“We’ll give users points just for doing stuff they already do. That’ll make them come back, be loyal, love us!”
“Check it out. Users will go to the stores they like, eat food they like, see the movies they like, listen to music they like. The whole time, they’ll get points. When they get enough points, we’ll give them a prize.”
“Oh. What kind of prize?”
“I don’t know… how about we get a great sponsor, and then give away something awesome, like say… a Mercedez! Or maybe an iPad for a smaller reward. Or a free vacation at a Four Seasons!”
“Let’s do it!!!”
3 months later
“I’ve got the latest sponsor!”
“Oh. Ok. I guess that’ll fit well with last month’s Axe promo.”
3 more months later.
“Check it out – a Super 8 getaway in Sacramento! Hello?”
So what happened here? Seemed like a great idea at the time. Create a simple program by which users get rewarded for the activities they already like. It’s actually a no-brainer!
Until you apply a little game theory and a little human nature to it, that is. Let’s play it out a little.
Prize 1, a Mercedez. Gets lots of people excited and enticed, gets some buzz going, maybe even goes viral. After all, who doesn’t want a sweet ride? So the system/app/site gets loads of initial sign-ups, then users perform whatever mundane check-in/scan/picture-taking activity they are supposed to do. Eventually, the prize is given away. At which point, the site has a user base chock full of people. All is well.
But then, they do a little data analysis, and find that most of the users who are playing the game/task/chore are really not of the demographic of Mercedez buyers. New sponsors show up, eagerly, but at a slightly lesser stature. Why? Well, companies who would fund the giveaway of a Mercedez are trying to, for the most part, attract a demographic who might actually be able to buy one. Instead, they reach an aspirational demographic, as well as, for lack of a better word, bottom feeders – folks who want the “free thing” whatever it might be.
In phase 2 (figuratively speaking – it could take numerous “waves” of prize rounds for this to occur), with a lower quality item, the demographics slip worse (from a brand marketing perspective, not a judgement of people perspective). After all, the prize moves from something highly aspirational into something accessible, likely affordable. Which brings out the “couponeers” and everyone else who is less interested in the item per se, and just interested in winning something free.
After that, a bit of a death spiral occurs. Prizes get shoddier, and the makeup of the game players not only slips, but becomes more highly fragmented along the way. Eventually everything about the platform has slipped too far to recover. And capitulation occurs.
Moral of the story: if you want to reward a user’s behavior, reward the change, not the things that stay the same. That and if you don’t play any games whatsoever, odds are you’ll continually struggle with game theory. Oh, that, and playing to become “mayor” is a crappy game, regardless of how you spin it.