How to Build an Audience Using Gamification

Image of Chessboard

Back in November, Firepole Marketing’s Content Editor made a complete and utter fool of herself.

On purpose.

And she was happy to do it.

She was participating in a local event called the Impossible Montreal Scavenger Hunt, and doing so required a team of ostensibly mature adults to engage in activities from the bizarre (marionette Mario Brothers re-enactment) to the dangerous (construct and use web-slingers), to the simply embarrassing (narrate the introduction to an adult film).

Why would they do this? Because they wanted to win.

What does this have to do with building an audience online? Simple …

This Montreal event is something that participants talk about, plan for, and devote entire weekends of their lives to — all year round. That’s some pretty serious engagement.

More specifically, it’s about engagement through gamification — taking the principles that can get a banker to eat a jar of mayonnaise (on video), and turning them into strategies you can use to get your readers as excited about you and your brand as the contestants were for Impossible Montreal.

Can you imagine how powerful that would be for your brand?

Principles of gamification

Before we get into specific action you can take, let’s explore the principles at play (pun intended), why they’re important, and some places you can see online companies using them right now.

These principles are motivation and risk avoidance, status and recognition, discovery and surprise, and feedback and rewards.

Often, these concepts get discussed when we talk about things like getting more people to read your content, or improving your conversion rates, but rarely are they thoughtfully analyzed and applied to content campaigns.

Each one is important and necessary to convert readers and community members from passive observers to raving evangelists.

1. Get going with motivation, and avoiding loss

From the beginning, you’ve got to get people excited to play your game.

This means motivating them to start, and keeping them motivated to finish. A common misconception is that a fantastic prize — the chance to win something amazing — is the best way to motivate people for a game or contest. And terrific prizes will definitely get some people interested.

But a more effective motivator is the fear of losing something they already have, or the desire to demonstrate their total dominance to the cheers and adulation of all.

One company that motivates very well is Zynga — the people behind the wildly popular Farmville game.

When people sign up to play, they are given an amount of virtual currency. To avoid losing their money, they have to continue playing. We all remember those ghastly “come pet my cow” invitations, don’t we? That’s loss aversion at work.

The social aspect of the game also worked in Farmville’s favor — circles of friends compete to see who has the most impressive farm.

2. Make them work hard for status and reputation

It feels good to be the best at something — even our own personal best.

That’s why winning is such a captivating thing for so many people — it’s irrefutable proof that you’re amazing. And once it gets out that you have a certain status — like winner, expert, or talented — you want to keep that reputation. In fact, you’ll probably work hard to do so.

Have you ever used FourSquare?

It’s a social networking site that lets you check in at different locations, and recognizes how often you do so by assigning you a status, like “Mayor.” Mayors are so named because they check in the most frequently at a certain place. Becoming a Mayor is quite an honor, and people like to hang on to that title (remember loss aversion?). But now think of this — would you like your ex to be Mayor of your house?

Heck no — you’re going to check in as often as possible to make sure that you win that title. Competition to be Mayor is intense, and the rewards are many — not just accolades, but sometimes prizes and discounts.

3. Light their eyes with discovery and surprise

Do you like surprises?

Of course you do! Surprises are lovely. And the thrill of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen — or better, yet expecting nothing and getting a little something — is a wonderful feeling.

Early behavioral researchers famously ran experiments in which lab rats had to press a lever for food pellets to be released. Some of the rats got food every time they pushed the lever, and they ate when they were hungry. Some rats never got any food out of the lever, and they quickly learned to ignore it.

But a third, pitiable group of rats got food out of the lever some of the time — following no discernible pattern, and offering no guarantee of results. Those poor rats drove themselves crazy pressing the lever — even days after the supply of pellets had been cut off.

We work much the same way — if we don’t know what’s happening, or don’t know what the surprise or reward might be — we have to find out. At any cost.

We must know!

A great example of this in real, non-rat-related life, is Squidoo.

When you create lenses on Squidoo, you are rewarded with badges, prizes, and extra opportunities — and often you have no idea what they will be. The more levels you unlock, the more possibilities there are. Almost every interaction is incentivized in some way.

