What’s gamification? Depending on who you ask you may get slightly different definitions, but in general it’s when game-like features are added to a platform or activity that is otherwise not a game with the intention of engaging and motivating those who use it.

Modern consumers have become not only more tech-savvy but also more accustomed to being entertained by their devices. From cartoon-based learning apps used in the classroom, to reward-based apps that allow diners to engage in challenges to earn food rewards to user-friendly employee motivational or wellness programs, consumers spend a significant (and increasing) amount of time and attention participating in online activities that include gamification.

In retail and marketing, gamification includes things like earning rewards such as loyalty points, badges, stars or other virtual rewards for engaging with a brand, whether it’s through purchasing or reviewing a product, watching a video, sharing on social media or logging in and playing an actual brand-themed game. Rewards may be things such as special discounts, free gifts or products, account credits or even just a sense of identity and community with other users.

Under the right circumstances, gamification can significantly boost consumer engagement with a brand. It draws the user in and causes them to spend more time in the brand’s environment. It associates the brand with fun, excitement and competition. It provides the dopamine hit of receiving a reward, and if it’s a game that includes multiple people or community feedback, it also provides social reinforcement. Done well, it can dramatically boost social media visibility and customer loyalty. Done poorly, it can be ineffective or even drive customers away.

So, what are the right circumstances and successful techniques? Here are a few:

  • The game must be consistent with a company’s overall business strategy, objectives and goals. Robust data collection about your customers’ habits and preferences will help refine both where you want your customers to go and how you want them to get there.
  • The rewards must be motivating enough. If it’s an intangible reward like fun or the thrill of competition, it better be exciting enough to make people want to play. If the rewards are tangible, like points or discounts, they must be worth users’ time. A program that has shoppers earn and cash in points for the same discount they could have gotten with a regular coupon will be quickly abandoned. But building up to a more generous-seeming reward like a free product or service will keep consumers coming back.
  • Good gamification has tiers of rewards. Rewarding people for doing smaller tasks that build up to an end goal helps keep their interest, and rising up through different levels of achievement is motivating. Having users track progress on a leaderboard or dashboard can add even more encouragement.
  • The technology and interface of whatever platform you present must be well-designed and run smoothly. The last thing you want to do is add frustration to your customer’s life instead of making their experience more enjoyable.
  • Including a social component ups the chances of success. Friendly competition and community feedback and encouragement make people more likely to spend more time with the interface and to have a more positive impression of the program.

Adding random, glitchy or poorly thought-out game elements to an existing program is likely to be a waste of time and marketing dollars. But a thoughtful, data-driven and well-designed gamification approach has the potential to drive engagement, loyalty and profits and keep customers coming back.