Humans by nature are inherently competitive.   At some level, we all love to play, compete and win.    If you need proof, the top professional sports leagues in North America (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS) brought in just under $200B USD in revenue last year – which is greater than the GDP of the Philippines.  We sure do love our sports.

So it may not surprise you to learn that the concept of “gamification” is a big trend in social media right now.  If you do a quick Google search on the topic, you’ll find dozens of articles, blog posts and white papers on gamification and how it can increase the level of online engagement amongst a target community. 

But what exactly constitutes “gamification”?  Does your campaign need to develop a political version of Farmville?  No.  In the strictest sense, it is “integrating game dynamics into your site, service, community, content or campaign, in order to drive participation”.  It means finding a compelling way to turn basic activities into a competition – either as individual challenges or pitted against other users.

The above definition also includes the term “game dynamics”.  Game dynamics are essentially the intrinsic, emotional responses that make games compelling:  status; reward; achievement; competition; and altruism.  These are the intangible elements that prompt your audience to participate and compete. 

Another common term when discussing gamification is “game mechanics”.  Game dynamics and game mechanics are often used interchangeably, but they are quite different.  Game mechanics are the tools and systems used to enable game mechanics: awards; points; badges; leaderboards; prizes; and challenges.   Combining these concepts and applying them to your operations is “gamification”.

Using gaming dynamics has been around the marketing world for some time.  How long have you had your Air Miles card?  Or a Petro Points membership?  At their essence, these programs use gaming dynamics to make a fairly routine event (flying to Wichita, pumping gas, purchasing groceries) into a contest to collect points and earn rewards and prizes.

Gamification is now taking the online and social media world by storm.  Successful companies like Foursquare, whose entire premise is based on users collecting badges and earning points for checking into specific locations, has over 10 million users and is valued at $600M USD.  Meleno Park, California-based Badgeville creates loyalty programs for customers using badges, points and other gaming mechanics and just secured another $12 million in investment capital this summer.

Badges are big business.

  

Why?   As social networking becomes an important element of a comprehensive online presence, brands, organizations and their marketing teams are looking for new and compelling way to keep their target audience engaged.  It’s no longer about passive consumption – reading posts, watching videos, clicking on links to other pages on the site – it is about turning visitors into active participants. 

And it isn’t just to entertain their audience.  Businesses and organizations employing gamification want visitors to take specific action.  They want to lead them somewhere or do something; but with the immense competition for attention on the Internet, it is getting more and more difficult to capture a person’s attention.  It is even more difficult to maintain it.

Gaming dynamics takes our intrinsic competitive nature and uses it to entertain, inform or compel the target audience to take action.  And by using gaming mechanics – badges, points, challenges – the organization relies less on altruistic motivations (a worthy cause, a rational argument). 

Political campaigns provide a natural environment to incorporate gamification techniques.  For starters, the end goals are always well defined: to win that election, to elect that person, to raise this amount of money, to raise awareness on a particular issue. 

In fact, it could be argued that the political world – which doesn’t offer a tangible product or service – needs gamification more than the world of business.    Gamification creates concrete and more immediate rewards for campaign volunteers, who would otherwise be engaged for generally altruistic (although not completely selfless) reasons.

 And given campaigns are often a series of tasks that can be easily quantified (posting a comment, installing X number of signs, donating X amount of money), gamification is a natural fit.  My own recent experience with gamification proves this is indeed the case.

In the recent Ontario election, I was responsible for online activism for the Ontario PC Party.  One of the concepts our team developed was a Facebook application where users could earn points and badges for campaigning both online (posting a pre-written, election related status update to their Facebook or Twitter profile) and offline (earning points for participating in a canvassing blitz). 

The idea was to encourage supporters – especially new ones – to become engaged in the campaign at the most basic level.  We weren’t asking them to come down to the campaign office for five hours, we were asking them to watch a video or like a candidate’s Facebook Page.   As they took more actions, they had more opportunities to increase the depth of their participation.  

The numbers alone show the potential of such a concept: over approximately five months, over 2,600 individuals used the application to earn a total of 400,000 points.  It was a fierce competition on the app leaderboard, where the users occupying the top spots changed often.   

And the badges were a valued commodity.  One colleague relayed a direct quote to me from an older relative who was using the application: “I don’t know what it is about those badges, but I want them!”   The support team would hear about any technical glitches that resulted in a user not getting their badge almost immediately.

As campaigns struggle to find volunteers committed to assisting the campaign on a regular basis, it is incumbent on them to find new ways to engage supporters in a manner that reflects current societal trends.  At the same time, a strong online presence is becoming an important element to a successful political movement. 

Gamification can satisfy both these realities.  Gaming is everywhere you look online.  A round of Angry Birds is available merely by reaching for your phone. At the same time, with so much competition for people’s time, campaigns need every incentive they can muster to get someone involved.

The best campaigns know that it is crucial to “feed and water” volunteers.  It is important to show them you appreciate all that they do and all that they give – money and time.  Actively employing game dynamics provides the opportunity to not only engage volunteers in a fun and interesting way, but to also provide rewards for taking that action; which in turn allows your message to be spread widely. 

Winston Churchill once said: “Politics is not a game.  It is an earnest business.” 

Now it can be both. 

Brett Bell is the Principal of Grassroots Online (www.grassrootsonline.ca).  With over 15 years of real campaigning experience, he was one of the early Canadian advocates for the powerful potential of social media and online engagement in the world of politics and advocacy campaigning.  He can be reached at brett@grassrootsonline.ca