5 Video-Game Tricks For More Loyal Customers

Smart companies are harnessing the tactics that video games use to hook customers and keep them engaged. Here's how to stay ahead of the game.

If you’ve played Candy Crush Saga or Cut the Rope, you know games can be addictive. Reach a new level, earn a booster, or get a top score and suddenly the reward center of your brain is in control--now you’ve just dropped a bunch of money on virtual hammers.

This is why gamification is so hot right now. But the tactics employed by social networks like Foursquare have really just scratched the surface of what’s possible. It’s not just about applying elements of gaming in a non-game context--it’s about triggering these psychological motivators that get the user--or customer--to a higher level of engagement.

Here are some tried-and-true game tactics to keep your customers engaged:

1. Reward Fast and Reward Often

In most Super Mario Bros. games, a princess has been kidnapped, and it’s up to the player to rescue her. Merely beating a level and rescuing the princess on its own wouldn’t be fun, though. What makes Mario and other Nintendo brands so iconic is collecting. Whether users collect coins, Pokémon, stars, power-ups, or bananas, they’re rewarded often for doing simple tasks.

Social networks often use this tactic: Favstar entices Twitter users with virtual “Tweet of the Day” trophies that users have to pay to give out. Instagram and Facebook have “likes” for consumers, and advertisers can see the rewards of their paid efforts through real-time charts.

2. Use Impatience to Your Advantage

FarmVille is a classic example of a game that leverages users’ impatience. Users understand that it takes time to produce a crop after planting seeds, so the idea of waiting seems natural. But FarmVille understood how much people hate to wait--so much so that they’re willing to pay money to avoid it. They want to pay to play sooner, and brands could learn from this concept.

For example, Instagram constantly builds new features and releases them for free, but what if it charged users for early access to these exclusive features? Its most loyal users might pay to test out new filters or record videos that are 30 seconds long, rather than 15. And because these core users have their own dedicated fan base, others would want to try out the new features as well.

3. Let Users Pay to Cheat

When users pay to hasten crop development in FarmVille, they understand that they are paying to cheat--though they may not readily admit it to themselves. Candy Crush takes advantage of this same tactic so flawlessly that users don’t even realize they’re being conned. Want to get rid of that one red jelly? Buy a booster like the lollipop hammer to crush it.

Airlines, movie theaters, and restaurants implement this same pay-to-cheat tactic. Any time you’re skipping a line of plebeians, you’re cheating--albeit legitimately. Even highways use this system with toll lanes and other pay-to-cheat options that make your commute easier.

4. Use Free Samples and Upgrades

A freemium business model offers consumers a free sample and an option to pay to gain additional features--a staple of the gaming industry. These companies give away their games for free and charge for in-game content, extra lives, or features.

Dating startup OkCupid leveraged the freemium model with its paid feature that allows users to show their profiles to a wider group of potential dates. Once a user hits “pay,” he or she is instantly bombarded with profile views and messages. This real-time feedback, no matter how gamified, is very effective in motivating users to pay. Other startups, such as Evernote and Dropbox, use the freemium model to hook users with its basic service and entice them to pay for extra features, like additional storage or mobile access.

The key with any freemium game or service is a free, high-quality product that will motivate users to pay for even more high-quality features.

5. Give Users an Opportunity to Level Up

Since Atari and Pac-Man, the biggest draw in digital gaming involves unlocking levels of achievement. Whether you’re moving on to a new world or upgrading your character’s abilities, hardcore gamers--and human beings in general--have an insatiable urge to do better than they did before.

The finance industry is the best place to see the leveling system in place in the real world. A gold or platinum debit card means you are VIP because you’ve leveled up--in other words, you’ve spent enough money or earned a certain amount of points to earn the next level of a new credit card.

No matter what type of business you’re in, giving your customers an opportunity to increase their current status makes them feel as though they’re receiving special treatment, which in turn increases engagement and boosts loyalty.

The opportunities for gamification are everywhere, and everyone is a gamer--it’s part of human nature. By applying these tactics, you can employ subtle psychological responses that will keep your customers paying and engaging.

--Rameet Chawla is the founder of Fueled, an award-winning design and development company based in New York and London, and the founder of the Fueled Collective, a co-working space comprised of over 35 startups in downtown Manhattan. Combining a decade of experience architecting web and mobile applications, Chawla has created apps for a wide range of industry clients, from high-end fashion brands to successful tech startups. Chawla is passionate about building and being involved in disruptive technology ventures and can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

[Image: Flickr user Daniel & Ericka]

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