4 Lessons to Learn from Foursquare’s Gamification Missteps
I’m the Mayor of Bunchball St. Louis and no one cares.
A few months ago exactly two people cared -- 1) me and 2) fellow Bunchballer Kyle Clark. As the sole members of the St. Louis-based Bunchball contingent, we battled on Foursquare for months to earn and retain that coveted title. I won it, then he won it, then I won it back, then…well, then we both just lost interest.
What happened? We came to the conclusion it was an accomplishment that carried no distinction, not unlike most of the other wins inside of Foursquare’s gamified experience --- the gym and martini bar mayorships, the Crunked and Socialite badges, the top spots on the check-in leaderboard –- all of which ultimately revealed themselves to be less than meaningful victories.
So it was of little surprise when it was reported last month that, in the face of declining usage, Foursquare was redesigning their app to rely less on game mechanics and more on its function as a recommendation engine. And while the reports of the death of gamification in the “new” Foursquare were greatly exaggerated, the revamped app clearly has shifted its focus toward social interaction and consumer offers, and away from mayorships, badges and leaderboards (while still including all three in the new experience).
Key Gamification Lessons
Foursquare’s revamped strategy is a smart one and likely to bring more value to its users. But Foursquare had to make those changes not because gamification doesn’t work, but because their gamification strategy had huge holes in it. As such, it offers some important lessons to keep in mind when designing your own (hopefully more successful) gamification strategy:
1. Gamification should not be your core experience.
Let’s face it; “checking in” is not that exciting an activity, so increasingly Foursquare relied on game mechanics to relieve the grinding tedium of announcing, “Here I am.” Old Foursquare gave users little in the way of value-added behaviors to perform, something game mechanics could mask for only so long. Smart gamification takes an already engaging and worthwhile core experience and elevates it, enhances it and focuses it, but never replaces it. Be sure you start with an experience that stands on its own as worthwhile for your audience, and then gamification can only make it better.
2. Your gamification strategy should not be static.
Human engagement curves follow a very predictable path – high at the start, but almost immediately trending downward into nothingness at an increasing pace if another stimulus doesn’t intervene. This is as true for video games, loyalty programs and love interests. It happens because the brain is very efficient at filtering data and focusing attention – once it determines “nothing new here” it shifts its limited cycles to something more important. By rarely changing up their experience (and, no, new badges aren’t enough), Foursquare practically begged users to switch off, and they did.
When designing your gamification strategy, plan ahead for it to roll out in phases, introducing new mechanics on a periodic basis so as to maintain high user participation. You can achieve this by building in easy early wins that progress to increasingly harder levels of challenge. You should also find natural points in the engagement cycle to introduce new levels, appointment-based missions, social challenges and secret unlocks, all intended to keep the experience fresh and attention-worthy on an ongoing basis. Then watch the data and be ready to launch the next mechanic anytime you see your engagement curve start to dip.
3. Virtual rewards still have to be meaningful.
Inexperienced gamification practitioners are often guilty of badgification – or something I prefer to call “badge vomiting” – essentially the overuse of the badging game mechanic as a substitute for meaningful wins and rewards. Foursquare relied way too heavily on this single mechanic and indirectly influenced many others to do likewise. But saying “We have badges” is not the same as having a rewarding gamification strategy.
Virtual rewards (VR’s) absolutely work in driving behavior, and can be an economical way to augment an existing rewards strategy, but be sure those virtual wins tie to something of real value to your users. Badges work best when used not as the end reward, but as visual signifiers of progress to a reward. Likewise, VR’s are most effective when they add intrinsic value (i.e. when they are a signifier of status or mastery) or unlock the potential to redeem for tangible, real-world rewards.
What Foursquare Got Right
Finally, as a fan and continued user of Foursquare I also want to note one critical aspect of smart gamification they got completely right:
Social status should be your most powerful game dynamic.
The Drive to Bond is fundamental to human experience. Neuroscience research has shown that our brains are wired to be attracted to social experiences over solitary ones and to remember them more strongly. Much of Foursquare’s early success was due to masterfully leveraging game mechanics like check-ins, leaderboards, mayorships and social network broadcasting that spark social contagion and ignite the human desire to connect. Evaluate your gamification strategy to ensure you are creating the strongest social experience possible, providing your users with opportunities to compare themselves to others, as well as to compete and collaborate.
Gamification is a powerful driver of behavior, but it must be done thoughtfully. When you are planning your strategy, use these four rules as a guide and you’ll be on your way to delivering an experience that your users will find meaningful, valuable and socially reinforcing. That’s what will drive sustainable engagement and loyalty.