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Content Strategy

Inject Gameplay into Your Content

Gamification is a very popular term with web product managers these days. It designates the introduction of game mechanics into seemingly unrelated products and processes. With the success of social video games such as Farmville and services such as Foursquare which give you points and badges to reward engagement, social gaming mechanics have arrived in the consciousness of millions.

Getting Started With Gamification

By tying desirable rewards to actions you want to encourage, you can achieve positive outcomes in web apps but also in project management and — yes — publishing.
The basics are quite simple. To create a game-like experience, you need to:

  • define a desirable outcome
  • find a metric to measure it
  • define win conditions and corresponding rewards
  • define loss conditions and corresponding punishments
  • build a feedback loop around them.

Gamification has been around forever, like frequent flyer miles and consumer loyalty systems in hotels, grocery stores — bookstores, even. With the rise of the social web, the trend is only accelerating and becoming more complex.
New companies are appearing who try to specialize in the production and management of game-like features to add on top of your services like badges and scoreboards. Often, the basics listed above are mistreated and this results in shallow experiences. You can’t treat gamification as an afterthought; you need to incorporate it wisely into product development.
You can find these reflections and more about how they apply to popular location-based services such as Foursquare in Episode 41 of “Let’s Make Mistakes” with game producer Stephanie Morgan.
In this episode, the hosts and their guest comment on the fact that Twitter is a good game. You post something, your post will elicit a reaction or not. The reactions are the reward you’re after. Hence, crafting tweets becomes a game. You’re encouraged to post provocative and inspiring things at the right time so you can get retweets and faves.
In fact, it can work for many aspects of content creation and publishing whether you want to encourage yourself and your contributors to post more, get more comments, or encourage content discovery and engagement.

Add Gameplay to Your Work

David Seah’s Concrete Goal Tracker is a great resource for solo-entrepreneurs and freelancers. It is a printable scoreboard for your week designed to direct your attention towards the tasks with the highest pay-offs. You can use his list of achievements or write your own.

  • Shipping billable client work
  • contacting prospects
  • writing new blog posts etc

are all worth 10, 5 or 2 points. Each time you complete one of these tasks, you award yourself those points. It becomes most effective when you define win conditions: 300 points per week for four weeks, for example, and promise yourself a nice reward. You can also add loss conditions if you like.
This self-reporting makes it only suitable for yourself, really. But it is a simple example of how gamification works and a tremendous foundation to be building upon.

Add Gameplay to Content Creation and Management

You can also move beyond encouraging posting and try to have an impact on the quality of the content. Choose a metric that you want to improve and then tie a strong reward to the improvements that you seek. Don’t do that lightly. You have to think hard about what it is you want to accomplish and how to encourage behaviours which will bring you closer to your goals. In short, you have to get a strong editorial strategy and process in place before experimenting with these techniques.
Some blog publishers famously tie the revenue of writers to traffic levels or revenue streams such as affiliation programs. Again, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution. If you tie your win conditions to the wrong metric, other important metrics might take a plunge. Tying blogger revenues to traffic encourages big volumes of short lived, SEO-laden content. It may be OK for traffic hoarders who rely on ad revenue. It might not be the smartest move for niche blogs trying to establish credibility, create lasting value to drive steady traffic and close sales.

Outside the narrow realm of blogs, you can’t afford to encourage the churning of content because — remember — a piece of content that has been created must be maintained and/or retired. In such cases, you can use gameplay to encourage content audits and maintenance instead of creation. However, you have to make sure all the players who get to make decisions about your content have the right skill set and domain expertise.

Encourage Your Audience to Read and Share Your Content

The paper and pen system doesn’t scale and you can’t use it to encourage reading, social sharing and comments. There are experimental solutions to encourage engagement and sharing of content using gameplay mechanisms.
Gourmet Live, Gourmet magazine’s iPad app uses an innovative reward system. Exploring content, you will sometimes stumble upon a story which, once you read it, will grant you access to exclusive content such as recipes. Then, you can share this reward with your friends on Facebook and Twitter, so that they can access the exclusive content too.
These “achievements” don’t require any skill or real work. Therefore, it isn’t a game but it still uses gameplay. The more you explore their app, the more likely it is you will get rewards — more or less randomly. They give you the ability to share rewards with your friends who use the app, however, without asking anything in return. People crave recognition for their efforts and love it when you give them gifts they can share with their contacts and friends.
Their ambition was to create a sticky experience by blending gameplay in a beautiful app and show their audience that content itself is a reward worth sharing with your friends. If you’re curious about the design process and underlying technology which power the app, Anil Dash who worked on the project, offers more thorough explanations.

Don’t Go Overboard

The frontier between introducing gameplay in your product design and manipulation is thin. It is possible to focus on positive gameplay aspects but beware, however. Don’t fall into the Zynga Abyss: don’t use social obligations to compell your users to participate in a shallow game-like experience.
The design principles of Zynga’s social games encourage you to beg and annoy your friends on Facebook with spam. They even acknowledge publicly that it is one of the most compelling features of their games. This is a little too much cynicism, I think.
You don’t have to approach it with the same attitude. Build fun into your useful products and content from the get-go without trying to condition your audience. It is possible to focus on the positive like Gourmet Live does.

Solutions to Experiment With

If you want to try building achievements into your WordPress site, you can use the CubePoints or Achievements plugins. While CubePoints is simpler to install and run, it primarily rewards comments. It will require the development of additional components by programmers to reward the authoring of posts and other things. Achievements seems more flexible but depends on the BuddyPress plugin until the next version comes out. It is, therefore, more difficult to get up and running.
Giving away rewards for desirable actions and improvements to key metrics is a useful tip and a great way to make your products and content better. Yet, everything depends on how you do it. If you have ideas for implementation or find other great examples of gameplay in publishing, please share them with us in the comments.
Photo Credit: A Gamer by wilhelmja and LAN Party Goodness by compujeramey.
I wrote “Inject Gameplay into Your Content” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on May 30, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.