Fun and games: Why restaurant customers respond to gamification apps

By Anke Corbin

SVP Sales & Marketing, Splick-it

Is your loyalty program on life support? Can't get customers to join your email list?

Maybe it's time to get your game on. Gamification is everywhere, and you'll play a game of some sort today, whether you know it or not.

Why is gamification so popular? Because it works.

In order to integrate game mechanics into marketing and business processes, one must first understand exactly what gamification is. We asked Dr. Erika Noll Webb, who heads up gamification efforts in Oracle Applications User Experience, to help us to understand how gamification can engage customers and help restaurants grow their business.

Gamification is the use of game mechanics in a non-game context to engage people, motivate them and drive their behaviors, Webb said. It's about usability and part of the user experience, and it's making best practices in usability more transparent. A simple example of this is "feedback." When users push a button and nothing happens they have no feedback and are more likely to get frustrated.


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Gamification can use elements like points, progress indicators and other feedback that make us want to continue participating. Game companies are masters at tapping the psychological wiring in our brains to get us to do a variety of things we probably wouldn't without a game element to prod us.

In consumer context, these mechanics are simpler but still game oriented, often geared toward getting customers to come back to a physical store, share on social media or revisit an app.

Digital natives (aka Millennials) have especially high expectations of technology and businesses compared to previous generations. Digital natives expect ease of use, immediate feedback and meaningful brand interactions.

Gamification works by tapping intrinsic motivations. According to Gamification For Dummies, the primary motivators fit into these four categories.

Achievement: Our inner gamers like challenges and achievements. Cognitively, we're wired to value recognition, desire appreciation, seek approval and need to complete things. We strive to master skills ("level up"), experience new things ("unlock an achievement") and appreciate positive feedback ("get re-tweeted").

Status and power: Image matters. Whether we want to influence others, be a leader or win at something, we have an evolutionary desire to earn recognition.

Social: People need to belong, whether it's to a family, place and or a social group. Social-minded users like to share with others and seek relationships and recognition within those social connections.

Personal improvement and purpose: People constantly challenge themselves to learn skills, exercise more, sharpen their minds, accomplish goals, and add meaning to their lives. Gamified feedback and rewards help set goals and recognize accomplishments.

Some of us play just to prove that we can win, so it's our competitive spirit that drives us. Other times the game is just flat out fun, reduces stress or brings excitement to an otherwise boring situation (like waiting at the doctor's).

Basic framework

Creating an effective approach to gamification for your business can be daunting and at times expensive. A good place to start is using this simple framework for building your strategy.

  • Define your business objectives.
  • Identify specific and measureable behaviors you want to encourage. These behaviors should directly relate to those business objectives. Double check that the behaviors are easily measurable.
  • Test, test, test different game mechanics to prove that you are indeed driving those behaviors. Never stop optimizing performance.
  • Reward the behaviors in a meaningful way.
  • Switch things up to keep the game fresh and keep your customers engaged. This means more challenges and more rewards. If your customers run out of games or challenges, then they may move on to the next thing (or next restaurant).
  • Keep it simple. Consumer gamification should be easy to engage, provide immediate feedback and be fun. As an example, a user gets a badge every time they order $100 worth of food, or every 10th time they login to your app. Then they earn larger rewards when they hit documented milestones. Mix in some surprise and delight to keep players on their toes.

Tip: Dr. Webb was surprised to find in her research at Oracle that simple badges like stars and ribbons were preferred to other, more abstract designs. It is easier for people to understand the value of more stars than some of the nicely designed badges. Stars are an achievement construct that we've had since elementary school. That being said, well-designed badges will work if the intrinsic value is recognized and communicated well.

Game types

Gamification takes on innumerable shapes and forms, but let's focus on the most effective one for businesses: Rewards.

Rewards are classified into two buckets: Extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic rewards include monetary rewards and prizes, while intrinsic rewards are less tangible things like recognition, reputation, privileges and status. Studies suggest that non-monetary rewards can be just as effective. Intrinsic awards may even lead to a more loyal customer base in the long term. Test different rewards to gauge their impact on short-term and long-term customer engagement.

Tracking progress for rewards can include points, leaderboards, different levels and feedback.

6 tips for applying gamification principles to restaurant customers

  1. Keep it simple- easy rules, easy to engage, easy to understand reward structure.
  2. Make it fun and approachable with friendly copy, engaging visual design and true to your brand.
  3. Test both intrinsic rewards like recognition and extrinsic rewards like freebies to see what your customers value.
  4. Use a simple and affordable platform to set up, monitor, communicate the program.
  5. Provide immediate feedback on how participants are doing and when they will reach thenext level.
  6. And keep it interesting with the addition of updated and new elements.

Corbin is the SVP Sales & Marketing at Splick-it, where she focuses on mobile/web engagement to help restaurants deepen relationships with customers.

Read more about marketing.

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