Gamification of PR messages could be a game changer

Posted on February 1, 2012 12:09 pm by | Gamification | PR

Nearly everything you read about gamification is marketing-focused. When the books on the topic feature titles like “Game-Based Marketing” (which I enjoyed, by the way) and panel discussions at conferences focus on the benefits of adding a game layer to marketing efforts, it’s no wonder people might think there’s no pure PR use for games.

The difference between marketing and more classic public relations is simple. Marketing is designed to promote and sell products or services. PR, on the other hand, is about building mutual understanding between an organization and its publics; it’s about helping the organization tell its stories.

That last phrase, “tell its stories,” can be problematic. To be sure, there is power in telling stories. An old Indian proverb says, “Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

I love that proverb and I love stories. But when it’s a company—particularly one facing stiff resistance to his message—simply telling may fall on deaf ears. Good communicators understand the difference between telling and showing, because a demonstration will reach people at a deeper level and creater greater understanding.

But gaming can create an even stronger connection. In two cases, companies are using games to establish that connection, in one case through a game show interface and in another through having the actual experience. If you have to face the same challenge an organization does, or you can produce the same benefits, your eyes can be opened to something a company or industry has been trying to tell you for years. The game can create the “aha” moment that institutional advertising, press releases, blog posts that both traditional and digital media failed to deliver.

Once you’ve slapped yourself on the forehead and proclaimed, “Now I get it,” you’ll be inclined to share your new insight with your communities. Your tweeps, Facebook friends, LinkedIn colleagues and other connections are far more likely to pay attention to you, since you’re not a paid representative of the company. Some may even want to play the game themselves (if you haven’t already invited them to join you in playing a social game). And that’s how opinions get changed.

NASA is an example of an organization with a public relations problem. That is, the agency has a problem that wouldn’t exist if public opinion were different. With the host of economic issues the United States is facing, not many people are high on the idea of funneling billions of dollars into space exploration (Newt Gingrich’s moon colonization proposal notwithstanding). The common refrain is, “Why spend money on space when there is so much that needs fixing right here on earth?”

The R&D of space exploration, however, produces tangible benefits that translate into jobs and economic growth. Anyone who works at Tempur-Pedic, the company that manufactures and sells mattresses made of memory foam, can thank NASA. Memory foam was developed in the mid-1960s at NASA’s Ames Research Center and released to the public in the early 80s. It’s just one example of products that came out of space research.

Still, with a public reeling from a stagnant economy, mortgage foreclosures and other harsh realities, convincing people that their tax dollars are well spent on missions to infinity and beyond is a hard sell.

So NASA has unveiled Space Race Blastoff on Facebook. According to David Weaver, NASA’s associate administrator for communications (quoted in a Register article), “Space Race Blastoff opens NASA’s history and research to a wide new audience of people accustomed to using social media. Space experts and novices will learn new things about how exploration continues to impact our world.”

Space Race Blastoff

To play, you choose an avatar, then answer 10 “crossfire” questions. A correct answer earns 100 points. The first player to answer correctly gets an additional 20 points.

If it’s hard to convince people that the government should be investing in reaching for the stars, it’s damn near impossible to get them to support pharmaceutical pricing, which has been so contentious an issue that it has grown into an activist cause. Having worked in the pharma industry, I know first-hand how resistant people are to the notion that the price of one drug covers the R&D costs of the thousand or so that never made it to market, that drug companies must undertake development of promising medications knowing full well that most will fall out of the pipeline at one stage or another and only a few ever make it to market.

Boehringer Ingelheim hopes to make it easier by having gamers compete to develop lifesaving drugs and bring them to market via a social Facebook game called Syrum. The social Facebook game will have a soft launch in April. According to Dominic Tyer, writing for the PMLive blog, the pharma’s communications chief, John Pugh, said the goal is to “build a new communications channel and enter into a dialogue with stakeholders.”


