Building a game layer on top of the world

The decade of connectivity is over.  We are entering the decade of influence.

And if you believe Seth Priebatsch, the bright, young, really fast talking Princeton dropout CEO of the new mobile gaming platform SCVNGR, nothing influences like gaming dynamics.

Think about it. Game dynamics make us show up at designated times (Farmville); they encourage us to enhance our personal influence and status (fans, followers, comments); they inspire us to complete tasks (unlock rewards, earn badges); and they unite us to solve problems (Wired Magazine and the DARPA challenge.)

Why does this matter to marketers? For the simple reason that consumers don’t sit around waiting for messages to arrive on their screens. They’re too busy posting, updating, liking and gathering relevant content from friends and communities to pay much attention to anything resembling a traditional marketing or advertising execution.

Yet as marketers we still have to capture people’s attention, induce them to engage with us and drive them to take action. If messages no longer work, what does? Seth thinks the answer lies in games.

And there’s plenty of evidence that he’s right.

There are the original examples like, which got you to complete the task of saving for a trip with a gauge showing you how close you were.  Nike +, which rewards you for reaching fitness milestones.  And, of course, the proverbial credit card points.

More recently we have Rue la la and Daily Grommet, which get you to show up daily to see what’s new and sometimes making products available for a limited time. (None other than Gary Vaynerchuk once told me he was buying as many “daily” URLs as he could get his hands on for that very reason.)

As Foursquare and Gowalla make game dynamics even more accessible, smart social marketers like AJ Bombers are learning to leverage our desire to win points and earn badges.

You’ll even notice that on this blog the Livefyre comment system that I’m testing out as a beta user hopes that the “game” of personal influence and reputation helps it catch on.

One of my all time favorite examples of the power of game dynamics was Evan Ratliff’s attempt to disappear. The Wired Magazine reporter attempted to erase all evidence, digital and otherwise, of his whereabouts. Wired’s offer of $5000 to whoever could find and out Evan inspired thousands of users across the country to band together in small groups, working as teams to track him down.  Clearly their participation and commitment was as much about the challenge and competition as the money.

It strikes me that Seth’s argument makes total sense.  If we can’t get people to pay attention to messages, if people get their content and information from each other, and if we need incentives and rewards, both intrinsic and extrinsic, to engage with a brand, we should all be figuring out how to put more game into our marketing programs.

Want to play?  Leave a comment, tweet about it and see if you get more “likes” on your comment than the person above you and below you.  Whoever gets the most likes on their comment wins a _____________.   Hey, we could even make filling in that blank a game, too.



When we really get wired, and our bodies "post" our biometrics to the cloud, we'll be able to award whoever maintains the highest endorphin level "the happiest person in the world", the highest adrenaline level the most extreme and the person who uses the word "like" the most "the world's worst verbal communicator."

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb


Isn't this more proof of the fracturing of marketing into smaller and smaller pieces? It is a very very rare situation like American Idol than can pull 30mil people into voting for something. I am seeing more and more Brands having to expend more energy for the incremental sale. Even Facebook is not a solution. If Starbucks has 10 mil fans that is really a way for them to reach 1,000's at a time out of their (my estimate) 200mil customers world wide. Isn't what happened with Cable TV now happening with Marketing? I have to micro target people all over in order to get my message out?

BTW I like SCVNGR. They ran a game at the AVP Volleyball Tourney in Huntington Beach that my client was vending at. I spoke at length with their BusDev person who showed me that the service requires you to 1] be somewhere vs nearby (huge improvement over 4SQ etc) and 2] take an action. But doesn't this all (including some of your examples) become bribes in a technical sense? And with such low barriers to entry and short attention spans will anything ever be sustainable? I loved the Smithsonian and Patriots SCVNGR games. But if you aren't there you can not play.

If only we could figure out how to recreate the activity Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket unleashed! But I guess we have...its called MegaMillions and Powerball!


Great post and I do agree that if managed properly games can be a very successful marketing tool. I'd like to share some lessons from the Army Strong campaign and a case study from the 2010 VW GTI.

