User interaction with digital content has been a part of the internet since its inception. For the past two decades, engagement has been a key focus for marketing, content production and product teams. We create products and services that we want our users to keep coming back to, and the more they use them, the more profitable they become.
The increase in online content since the emergence of user-friendly interfaces, programming languages and frameworks has been immense. Consequently, there is now greater competition than ever before to capture a user’s attention through video gaming, websites, blogs and other forms of multimedia.
The gaming industry has become one of the fastest-growing sectors of the entertainment market in the 21st century, and yet iconic titles such as World of Warcraft, Fortnite, and Grand Theft Auto Online have managed to remain amongst the most profitable assets in the industry despite the emergence of new competitors.
It is clear that a key element to the success of many video games is their ability to find an effective balance between frustration and reward. This raises an interesting question: what can we learn from video games in general? The concept of ‘gamification’ is essential to understand in order to answer this.
Simply put, what is gamification?
The term “gamification” is used to describe the process of applying game design principles to non-gaming contexts. It is an innovative approach to problem-solving, which seeks to find novel solutions to existing issues.
There are three main tenets of gamification:
The ability to develop games requires the ability to solve problems: Video game designers may appear to be creating toys, however, they are actually constructing intricate systems with a multitude of features to sustain the engagement of players. Such skill sets can be put to use in various other contexts.
Folk psychology is beginning to include games: As the gaming industry continues to evolve, terms such as ‘scoring’, ‘experience points’, ‘traits’, ‘levels’ and ‘achievements’ are becoming increasingly commonplace. The aim of gamification is to capitalize on the fact that the target audience is already familiar with these concepts, and the associated reward systems.
Any task may be turned into a game: Gamification of procedures can be used to increase motivation, engagement and performance levels in a variety of contexts. This could take the form of treating a task as if it were a video game, or more subtle methods which apply the core principles without the use of apparent language.
Simply substitute the word “likes” with “points” and “followers” with “levels,” and it becomes apparent that the pattern of content production for Instagram is comparable to that of attempting to surpass a level in Candy Crush or progressing up in a role-playing game.
Realizing the nature of reinforcement
Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked, has developed “The Hook Model”, which incorporates his personal ideas with those of psychologist B.F. Skinner, in order to replicate the success of websites such as Facebook, which have implemented gaming techniques to enhance user involvement and revenue.
The hook model has four primary components: cues, behavior, payoffs, and initial investment.
Triggers Triggers are the initial step in engaging a consumer with a product. Intrinsic or internal triggers refer to the user’s own mental state, such as their motivations, emotions and needs. Examples of intrinsic triggers include statements such as “I need to find something” or “I’m bored”.
Extrinsic triggers refer to the external factors that attract customers to your product. These could include promotional offers or positive reviews from peers.
Actions User actions should be rewarded on social media platforms in order to incentivise engagement. Submitting content is the minimum requirement needed to begin the process of receiving feedback.
Identifying the ideal balance of effort and reward is a major challenge in gamification. The thrill of continually winning may be exciting initially, but users will quickly become disinterested with the regular rewards and lose interest in the game.
If there is no concept of failure in a web context and rewards are always given, then the rewards themselves become redundant. For example, if a discount coupon is consistently provided with purchases, the user will no longer view it as an incentive but rather as an entitlement.
Striving is essential for our next step of the process: incentivization. According to self-determination theory, we are motivated to take action by three key factors: the desire to learn and develop from difficult situations, the need to connect with others and feel part of a community, and the belief that our actions have purpose and consequence.
We appreciate that rewards are valued and we want users to feel that their efforts are recognized. However, we don’t want users to feel that they have to remain active on the platform solely to receive a reward, as this would detract from their incentive to post content. What would be the point of contributing to a social media platform if users could not receive meaningful feedback such as likes and comments?
This final investment is the effort we put into our product to enhance it and provide the user with a reason to come back. This is the type of message we often see when a game releases a new update, accompanied by a summary of all the enhancements, and, strangely, this is why people keep returning to Facebook despite their grievances over the frequent redesigns.
By integrating a continuous cycle of improvements with a variable reward system that encourages users to return, we can create a powerful engagement loop. Furthermore, incorporating user feedback into this system will help to ensure its long-term success.
The transition from thought to deed
To ensure this post is useful for a range of product owners, it has been kept general. Some product owners may find it beneficial to introduce a high-score system to promote friendly competition among users, whilst others may prefer a levelling-up system for rewarding users for completing daily objectives.
It is important to emphasize that user engagement is not simply determined by the aesthetics or usability of the product, but is an ongoing process that grows and develops as the user discovers new and rewarding ways to interact with it. There is no endpoint to the engagement process.
Fun, as Jane McGonigal points out, need not be confined to the realm of games.