Speaking at a social media conference in London last month, Pugh said, ““In FarmVille you’re able to buy a tractor and send it to your friends. In Syrum you don’t have to pay anything, but if perhaps you watch a video for a minute around COPD or answer a quick questionnaire about atrial fibrillation, then you might get that free microprocessor or a little robot for your lab.”

The game, Pugh said, is “a real opportunity to raise disease awareness in a fun and engaging way.”

Other social Facebook games have already been applied to non-marketing challenges. Marriott, for example, released My Marriott Hotel last June, as a means of recruiting new employees. The initial game release has gamers working in the kitchen. A link that reads “Do It For Real” takes gamers to the company’s recruiting site. The investment makes sense for a company growing in China and India with thousands of jobs to fill.

Not every PR message would be appropriate for a game solution. Developing and deploying these games is a costly proposition, so a solid ROI calcuation is a requirement. But for big issues where public support can be a game changer (sorry), the investment could have a significant payoff.

Note: I’m curating a collection of items about gamification using a Delicious stack. I’m about to start readingReality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal; I’ll review it on FIR.



  • 1.Well, in a way, weren't the many SecondLife initiatives PR gamification? Especially if done the right way?

    Jeremy Pepper | February 2012 | USA

  • 2.Sort of, Jeremy, but in a lot of ways not really. I read a good post on gamification today, from an organizational psychology company called incblot. The post listed "five pillars of gamification:" providing rewards, creating a hierarchy, building an network, being original and providing a challenge. Some of the Second Life exercises did some of these things but most didn't, and none did them all. Further, I'd suggest that the Second Life activities were, in fact, marketing and weren't trying to influence opinions around non-product/service issues. Of course, Second Life marketing efforts all predated the "gamification" meme.

    Shel Holtz | February 2012

  • 3.In some twisted sort of way, I think the generation that has spurned institutions and established channels, such as the recording industry, may be being sucked into their own form of compliance. These games feel more like a Skinner rat maze than a learning experience to a 50 year old.

    I fully acknowledge and agree that we need to communicate effectively and if a generation is more familiar with learning through some interaction and digital hide and seek, then bring it on. To me it looks like a more sophisticated form of manipulation than 1950s TV advertising jingles. : ) all the best Shel, and readers

    Albert Maruggi | February 2012 | St. Paul, MN

  • 4.I don't know, Albert. I know that a game layer has been applied to recovery from traumatic injury, and seems to be working in a test. And an it was in an online social game that gamers solved a problem that had been plaguing scientists for years, and it only took them a couple weeks. (See There's more to this, I think.

    Shel Holtz | February 2012 | Concord, CA

  • 5.An important aspect you are missing with gamification is the mobile use of it, with platforms like foursquare or in a purely physical sense like this case in Sweden to help drivers slow down . Users can participate and learn in the physical environment, checking into a store or a hospital becomes a game.

    Mitch | February 2012 | Toronto

  • 6."The difference between marketing and more classic public relations is simple. Marketing is designed to promote and sell products or services. PR, on the other hand, is about building mutual understanding between an organization and its publics; it’s about helping the organization tell its stories."

    I don't entirely agree with this characterization. Content marketing, for example, does both. And the two are not mutually exclusive, but work best when they work together.

    James Mathewson | February 2012 | Minneapolis

  • 7."gamification" (as a concept) is meaningless. There is no useful way to generalize about the significance, uses, benefits, or even risks associated because the pseudo-word is far too broad. For example, game design is based around creating *intrinsically rewarding* behaviors, while most gamification (by the Wikipedia definition) is based around using *extrinsic rewards* to drive behavior. These two approaches are not just different but in many cases *mutually exclusive* (which is the reason virtually all game scholars and professional game developers are so frustrated with the ways in which gamification proponents are referring to "game thinking").

