Guide to gamification: strategies to increase engagement and make your audience feel special

Arpy Dragffy
Published in
8 min readMay 4, 2016


The tech and startup world love to have this aura of unique and constantly innovative about it — it’s usually a bunch of bullshit though.

Models of doing business and of enticing customers go in and out of style like high tops and disco. Not only that, most of the models we consider fundamentally earth rattling are based on practices that go back to the days of town criers and snake oil vendors. While it’s a recent buzzword, gamification and its core principles are part of this old-meets-new view on how to excite and engage audiences.

How do I use gamification to make my brand addictive and rewarding?

Zynga, Draft Kings, and any game using in-game purchases may be the most recognizable examples of well-executed gamification today — but are they the best examples?

Like any well-executed marketing campaign, the best gamification strategies make products and services addictive with little need for blatant incentives. Apple isn’t the biggest corporation in the world because of its price point — their products are largely the most expensive in their categories — they are because of the culture they have created around purchasing and participating in the Apple culture.

Great gamification strategies will follow a very similar psychological game plan: create an ecosystem that is addictive because it is a culture in itself. Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat are all predicated on an addiction to voyeurism or making yourself heard. None of these use incentives or badges or lures; they each create an environment where consumption or participation are your narcotic.

This isn’t any different than the model reality shows use today or soap operas used before them to hook viewers. To any outsider, people who play casino slots machines regularly just don’t make sense.

It’s not until you’re deep insider the environment, enveloped in the culture of the casino floor, taking in all the buzzing storylines and sounds that you truly understand. The captivation isn’t from the loyalty points program, nor from discounts you might receive in the mail, it comes from creating a culture that makes life feel more exciting to be part of than not to.

Professional sports does this as well.

The Kobe farewell tour was the ultimate example of culture and storyline overpowering any logic, statistics, or appreciation for a well-played sport. Lakers management gamified and lured in attention by deeply understanding what the Lakers culture unified around and using its scarcity and potential for moments of magic to captivate. Best of all, the payoff — Kobe’s final game performance — left the iconic and lasting memory that solidified this behavioural economics strategy as successful for the business.

Big companies can succeed because they have huge budgets and massive audiences, so what is my average company to do?

1. Understand why you want to offer incentives

Rushing into a gamification mindset without a deep understanding of why is about as ridiculous as rushing up to someone you’re interested in at the bar and not having any idea what you’re going to talk about. Wanting something without any understanding of what they may want back is completely flawed.

In the same way many businesses have a modest goal: I want to find a way to get more people excited about what we offer. Simple, honest, and completely fair.

So where’s the issue? Well, before rushing into creating a complex web of incentives and promotions it is critical that businesses understand why their core product or service isn’t creating the type of culture or ecosystem that already encourages long-term engagement and excitement. Putting on a nice watch and getting a new pair of shoes might catch you more interest, but rarely will that change how long-term relationships will develop after the initial buzz wears off.

Tip: if your organization has only ever used incentives and promotions to increase engagement then test out a variety of other methods like educational, competitive, or celebration campaigns. Also, many companies are unaware that customers often find at least one of your features indispensible and would pay a premium for it. That’s another opportunity to understand how to reward and excite.

2. Define which roles your company and customers play in the big story

Good companies sell products; great companies sell a culture.

It’s why Kia car ads always loudly announce the price and why you’ll rarely see an ad for BMW that lists price as anything more than an afterthought. Each of these brands understands their place in their customer’s cultures and it comes across in their preferred way of presenting incentives.

The XBOX One and Playstation 4 war for gaming console supremacy was another major example of how to understand your part in the bigger relationship with your customers. Both consoles were almost identical and nearly identically priced. So how does someone stand out? In the case of this multi-generational battle the victor was decided because Playstation was perceived to care more about the gamer culture and catered more to it via its main features and advertising storylines.

You need to understand where you fit into your customer’s culture and also pinpoint potential fallacies in your competitor’s positioning. Microsoft was perceived as trying too hard to be an entertainment centre instead of being the masthead of the gamer culture. Your company may uncover something similar where incentives can dilute longstanding traditions and undermine plans or products which may not have yet reached peak potential.

