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Startups like Bunchball Turn Brands into Games

New websites motivate consumers to remain loyal to a brand and even advertise it to their friends.
November 16, 2011

Companies looking to promote their brands are turning to websites that use elements of games to try to capture consumers’ attention and loyalty in ways that traditional advertising can’t. These sites offer people rewards for completing tasks or stage competitions between users to encourage repeat visits. Over time, the sites hope to reinforce behaviors that benefit advertisers, such as watching a particular television program or making purchases.

Audience engagement: Developed for the TV show Psych, this site rewards loyal viewers with virtual and physical rewards.

Entertainment companies have been prominent adopters. For example, for the USA Network’s television show Psych, the startup Bunchball helped build Club Psych on the show’s official website. It rewards fans who sign in, browse though photo galleries, or play mini-games online. In those games they can earn points that can be spent on virtual items that make their “room” on the site resemble the main characters’ office, or on physical Psych-related merchandise. USA Network used Bunchball’s technology in a smart-phone app that is meant to be used while the show is broadcast, rewarding viewers with more points.

The Psych website’s page views have jumped to 16 million from nine million per month, and the average time people spent on the site in one sitting has increased to 22 minutes from 14, increasing the site’s attractiveness to advertisers. Club Psych was an important part of a broader marketing campaign that included a tour of college campuses that featured members of the cast and writing team, and which led to a 40 percent boost in viewership among 18-to-34-year-olds.

For networks that don’t want to build such complex websites, another company, GetGlue, has created a social network that lets people “check in” to their favorite television shows, movies, and music. They can earn rewards for checking in a certain number of times. User activity on GetGlue can be automatically posted to Twitter or Facebook; GetGlue says its members are typically responsible for about 30 percent of tweets about a television show when a new episode airs. And such social-network activity appears to correspond with a show’s success: a report from NM Incite (a joint venture of Nielsen and McKinsey) said that among people aged 18 to 34, a 14 percent increase in online buzz about an ongoing show corresponds to a 1 percent increase in ratings.

See the rest of our Business Impact report on The Business of Games.

Non-entertainment companies, from fast-food chains and retailers to health-care providers and technology companies, are exploring gamified branding as well. BigDoor, a Seattle startup that builds gamelike behaviors into clients’ websites and tracks the rewards programs, asks new clients to get very specific about their business goals. Do they want to drive people to a specific section of a site? Encourage people to leave comments? Get them to share something on Facebook or Twitter? Then BigDoor figures out who the client’s community or customers are and what could really motivate them.

Center of attention: By helping to boost the popularity of the marketing web site for the TV show Psych, the site itself has become more attractive to advertisers such as Starbucks.

BigDoor tested one idea on an investor’s blog. Brad Feld, a managing director at Foundry Group, promised to spend 30 minutes talking with readers who earned 10,000 points by checking in to the blog, adding comments, sharing posts on Twitter, and completing other actions that promoted him. The first session with Feld—a coveted reward for startup entrepreneurs looking for venture funding or plain old advice—was claimed within hours.

Interest in gamification has increased sharply over the last 18 months says Gabe Zichermann, chair of the Gamification Summit, a conference that held its first meeting this fall, because “traditional media efforts, including traditional efforts on top of social media, are losing efficacy,” he says. Word of mouth has long been considered the best kind of publicity, and Zichermann believes games can give fans of a product a way to pass on the word about it without causing anyone to feel the heavy hand of a marketing department.

However, not all products or services will benefit from gamified branding. “You have to have a reason for people to engage online,” says Aaron Shapiro, chief executive of the Brooklyn-based digital-strategy agency Huge Inc. For example, Shapiro doesn’t think that adding rewards, leader boards, and other game mechanisms to a cereal brand’s website or Facebook page would do much good, because he doesn’t see much reason for people to casually visit the sites in the first place.

There is also a risk that gamification will become the victim of its own success if companies start tacking virtual rewards onto almost anything users do to interact with a business online. “Peer recognition can only go so far,” Shapiro says. “There are only so many times people can get badges for stuff before it loses meaning.”

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