    Most gamification -- even what is referred to as "good" gamification -- is using a behaviorist /operant conditioning approach to incentivize desired behavior. What all true game designers know is that NO successful game is based on extrinsic rewards. Gamification uses game *mechanics* rather than game design, and in doing so, creates something fundamentally UN-game-like. Actual games, whether for entertainment or "serious" games made for an educational goal, are *not* gamification, and the effect they produce and the way in which they are actually designed are profoundly different from something which applies game *mechanics*, rather than creating a game.

    Even narrowing the definition of gamification to the most common use by gamification platform vendors and consultants -- still leaves us with something we cannot meaningfully generalize. The effects of extrinsic motivators depends ENTIRELY on whether the behavior being motivated is -- or even could be -- intrinsically rewarding. So using gamification to incent behavior that is not intrinsically enjoyable on its own -- like most forms of exercise and most chores -- is extremely powerful and useful, while using it to incent behavior that MIGHT be intrinsically rewarding, including learning, some professional activities, and community engagement is a spectacularly bad idea. More than forty years of research shows the damaging effects that occur when extrinsic motivators are applied to the subset of behaviors that are potentially intrinsically rewarding (I.e. meaningful and enjoyable for their own sake). Not to mention the studies that show once you provide rewards/incentives for a behavior, it is nearly impossible to remove them without then ending up with even LESS behavior than you had before.

    I agree that there are many fabulous lessons we can learn from game design, but gamification is so far primarily cargo-cutting the surface mechanics while not realizing that what is at the heart of a successful game is NOT coming from the mechanics... game designers use mechanics in service of an experience designed to be intrinsically rewarding. Gamification does NOT do this.

    These are subtle, complex, but very important topics. But for me, it must start with far more precision in defining terms. I feel so strongly about these problems that I have decided to return to SXSW this year to talk about it ("Battle for the user's soul: dark side of gamification"). As a former game developer (Virgin, Amblin, MGM) who also happens to be a horse trainer, I am very familiar with the difference between intrinsically rewarding activities and behaviors driven by operant conditioning.

    On top of it all, we also have people who have broadened the definition of gamification to include "progress bars" or simply "making something a little more fun/playful". Both are potentially big benefits for our users, but again, to refer to it all as "gamification" renders any generalized discussion meaningless.

    Kathy Sierra | February 2012

  • 8.Now I wish I were going to SxSW. And Kathy, I'm honored not only that you've read the post, but taken the time and effort to offer so thorough a comment. My question is whether the efforts reported in the post -- from Boehringer and NASA -- would fit under the game design concept. They're social games so there is a competition and leader boards and the like, but these still are intrinsic (that is, there is no tangible reward, like bonus miles or coupons). If so, a lot of people (including panelists at BlogWorld) are using the term incorrectly.

    The book "Game Based Marketing" also used the term, but the rewards addressed in that volume were by and large extrinsic.

    Shel Holtz | February 2012

  • 9.James, I suppose it semantic nit-picking, but "content marketing" is a phrase that has a meaning different from its component parts. The standalone definition is the one I cited (well, one among several). From a semantic perspective, though, I'm in general agreement, although the underlying goal of content marketing is to "sell" (though the capital is attention, not money) the content.

    Shel Holtz | February 2012

  • 10.Shel, I am glad you are looking more deeply at this topic. Just one clarification... in the motivation studies loosely joined under "Self-Determination Theory" (on which Dan Pink's book Drive, and Ted Talk, are based), the use of the word "extrinsic motivators" does not need a physical/tangible reward... It means the behavior is being driven by something -- ANYTHING-- other than "for it's own sake". In other words, unless the behavior is all on its own pleasurable, then the motivation is coming from something extrinsic. This includes the obvious tangible rewards, but also peer/parent/boss pressure and even just *status*. Extrinsic motivators includes ANY form of carrot OR stick, tangible, virtual, real, perceived.

    Just one of the big confusions in this terminology is that people can intrinsically value something (like eating healthy or make environmentally-helpful decisions, etc.) and yet NOT find those things to be *intrinsically rewarding*. The definition of intrinsically rewarding means it has to feel good to do it AS you are doing it. Most learning we do because we choose it falls in this category. Most sports and games fall into this category. Most community involvement on successful non-gamified sites falls into this category. Researching and making a purchasing decision for something that fits within a greater context that is intrinsically pleasurable falls into that category (buying an iPod accessory might be an example, or new guitar strings...)