America's Army: The Army developed this game (now in version 3) as a tool to give people a chance to experience the Army. Although most who haven't played it know it as a first person shooter game it actually required players to complete basic training to improve their performance. Gave them a chance to experience rifle ranges and drill sergeants. As it grew videos about life as a Soldier were added. The game is credited for how a boy saved his brother's life through first aid he learned in the game. As games improved so did America's Army. Players learned to work together in teams and were penalized for not following the rules of engagement. All elements of real life. Portions of the game have been adapted into interactive areas used at events.

Events: By leveraging gaming dynamics we were able to increase numbers at our interactive areas. Not only are people rewarded for participating but they are rewarded for performance. We actually began tracking numbers of push-ups done by someone as a tool to measure their physical fitness if they decided they wanted to speak with a recruiter about enlisting.

HALO 3: Our partnership with Microsoft was the best they had. Players could opt into learning about the Army at points during the game. They received Army sponsored game tips from a HALO 3 expert and as luck would have it a former Soldier.

Game Tournament: We sponsored a tournament when I first took over the campaign. The tournament we sponsored had a cash prize. This sponsorship was a failure in my mind. We attracted professional gamers and not those interested in the Army. If I did it over again, the prize would be a day to experience the Army. Fly in a helicopter, fire weapon simulators, etc.

One other interesting case study of games is one done by VW for the 2010 GTI. They released an app where the GTI was a race car. This gave users a chance to "test drive" the new GTI and compete for one of 6 that were given away to those who scored the highest points on the game. For results see:

I point all this out because I believe successful advertising in the future will influence by giving customers a chance to experience the brand.


Game dynamics can be very effective, but to be mainstream they often need to be subtle and they cannot feel forced. I see an over-enthusiasm towards game dynamics right now where early adopter behavior is assumed to become mainstream behavior, not unlike the "this is the future" enthusiasm that happened with Second Life and virtual worlds. I agree very much with Jules and Jeff's cautions. With both social and game dynamics, fatigue can set in. I'm not arguing that they will die away at all -- just that it isn't the end-all-be-all.


Good post Edward and thanks for the Daily Grommet shout out.

I do think the one thing missing from this dialogue is awareness that the highly-persuasive Seth (and his customer base) do not represent consumers with the dominant purchasing power in our economy. So the real wins in applying gaming theory to commerce will occur when the rewards/incentives/social credit all flow totally naturally from ordinary (i.e not time consuming or deliberate) online activities and interactions. Bottom line, the people who are spending the most money have the least time. Understanding that is key.


Sigh. To me, this is way more tired than wired. It reminds me of when I had to listen to the narcissists of Sapient, Viant and Scient (remember these clowns?) tell me all about how the Web would develop and how AT&T, Bell Labs, IBM, Intel, Lucent and others didn't know shit. I mean, this guy is so impressed with himself, I'm waiting for the punchline. Except there isn't one.

Here's this thing: this dude is merely looking back on history and confidently predicting the future, and as anyone who knows better knows, the past is no guarantee of future results. Sad, too, because this guy seems smart, but as sure as the sun will rise he will look back on this talk someday and shake his head that he was ever so presumptuous.

Last thing: he says the next decade is the decade of influence. Right, tell that to Andrew Carnegie who wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People in, get this, 1936.

Damn, I am a curmudgeon!


Thanks, Edward! Fun and fascinating! Call it games, but to me it really amounts to applying standard motivational techniques across a sexier, more engaging delivery mechanism known as the Internet. The opportunities are enormous, for sure. A couple of challenges that come to mind? First, coloring outside the lines (being creative) without losing the bigger picture (the brand). Also, creating calendars of strategic, building promotions/advertisements that are consistently inconsistent to avoid turning the 'games' into expensive entitlement programs that don't result incremental mindshare or revenue.

Jenifer @jenajean


Agree with this and am fascinated by Seth video. Have often thought that gaming was an under-leveraged space from a marketing perspective. We do need to be careful that we do not sacrifice genuine communication as we incorporate gaming dynamics into "interest programs."