A few weeks ago I relistened to a standup bit by comedian Dara Ó Briain, who reveals an awesome approach to creative marketing while ranting about video games. It’s the only art form, he says, that denies you access to the rest of the product until you’re good enough to continue. Albums don’t stop after four songs demanding that you dance before track five, but Guitar Hero lets you play along with your favorite music—so long as you can unlock it, of course.
“I’m 38. I ‘unlocked’ it in a shop with a credit card,” he jokes. “Give me my [bleeping] content.”
He’s kidding, obviously; There’s a reason video games sell so well, and it’s not just because they’re a childhood necessity. Games are engaging. Whether it’s tabletop, mobile app, or plastic guitar plugged into an Xbox, they connect you with content that everyone (except Briain) loves to unlock over time.
Why? Because having to unlock it implies you have the keys—a sentiment even non-video game brands can be inspired by. Here’s how “gamified” marketing works and why the best thing you can give your audience is control.
Those who are good enough at a video game pose a big challenge for the company who developed it: Once you beat it, the game is useless—or, at least, not nearly as valuable. This is the problem many brand loyalty programs have; rewarding customers may bring them back, but that retention only lasts as long as the reward you’re offering.
Corporations like McDonald’s address this issue by building each achievement into the user’s desire for another one. Its thirty-year-old Monopoly program, is so successful because every property you win is both a free hamburger and one fewer tab you need to complete your monopoly—or score that Boardwalk. It offers short-term and long-term rewards at the same time.
Keep in mind that creative marketing doesn’t just harness a board game everyone grew up playing. It suggests the competition you start with your customer will last much longer if each win they receive paves the way to another. Don’t settle for instant gratification. If you can gamify your content in such a way that it creates more value behind each “unlock,” the brand may never run out of value.
Before my current iPhone 6, I had a Samsung Intensity III (jealous?). It was a basic phone that I used for about four years after downgrading from an iPhone 4. And the one difference I noticed when re-upgrading was how it touts its product today: It’s not about what it can do; it’s about what you want it to do. Apple may focus on aesthetics in its hardware, but no two iPhones are alike once purchased; each user picks and chooses the apps they want and configures their settings however they see fit.
This is something brands should emulate when gamifying their content. Technology was originally built for users to learn, whereas today it’s built to learn the user. To that end, Smart Insights suggests parsing your material out so people can gradually understand it, but I recommend taking it a step further. Build the entire experience around customization.
Liken this content strategy to a choose-your-own-adventure book (remember those?), wherein the readers play a role in the story. “To walk through the door on the left, turn to page 63. To climb the mysterious staircase, turn to page 81.” YouTube has since modernized this concept, allowing video creators to drop in “annotations” clickable by the viewer for how they’d like the clip to play out. Numerous personal and branded channels now depend on it for subscribers. By freeing people up to explore your product this way, you ensure your brand is already on the “same page” as the customer. Suddenly a classic medium can be gamified by allowing users to get whatever they want out of it, rather than stacking all the information in front of them at once.
Still, some of the most creative marketing teams refuse to give their customers so much leash when designing a produce or service, and for a good reason: if there’s too much to unlock or customize, you lose sight of the company.
The last thing you want is to bury yourself in content whose tone or CTA doesn’t offer some cohesive to the brand behind it, but adding variety doesn’t take away from the logo, tagline, or color palette that defines who you are. It just asks you to unhinge some of the things by which you nurture the relationship with your customers. By handing control back over to your audience, you allow them to engage in activity that exposes opportunities to scale and enhance your brand down the line.
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