    Everything NOT intrinsically pleasurable is behavior that is said to be extrinsically motivated. The research shows many things, but the two big ones are: applying external rewards *of any kind* to behaviors that are intrinsically rewarding on their own can *diminish* the intrinsic pleasure/motivation for the behavior. This is often masked by an *increase* in reward-seeking behavior, which is of course precisely what the gamification proponents are counting on. So you get a flurry of engagement, but it not robust, sustainable, or deep engagement and in fact can leave you with LESS chance of ever getting anything but the surface level engagement driven by hacking the dopamine system.

    The other thing Self-Determination Theory tells us is that even among NON intrinsically motivating behaviors, behavior motivated purely by external rewards is the LEAST associated with sustained behavior. In other words, there are different *forms* of extrinsically motivated behavior, and the reward--driven kind (including status, etc.) is the least valuable. For example, high school students that have deeply identified studying/grades with something else they DO find intrinsically motivating, are more likely to do the work even though the studying itself is not motivating. But take another student *without* that strong identification who is studying PURELY for extrinsic motivators -- either pressure/threat from parents OR some form of reward ("get an A and you get a new iPhone) are NOT as likely to sustain this behavior once the rewards aren't there, or, long-term if the rewards are not increased.

    it's a fascinating topic and I hope people such as yourself will spend more time digging into it. In the meantime, I suggest people to stay in the *safe* zones by applying external rewards of any form ONLY to behaviors that are -- and never will be -- intrinsically rewarding on their own. Or, go ahead and do some form of actual game that IS intrinsically pleasurable. And don't let anyone claim that since "it is fun to earn a reward, therefore rewards are intrinsically motivating." By definition, the ONLY things that can be labeled "intrinsically rewarding" are things that are rewarding WITHOUT any other form of reward! Hope that makes sense :).

    Most gamification is based on the same underlying brain hacks that make slot machines addictive. This does cause a lot of activity. We must ask whether activity is the same as real engagement. Or, as I have asked those trying to incent users to "be more engaged on the site", if you must incentivize the behavior, is it really the behavior you wanted? Often, the metrics of increased activity look good, at least at first, so you hear lots of enthusiasm around gamification = increased engagement.

    Here is my ultimate test for the form of gamification most/all of the gamification platform vendors (and most of the gamification consultants) are using: look carefully at their own sites and apps. If gamification worked as they claimed, you would think they would actually be using it themselves. They are not. Or at least not with any success. Their communities are almost non-existent, engagement on their own sites/blogs is near flatline, and they do not actually USE gamification to market their own gamification solutions! When I worked in the tech world, we were cautioned to be suspicious of providers/vendors who did not "eat their own dog food".

    I questioned the author of the book "Gamification by Design" and "Game Based Marketing" why his book sales were so poor, and why he was speaking to publishers about gamification but had clearly not been able to apply gamification successfully to his own work. I think it is quite fair to challenge the "thought leaders", experts, TED speakers, etc. in the gamification space. And most are either being dishonest or clueless. Either way, a lot of snake oil. (except the area of gamification of health/fitness where it is virtually ALL upside, although most are successful primarily because of their feedback loops rather than other mechanics, but that's another story...)

    Also, thanks for putting up with my blog-length rambling comments on your blog :).

    Kathy Sierra | February 2012

  • 11.So Shel, then from your comment back to me can I paraphrase Billy S. All the world is a game and we are merely players?

    all the best

    Albert Maruggi | February 2012 | St. Paul, MN

  • 12.The remarks regarding the difference between marketing and pr are very informative. The page is of good quality reading material and the knowledge involved in it is vast. The pictures are very good and apt for the description.

    pet kings | July 2013

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