Getting Gamified: Publishers Score Big With Online Games

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Encouraging Users to Dive Deep

Indeed, there are aspects of gamification that play neatly into the business drivers and core strengths of publishers. "Fresh content is the key to making gamification work," says PartingGift's Crowell, who says that players quickly become disillusioned with games that don't present new challenges. "And fresh content is a publisher's bread and butter. It's really a perfect combination."

For instance, gamification techniques can be put to use to expose readers to content that may be hidden in a publisher's archive. PartingGift has been working on a proof of concept for publishers that would drive views to both a publisher's print and web properties. "The idea would be to provide a daily news quiz with a prize awarded monthly that requires readers to identify photos or articles that have appeared either in print or online," Wendy Thompson, PartingGift's director of sales explains: "We could also incorporate a scavenger hunt whereby readers are encouraged to visit third-party advertiser sites to collect clues."
Games can even be designed to quantify offline reading habits, long a difficult challenge for print publishers. "You can see what content people are consuming in the offline world by asking questions that are based on print-only articles," Crowell says.

Another approach for publishers is to set up a challenging game that rewards serious subject-matter knowledge and generate a highly targeted lead list in the process. Bunchball created a game for readers of UBM TechWeb, which has an audience of executives in the IT industry, called the Great IT Challenge. Online readers were given an IT-related trivia question to answer each day, such as "What is generally viewed as the biggest log management challenge?" with three possible answers from which to choose.

The top 100 scorers were given a T-shirt at the end of the month, and the winner received an iPad; a prominently posted leader board enabled players to compare themselves with peers. Business service management software vendor BMC Software, Inc. sponsored the game, which Paharia says was developed in less than a week using the Nitro API.

The University of Washington taps into that yen for achievement in its game Foldit, which enlists players to fold proteins. The goal is to predict the structure of a protein based on its amino acid sequence and to generate evidence about whether humans can be more effective than computers at certain aspects of protein structure prediction.

Rewarding Insightfulness and Connection

Another gamification approach well-suited for publishers is rewarding readers who are good at knowing what others in their network will find useful. Bunchball calls this word-of-mouth and has developed the concept for a game called Newshound Journalism to drive high-quality content sharing. "The challenge to players is to share articles that they know their friends will like," Paharia says. "If their friends do like it, they earn points and are allowed to share more articles in the game. If not, they lose points."

The website for the Redding Record Searchlight, a regional newspaper owned by The E.W. Scripps Co., incorporates this type of gamification. The print paper has a daily circulation of 22,500, with 25,000 on Sunday, and more than a half-million unique monthly visitors to In a game using the Nitro platform, readers of can earn badges, from Newbie to Veteran to Advocate, and points when other readers designate their comments as "insightful." A leader board showing Top Community Movers next to each article provides readers incentive to stay in the game.

"Registration for went up 35%, and comments grew by almost 20% after the game was implemented," Paharia says. The top-rated community mover has posted some 2,720 comments since January 2010.

Another important benefit of community ranking is its ability to raise the level of discourse in online comments by elevating the profiles of commenters whose opinions are judged to be noteworthy and by sinking the less desirable rants and flames.

Love the Player, Fit the Game

Gartner's Burke says there are three factors in successful game design. "The game has to inspire people to the ‘right' kind of changed behavior, using intrinsic and extrinsic rewards," he says. Balancing competitive and cooperative aspects and understanding player motivation is key. The second factor is maintaining engagement through momentum. Burke says, "Players have to achieve a state of flow, where the challenges increase as their skill set increases over time." Finally, good game design must inspire a larger purpose or meaning for the user. "It may be increased status, social impact, more knowledge," Burke says. "Those types of intrinsic rewards are even more important than prizes and other extrinsic rewards."

Looking at key revenue sources for the online-only properties of many publishing companies-advertising revenues and sponsorships-Paharia points out, "It's all a proxy for page views." So the gamification technique chosen needs to link directly to how long the reader stays on the site. Quizzes that test content knowledge and reward users for effectively sharing content would be logical approaches to achieving this goal, and they appeal to the reader's need for reward, achievement, and competition.

A publication with both an online and a print component, on the other hand, might look at how gamification could enrich the value of a subscription. Here, providing early or exclusive access to content for customers achieving certain levels could be an effective driver that results in increased subscription revenues, while conferring status and achievement to the reader. Altruistic gamers might respond to the accrual of points that can be converted to cash contributions to nonprofit organizations.

Fighting Fatigue

Is there a risk that gamification is a fad, that users will hit "game fatigue" as more websites crown Mayors and give away T-shirts and virtual currency? Burke says yes. "Right now, I believe gamification is driven primarily by novelty and hype," he says. "People will get tired of playing. What will distinguish successful and sustainable games is the right mix of motivation, momentum, and meaning."

Paharia agrees, saying, "The game has to offer meaningful value to users, something appropriate for the community," he says. "If you figure out what has meaning for your users, then the system can have longevity."

Overall, Burke believes that a thoughtful approach to implementation of game techniques over time can be a winning strategy for publishers. "This is a unique opportunity, early in the game-sorry for the pun-to gain advantage as a first mover."






Gamification Blog



UBM TechWeb

University of Washington Foldit

Redding Record Searchlight

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