binds the member to the same shared goals as your company, creating a connection that transcends from solely transactional to ideological, fostering a much deeper sense of loyalty.

Reward digital effort with physical appreciation. On the back of their contribution, members could then be invited to a special private event to update and thank contributors — a positively-human, multi-sensory, memorable reward.

Allow higher tiers to share their rewards amongst friends. New research shows that doing so elevates their sense of felt status.

Wrapping up…

A wise decision-maker in the tech industry once reminded me:

“Where there are numbers, there are games…”

…and this statement’s never been more true than with Cookie Clicker. Such a simple game, but full of so much that businesses can learn from.

But the notion of ‘gamification’ is old now. Such a term makes your writer as uncomfortable as when ‘Augmented Reality’ and ‘QR codes’ are mentioned 😭 😭 😭. Using it risks prematurely resigning a wealth of rich behavioural insights — that we’re only just starting to elegantly transfer into other industries — to the Buzzword Graveyard. AR, QR, rest your souls…

The games industry, however, is so far ahead in terms of understanding emotion and decision-making — compelling us to act and keep investing effort into their systems — that we’d do well to pay closer attention to how they do it.

This post just skims the surface of these incredibly rich learnings, so we look forward to saying a lot more about them in the future.


Originally published on CogLode — Brain Gems for Decision-Makers.

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