How Engaging Online Games Can Shape Your Rewards Program

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Nowadays, it’s impossible to take public transportation or hang out in a coffee house without being surrounded by people playing games on their smartphones. But things weren’t always this way.

Back in the early days of social media and smartphones, the gaming market was dominated by megahits like “Farmville” and “Words With Friends.” At its peak in February 2010, 80 million players were active on “Farmville,” while in 2017, more than 57 million “WWF” games were being played at any given time. 

My experience managing product for both the “Farmville” and “Words With Friends” franchises at Zynga afforded me critical insight into the lessons smartphone games offer marketers looking to engage with and create loyalty among all types of people. 

Today, there’s a smartphone game for everyone. Regardless of topic, most games tend to follow a few basic principles that are critical to keeping people entertained, attracting attentionm and incentivizing players to return. Using these same principles, marketers can create campaigns that are more engaging, effective, and enjoyable for the consumer. 

Tip 1: Align interests and accomplishments.

If you’re not among the millions of people who have played “Farmville,” here’s its basic premise: Players raise crops and livestock to earn currency and unlock new items, quests, and expansions of the game. Key to its success is the universal appeal and connection to the aspiration of growing crops and animals for sustenance and bounty. Within that broad appeal, though, there were strong and vastly different motivations that split the audience.  

A large portion of the audience are clearly interested in social and artistic expression (a form of “Status as a Service”), something the game encouraged by prompting you to visit others’ farms.  It didn’t take long to see amazingly elaborate layouts of one’s favorite vegetables, free-range chickens, and even the occasional Eiffel Tower. To some, having their farm on the game’s load screen — and the tens of millions of views that would necessarily result — was the ultimate accomplishment.  

Another large motivation for players was just pure economic output of their farm. Players who successfully “grew” crops reaped coins for their harvest. Just like the real world, keeping score based on wealth was a strong motivator. Achievements that reinforced those behaviors, such as crop mastery — a status that a player earns after multiple successful harvests and entitles them to bigger rewards for each harvest — or collecting a million coins, went along with this play style. 

The variety and alignment of interests, incentives and sense of accomplishment certainly helped Farmville build the enormous active and high-retaining user base it captured. Providing customers with a sense of accomplishment is nothing new to the marketer — think about the tiered loyalty programs airlines offer their frequent fliers. But these programs are usually one-size-fits-all. Top-tier status may be the ultimate reward for the power traveler, but what about the eco-traveler? Or the family vacationer? How are they being rewarded?

Some digitally native companies have begun to adopt this more tailored approach. Peloton, for example, rewards customers not only for frequency but also for hitting personal milestones or participating in themed rides like their Pride Ride. 

Tip 2: Make offers challenging but not frustrating. 

People are looking for a challenge. But there’s a fine line between challenge and frustration, and game designers know well not to cross it because with frustration comes aversion. 

This is one of the secrets to competitive games like Words with Friends — a competitive word puzzle with parallels to classic board games like Scrabble. When not playing with friends, players are matched with opponents that are similar in skill level because the bigger the loss, the less likely a player was to keep playing. Optimizing matchmaking for a healthy challenge and avoiding frustration was the key to being the best and most popular competitive game, in any genre. 

Marketers can apply the same tactic to their promotions. Your typical 10% coupon actually does little to increase incremental sales. They simply do a poor job engaging people who are not already interested in the product. But if you create a challenge instead — say, ask a once-a-week shopper to come in three times this week for a personalized reward amount — you’re likely to see greater engagement. 

Tip 3: Add rewarding short-core loops to your marketing programs. 

A positive feedback loop causes players to want to continue playing a game. Essentially, short-core reward loops ask the player to make a decision, and that decision leads to a tangible result with a clear line of causality. Essentially, you’re giving the player three things: agency, reward and replicability. 

To some extent, loyalty programs mirror this principle — the customer takes a replicable action and gets a reward. What these programs usually lack, however, is a sense of agency. To be more effective, loyalty programs should introduce an element of choice. If you give customers self-determination, you increase engagement. For example, by simply presenting customers with different types of offers — visit three times, spend $50, share your look on social media — you’re introducing an element of agency that will draw your customers in. This is a win-win for the business and consumer alike, as it’s a way to more carefully precisely meter out the cost of incentives. 

Most marketers take their rewards programs really seriously — and they should. But by bringing the successful principles behind “Farmville” and “Words With Friends” into the mix, they’ll also engage shoppers in a fun way that appeals to a wide variety of motivations. That’s a win for everyone involved.

Ya-Bing Chu is VP of Product at Formation.