Tip: compare your company’s relationship with customers against the way your competitors relate to them. You may spot some opportunities or red flags that will point you towards a better approach. Some have educational relationships, others community-building, some as grassroots, or innovators.

3. Make your audience the story

Your market is too crowded to think any strategy where your brand is at the centre of it will succeed.

Even the biggest advertisers in the world, the Coca-Cola’s, Nike’s, and General Motor’s have shifted their engagement models to be about their ability to empower you. The exceptions are premium products like Prada or Apple who still position themselves as culture-builders above all else.

And please don’t think storytelling should be limited to your next email or social post, it’s the fabric that weaves your user experience to your customer’s experience. More importantly it’s the story that your customers tell their friends about your company and measure your own campaigns back against.

When I design mobile experiences, the layout, the aesthetic, and the content all need to work together to make people feel like they are getting something that they can grow with.

Tip: to truly gamify and incentivize your audience find the narrative pieces that you are uniquely positioned to offer them. They might be achievements they would be proud to tell friends or gifts that really make them thankful to be part of something bigger. There’s a reason bobbleheads work so well for baseball giveaways, they are unique, silly, and showcase your love of the game in a way that’s easy to share.

4. Reward them in the most fitting way possible

Twelve years ago I started designing loyalty and retention marketing strategies for online customers. Today I design online customer experience strategies to help companies take the next leap. Ironically, even though plenty of technology has evolved during this time and the buzzwords have changed, both loyalty & retention and gamification methodologies are largely based on the same core principles I described today.

Every strategist is armed with the same weapons to drive increased engagement: emails, social posts, push notifications, reviews, messaging, and accolades. Funny enough though, the slate of options is always much larger than any strategist or business leader gives themselves credit for. Depending on your particular audience and their lifestyles and interests direct mail, SMS, phone calls, improved levels of service, extending them invitations to events, or simply asking them to become a trusted advisor can all be very effective.

Tip: after assessing the quality of your customer data do a deep dive into their habits and their preferred methods of communication. Look for trends to identify the highest impact channels and also ones that may be under-utilized. Also remember that barring some miracle, they won’t see your message the first time so you need to find a way to re-enforce the message without being too aggressive or spammy.

5. Surprise your audience

Over my years of trying to generate engagement I learned two very important things:
1. Rewarding a customer is never as powerful as making them feel like they earned something
2. Your engagement budget should be based on customer lifetime value and potential risk of churn

Marketing has grown very pragmatic and is often the first channel to have its budget cut when financial forecasts aren’t met. It means many marketers I’ve met are conservative in their approach and solely focused on the bottom line.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, however a methodological approach can also be used to identify opportunities to go above and beyond, all while being based on financial prudence.

Here’s a scenario: your customer of six months who has a CLV of $700 submits their first customer service concern ever, and it has a slightly negative perception. Typically issues like these would be considered standard operation, however I recommend that companies search for statistical deviations against a user’s standard modus operandi and build a risk assessment model. Where the instance may be ignored typically, I’d move the customer into escalating tiers of at-risk groups and follow up with offers labeled as rewards they have earned. Financially these engagement programs can be funded through an analysis of their current and project CLV.

Tip: search for data sets that give you a window into your customer’s behaviours that tell a story about how they use your product. Find opportunities to be the hero in the narrative by offering them rewards they have earned and identify other potential negative storylines before they happen too. Gamification shouldn’t strictly be about building engagement, it should be about nurturing existing valuable assets in your community.

Overall, I strongly recommend that every organization treats aggressive gamification as a serious business decision the same way that deep discounting campaigns would be. Like with a poorly executed loyalty points program, a badly executed gamification strategy may leave customer confused and overwhelmed by rewards that may confuse and bombard them.

Next week, in part two of this gamification guide we will look at the upsides and downsides of incentive levers used by AirBnB and others.

Good luck planning your strategy and share your results and ideas!

Arpy Dragffy is a Vancouver-based UX, CX, marketing strategist and educator who has been working in technology for fourteen years. Read more posts from PH1 Media here.



Arpy Dragffy
Editor for

Customer Experience & Service Design | Head of Strategy of