It can be highly addictive, and is a great way to get users to keep creating content and engaging with each other. Not bad, considering that the rewards are often no more than a couple of pixels arranged to look like a monster, or the chance to list your 18 favorite 80s pop covers.

4. The icing on the cake is feedback and rewards

When you do a good job, which of the following makes you more likely to continue: congratulations and praise, or the satisfaction of knowing you’re basically competent (i.e. zero external response)?

If it’s the latter, then congratulations — you’re a stronger person that I am. When I do a good job, I want delicious, satisfying praise. It’s the same in contests and games — praise and public acknowledgement are highly motivating.

It’s human nature to want to be praised for our efforts and recognized for our talents. This is a very important part of gamification.

Look at Nerd Fitness; on their community site, you can join a rebellion, choose your play class, and even join group activities like walking to Mordor.

The whole system is set up so that you can earn points, and earn the adulation of the community as you do. It’s highly addictive, as well as effective at getting people to eat well and exercise. Nerd Rebels are die-hard fans, and give each other constant support and feedback.

The community stays alive and thriving even without the direct involvement of Steve Kamb, the site’s brilliant creator.

4 ways to gamify your blog …

Now we’re going to talk about how to get some of these principles working on your site or blog.

If you’ve already got any level of engagement, you want to start stepping it up.

If you’re new to content marketing, you can build incentives and gamification principles right into the foundational workings of your blog.

1. Supercharging comments and commenters

If you already have a healthy interaction with the commenters on your site, you’ve got a head start. But what if commenters stood to gain more from interacting with you?

Some blogs allow ranking of comments — that’s a great way to start adding game theory to your site. Giving readers voting power provides commenters powerful incentive to make the most interesting and engaging contributions. This uses the status and feedback principles beautifully.

Another way to do this might be to publicly show how engaged a commenter is on the blog — like they do on the Huffington Post. Users can become “fans” of each other, and a certain amount of commenting and other interaction gives you extra titles and badges. This is status, discovery and feedback at work.

2. Raise the stakes with rewards and giveaways

This is a fairly common blog technique — give away a book, program, or piece of software in exchange for some action on the part of the reader.

This is standard so far — but it can be taken much, much further.

A giveaway is a one-off, and doesn’t build on itself. What you want is a series of rewards and giveaways that build on each other — with more to lose and more to gain at each time; preferably, a method that also involves the participation of other blog readers.

You don’t necessarily need to come up with a lot of prizes to achieve this — having different rounds or levels for different interactions can do the trick.

For example, all blog readers could be invited to comment on a blog post. The eight best commenters could each have a chance to submit more details — then the rest of the audience could vote to declare the winner. This utilizes both motivation and reward.

The only limit here is your imagination and the creativity of your audience.

3. Polls and voting to get people involved

Ranking is fun.

People like to compete for the top spot, and they like to have power over deciding how that process works. Getting readers involved with you and your blog is critically important to developing the type of relationship that leads to sales.

You can have readers rank posts, ideas, or products (yours and other content creators.) For example, if you’ve recently read a few amazing articles on copywriting for the web, you could present them to your readers and poll them to see which they prefer, and then have readers submit suggestions and vote on winners. This can work with any new ideas you want to try on the blog.

Changing your header? Get the reader’s opinions.

Thinking about a new feature? Let your readers vote on the one they want to see most.

This utilizes loss aversion and discovery in brilliant ways.

4. Bring it home with contests and competitions

This is the suggestion that takes the most time, but has the highest rewards.

If you want to build a truly gamified campaign, you need to plan how to integrate all of the principles above — and if you do, readers will flock to join you.

Remember these principles when planning the details of your competition; people are motivated by different things for different reasons, but everyone hates to lose something they already have.

  • Status and recognition are things we all desire, work to achieve, and will strive to maintain.
  • Discovery and surprise keep us going — we need to know what comes next. If there is no way to know what that might be in advance — well, we just have to do it and find out.
  • Feedback and rewards, at the end of the day, allow readers (and contestants) to get the most out of the experience.

