Marketing tactics inspired by gaming are nothing new. Marketers have found success in engaging consumers through game design tactics for years. The iconic McDonald’s Monopoly game launched in 1987, before the internet or mobile phones were commonplace. Sweepstakes have been a go-to for marketers big and small since the Mad Men days.
The spread of the internet really kicked things up a notch. Companies like Zynga and Epic Games have inspired a flood of game-inspired and game-enabled marketing. Many brands build their own video games and web apps. Transmedia and experiential marketing created entire fictional marketing worlds for brands. Even memes are based on gaming principles.
Regardless of platform (video, physical, board, etc.), games are systems of rules that a player interacts with in service of a goal. What makes a game different from other types of media, say a movie, book or newspaper, is that it’s a living system. Every game is unique and experienced by players on their own terms. Think of every game of cards that you’ve played and how each one was a different experience. Even with the same rules (and perhaps the same players), each playthrough is specific to the context, the randomness of the hand, that day’s strategy and player mindset.
Today, marketing is increasingly interaction system-based. We're moving from designing a linear flow of information to a UX or Customer Experience model that people flow through in their own ways. We now have the data to see how people experience "a brand.”
It’s now commonplace for a brand to communicate one-to-one with customers across multiple channels over the course of weeks, months or even years. This creates a different dynamic between brand and customer. Now, for the first time, it’s not just individual marketing tactics or campaigns that we can apply game mechanics to, it’s the entire system itself. Customer journeys follow hundreds of unique paths and triggered responses to reach an end goal—much like a game.
Many of the most important brand touchpoints—customer service, email, unboxing, and so on—are driven by customer choices. When marketers do their job well, a brand turns into something bigger than just the sum of those touchpoints and the ways in which they’re experienced. A brand becomes emergent, unique, and increasingly driven by the customer. It’s no longer based solely on what companies project, but how consumers interact. Applying game design principles to your marketing is an effective way to drive sales, and more importantly, to build relationships and your brand.
So what does it mean to think like a game designer? And what are the practices and tools that can be applied to marketing?
Many games, like board games, are static. But today’s biggest games (Fortnite, World of Warcraft, League of Legends) are constantly evolving. New mechanics, characters and content roll out all the time. Thinking of a brand as something that is never finalized, but always updating, is what iterative design is like. Single changes can have a big impact. Think of a new weapon in a fighting game: If it is too powerful, it can upend strategies by becoming the only weapon players use. It’s no fun to do the same thing over and over, so you risk players getting bored and moving to a new game. That’s why one of the main principles of iterative design is to analyze the results of your changes and course correct as you go.
The biggest mistake you can make in modern marketing is to “set and forget.” Part and Sum is a digitally native strategy firm, and iterative design is baked into everything we do. We regularly reach much higher levels of success with a campaign after testing and analyzing data.
For example: Editing down the length of a recent client’s video ad by 10 or 15 seconds gave us a 24% lower cost per sale and resulted in more than twice as many sales.
Game designers like to watch real people play their games. By watching live interactions, they can tweak mechanics, balance rules and get general feedback on how to improve the experience. While this practice of user testing is common in product development, it’s relatively new to marketing. There are hundreds of tools that let marketers learn how potential customers are experiencing their brand at different touchpoints. From follow-up email surveys, to watching users navigate site (with software like Hotjar or FullStory), it’s never been easier for marketers to be more iterative with their communication styles.
We use a number of different tools to track how users interact with marketing campaigns. Hotjar is a software platform that lets you follow exact user movements across your website. By seeing how people navigate a site, you can see if they’re missing important content or getting bogged down by clunky UX. Ever left a website because it was too frustrating to navigate? That company probably wasn’t playtesting.
Magic Circle as Brand
In game design, there is a concept called the magic circle. It’s the idea that a player agrees to follow the imaginary rules of the game while playing. For example, we don’t run across the court with the basketball in our hands, and we don’t empty the bag of letters out in Scrabble and choose the ones we want. A shared understanding of the rules is what makes the game work. If people don’t buy into the rules, they don’t buy the game (which is why your mom probably isn’t a big Grand Theft Auto player). Brands and marketers must articulate their values and brand “rules,” and they must be believable and true. To believe in a brand is to join its magic circle, and as marketers we can easily break that trust. Doing something against brand values, such as not being responsive to customer complaints, can chip away at the very thing we want to build.
If you haven’t established the core values or rules of your brand, or you aren’t upholding them, then it’s much more difficult to create a world that customers buy into. And really strong, focused values can make a brand shine: Think of Zappos and their above-and-beyond customer service.
One big difference between designing games and marketing funnels is how we approach friction. Traditionally, user experience design is about removing as much friction as possible. An e-commerce checkout flow should be streamlined and smooth. We want to save customers time by making each step easier. However, good game design is about adding strategic friction to experiences. We want to make achieving an objective challenging, because it creates fun.
Well-placed friction in your marketing can be effective as well. Surprises and challenges can give your brand more texture and excitement. This is an area where more traditional gamification tactics such as competitions, surprises, giveaways and rewards programs come in.
You don’t want to get in the way, but you do want to create opportunities that build your own magic circle. For example, sending loyal customers surprise gifts or discount codes or can strengthen your brand’s community. Setting up a giveaway with like-minded brands can reinforce how customers categorize your brand.
Thinking Like a Game Designer
From the outside, a game designer’s work may seem creative and glamorous, but in reality, artistic creativity is only a small piece of the job. Most of a game designer's time is focused on math, strategy and playtesting. The same skillsets are increasingly in demand for modern marketers as well. Creativity isn’t just about visuals or storytelling anymore—it’s also about systems and data. Both matter. And brand marketers with a strong focus on both systems thinking and storytelling are proving themselves to be the most creative of all.