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Successful gamification strategies require more than flipping a switch

Maritz Canada's experience managing a gamification platform illustrates the need for dedicated program administrators -- an easily overlooked aspect.

To many HR leaders, gamification strategies to increase employee engagement, boost participation in training programs, or drive sales seem like a great idea. After all, the word "gamification" itself implies fun -- and how could that be a bad thing? Colorful, eye-catching virtual rewards inlaid into gamification platforms lend an air of excitement to work. But as the team at Maritz Canada knows, deploying a gamification program isn't all fun and games on the administrative side.

The automotive division of the sales and marketing services company rolled out a gamification program via Bunchball's Nitro platform two years ago. The program was designed to support employee learning initiatives on behalf of automotive manufacturers, encouraging dealership workers to deepen their knowledge about specific brands and products. "You've got everything from annual certification requirements, Web courses, reference materials -- literally thousands of resources and new ones appearing all the time," said Becky Craig, learning project manager at Maritz. She explained that while much of the material is required for the workers to review, the gamification platform incentivizes employees through badges, trophy cases and leaderboards to complete these tasks faster, or in specific combinations. Trivia serves to test employees' knowledge of the material while earning them additional game points.

The program has been a resounding success, producing an over 300% increase in the use of training materials, according to Meghan Chin Fook, account director. So mission accomplished, right? On the contrary. "It's absolutely worked, and now the challenge is to make sure it keeps on working," said Chin Fook.

And herein lies a truth about gamification initiatives that many HR managers fail to recognize: They never really end.

"I think that's the core distinction between what makes a program successful or not -- the day to day interaction and implementation of enhancements to the program," said Paul McCallum, executive director of the automotive sector for Maritz. "The tool in and of itself will not successfully launch a gamification strategy." Craig likened the Nitro platform to the engine of a car: While the engine makes the car run, all of the other components still have to be designed properly for it to function.

A dozen people support the automotive gamification program at Maritz, performing both technical and strategic roles, Craig said. "As a program administrator on this, you're watching it very, very closely and you're always ready to move and play with those levers to make sure you're driving the response you're looking for," Chin Fook said.

The administrators have been on their toes from the start. Due to an extremely high response, "the finish line was blown out of the water on the very first day," Chin Fook explained. "We had no idea that the response would be so intense, and we had to react very quickly to redesign."

Gamification strategies and pitfalls

Rather than being an easy win, experts have pointed out a multitude of ways that gamification strategies can fail: user fatigue, lack of participation, overly simple or complex design and the possibility for participants to cheat -- "gaming" the game.

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That's not to say there's no point in pursuing gamification strategies, or that they'll never succeed. But they do require dedicated resources, and the realization that the project doesn't end on the go-live date. It's really only just begun.

Craig underscored the importance of design when she referred to Gartner's oft-quoted 2012 prediction that "80% of current gamified applications will fail to meet business objectives by 2014 due to poor design." She cited an argument from Rajat Paharia, Bunchball's founder and chief product officer, saying, "80% of anything that isn't carefully thought through will fail. If you don't design a toaster carefully, it will fail."

So what should administrators keep in mind when designing and managing gamification strategies? A lot, according to Craig.

"You need to plan your game structure in a way that it continues to engage and motivate so it's not the same thing every day. You need to have surprising elements that participants don't see coming. You need to have an approach that is visually pleasing, and perhaps a little humorous.

"And I would argue that you need to take it as seriously as your participants do," she continued. "When you say, 'Well it's only a game,' you're setting yourself up for a drastic failure."

Emma Snider is the associate site editor for SearchFinancialApplications. Follow her on Twitter @emmajs24 and the site @SearchFinApps.

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