Simple concepts, but interesting to apply, and fantastic to experience.

Want a real live example?

We’re running a live experiment over at Firepole Marketing, called the Great Online Marketing Scavenger Hunt.

From across the internet, entrepreneurs, bloggers, and small business owners will be competing to reign supreme over their peers in the field of online marketing.

The challenges will be difficult, require the learning of new skills, and forging into new territories — but the rewards will be many.

If you think you’d like to become the ultimate champion of online marketing, expand your reach and effectiveness online and, of course, win some bad-ass prizes — why don’t you come check it out?

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Reader Comments (28)

  1. says

    Gamefication truly is one of the best ways to increase audience. Great ideas are described here, thank you! I like the conception “if we do not now what we will get, will have to find out. At any cost” – complete truth. And this conception certainly should be used for gamefication.

  2. says


    It is awesome to see you artfully employ game theory to running a blog or website. I have actually brainstormed ideas for how to accomplish this, but I lack the creative skill. You do an excellent job and empower your ideas with strong connections to game theory. I learned about game theory while studying evolutionary psychology, and because of that context, I have a hard time thinking of it in other terms. You’ve accomplished it for me, and I thank you.

    I am going to head off to start gamifying!


    • says

      Thanks, Darin, I’m so glad that you enjoyed the post!

      Actually, though, it isn’t game theory, it’s gamification – they’re very different things. I’d love to hear about your ideas, though – if you feel like sharing, please send me an email! :)

  3. says

    I don’t know if I am right, but what “gamification” can do for us as blogger is about engaging visitors.
    That is a theory and sometimes it is easier to describe than it is to apply.
    Of course, this can make a big difference in your conversions if you do it right!
    Good article!

    • says

      Hey Felipe, you’re exactly right – that’s exactly the opportunity for us bloggers. It can make a huge difference to conversions, and to engagement – and if you want an example, you should check out our Scavenger Hunt!

  4. says

    Good post! I have seen in my business that when people are told they will be part of a special group if they “like” a social media page, they will be more likely to perform that action. That, of course, also gives them a front row seat to links to the marketing content. 😉

  5. says

    Well timed, Danny. I just installed a top commenter widget on my blog and named it Most Inspiring Contributors as mine is an inspirational blog. I hope my commenters don’t read this :-) but I’m hoping that they will be motivated to compete for top ranking. I do think that designation will drive more traffic to their respective blogs than simply “top commenter.” I’m a psychologist, a homeschooler, and a huge gamification fan. Thanks for the ideas!

  6. says

    Danny no doubt Gamification helps in community building, and a great way to convert visitors into regular readers..In fact it helps turn readers into members… Do you know what’s the best solution to add Gamification in WordPress blog?? Any plugin which seamlessly integrate with WordPress…

  7. says

    Good points, everyone of us wants to be acknowledged one way or the other, so is very important to try and give to others that which we all desire

  8. says

    I am just starting out on a new venture with my site and would love to implement a “Gamification/Trophy system”, for participation from my members. I have looked everywhere for a plugin or program to purchase and insert into my site that would make it automated. But the prices are way out of my league, one example is I spoke with a gentleman at gigya, and he stated a starting price of $20,000.00 yes twenty thousand!!!
    Do you know of anywhere with reasonable prices??? Oh yes….awesome article thank you.

    • says

      Hi Dilligaf, We developed a video trivia platform to empower businesses, social media consultants, and families to gamify You Tube videos. Once you create your video trivia contest – it associates it with a leaderboard so you can challenge others for free. If you want to associate it with a giveaway, integrate it into Facebook, etc. then prices start at $30/month. We created this due to the fact that we saw companies over pricing and wanted to provide something at reasonable costs. Here is a direct link to our packages, benefits, case studies, and more:

  9. says

    I guess if there is competition, challenge to do things, people generally take it. More than free content, blogs that engage readers to get more content seem to actually respond to such requests and find it intriguing to know what’s there. Its interesting how you incorporated game theory into marketing. Interesting approach Danny.

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