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I wanted to call this article, “What I Learned on My Summer Vacation” because when I sat down to write it, it felt a little bit like our elementary school experiences where each fall, we would share what we did over the summer. But instead, I picked a more literal title about what I learned at the 2012 Gamification Summit.

As a little bit of background, Onyx has been interested in the emerging subject of gamification for the past couple of years. If you are new to the subject of gamifcation, Wikipedia defines gamification as, “The use of game design techniques, game thinking and game mechanics to enhance non-game contexts.” To me, this definition is a bit obtuse. Gabe Zichermann, a leading expert on gamification said in a presentation to Google that “gamification is the process of using game thinking and mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems.” Personally, I like Gabe’s definition better because as marketers, we want to engage our audiences (whether they be consumers, employees, members of a group, etc.) and motivate them to change behavior (e.g., buy a product, learn a new skill, perform their job safely).

As part of our expanding development in gamification, I recently attended the 2012 Gamification Summit in San Francisco. Two full days jammed packed with 50+ sessions, attended by 650+ participants from more than 12 countries. Speakers representing corporate heavyweights such as AT&T, Adobe, eBay, Google, Microsoft, NBC Universal, Oracle,, Telemundo United Airlines, and Zynga and dozens more from companies that are not as widely known including BigDoor, Bunchball, Klout, Mozilla, NextJump, Spigit and others. For two days in June, the center of the gamification universe was in San Francisco.

After reviewing my notes, percolating my thoughts and distilling my conclusions, here are the top six things I came away with.

  1. Don’t be intimidated by the term “gamification”. Game mechanics, to some degree, have been in play for many years. Points, tiers, leveling up, and rewards are all marketing elements that have been used in programs such as airline mileage and frequent shopper for some time. JP Rangaswami, Chief Scientist at provided anecdotal evidence that when words like “wiki” and “google” were first brought to the mainstream, they were met with resistance and skepticism. Get past the word and the sooner the better. Several speakers even brought up the idea that the term might go out of use in a few years because gamification elements will be so mainstream, that people won’t feel the need to use a separate term for it. Remember in the early days of the web, we always included “http://” when telling someone the URL for a site?
  2. Don’t sit in the starting gate waiting to perfect every nuance of your program before launching. Once you have MVP (minimum viable product) and feel confident about the overall structure of your gamification program, hit the launch button. Then analyze your data, listen to the feedback and adjust as necessary. If it takes you more than 90 days in the development stage, that is too long.
  3. Be authentic, give people what they want and reward those who contribute to the community. The Grammy award winning rapper Chamillion aire defied the conventional thinking of his record label. He used gamification techniques to listen to his fans, he engaged them with meaningful and relevant content – what they wanted to hear, not necessary what he wanted to tell them – and he rewarded the members of his community that participated and helped spread the word through sharing and re-tweeting. Is he successful? Chamillionaire has more than 506,000 Facebook Likes, 875,000+ Twitter followers and more than 23 million video views. To put these numbers in perspective, I checked on how many Facebook Likes some of the leading consumer brands have compared to Camillionaire. Crest has 171,000 Likes, Dial soap has 196,000 and Skippy Peanut Butter has 297,000 Likes. Maybe these leading consumer brands should take a page from Chamillionaire’s playbook.
  4. “If you build it, they will come” does not apply here. Adding gamification elements to your online presence doesn’t guarantee participation and success by itself. You have to actively market and recruit people to join the game, even in a work-based environment.
  5. Beware of the “Fun Pirates”. I wish I could take credit for this term. But I have to give credit to James Gardner from Spigit. Fun Pirates are the detractors, the nay-sayers, the corporate NIMBY’s. We’ve all confronted them at some point in our careers. Gamification is not laboratory theory. There are real world results that prove that it works and works well. You have to figure out if you are going to win over, go around or run over your Fun Pirates. To each, his own…
  6. Have a plan in place to deal with the “bad apples”. Two things you can count on in every situation. First, cheating happens; a segment of your community will try to “game the game”. Second, some members of the community will become unhappy for one reason or another. And for both of these scenarios, you must have a plan in place from the beginning on how to deal with these people, especially today when people have the ability to take their complaints to the world at large through social media.

So that’s it. My top six takeaways from the 2012 Gamification Summit. The list could have easily been 10 or 12 things covering subjects like leaderboards, intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards, onboarding, user motivations and on and on. Trust me when I say it was hard to focus on six key points distilled from 50+ speakers. Gamification is a fascinating subject that we are excited about. How can gamification be applied to your marketing programs and help you engage your audience? Let’s talk.

© John Oda