by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

I think the intimate relationship players have with videogames makes engagement with a brand seem like a bad blind date, but in both cases you've got to know the rules. 

Last week, I flew Southwest. My dim memory of its open-seating policy got me to the airport at least 90 minutes before my scheduled departure, confident that I'd be the first guy to get on the plane. I was shocked when my boarding card put me about 120th. It seemed like every other passenger had got there before me.

I only learned later that you can check-in online within 24 hours of your departure, thereby receiving virtually your place in line. I was aware of online check-in, but had never used it for any other airline (why would I want to print my boarding pass at home when I can do it at the airport in about 20 seconds?).

Games are no fun when you don't know the rules. Neither are brands. I'm not sure there is, or should be, a difference between the two. 

We marketers want our consumers to:

  • Understand the point of our product or service
  • Grasp the basics of using it, and
  • Feel a sense of inclusion and empowerment therefrom
  • Get rewarded for continued (or more frequent) use

In fact, I'd argue that most of our relationships with the stuff we buy are games, whether or not we (or the brands) think that way. I get the rules for flying American; there are little user/player tricks that I know because of my repeat visits; I accrue status because of my successful, er, spending. 

Similarly, I was thrilled years ago to learn that ordering my hamburger "Animal" at In-N-Out Burger meant that it came fully loaded (uh oh, now I'm going to be killed for sharing that tidbit). I know the day/time of day that gets me the quickest appointment at my Honda dealership, and how to use the FAQ at my various technology sites of choice in order to fix problems that other customer/victims have encountered. My wife shops Gap only when the prices have been marked-down to red-line goodness. 

They're all games, and learning to play them means we feel more rewarded by them. And it means that it stinks when your ignorance of the rules means you can't enjoy the experience.  

Southwest's sign-in policy shouldn't be a value-add trick for repeat users, as being unaware of it means that newbies have a distinctly bad experience. Any videogame designer would tell you that. It's why games have loads of up-front training (I'm convinced that you could vastly improve your brand value if gamer designed your customer training/service function).

Why didn't some box pop up immediately after I bought my Southwest ticket, telling me that I should remember to check-in online? Where are the suggestions from other seasoned travelers on what I should or shouldn't do? Couldn't the airline embrace this interface -- home page as portal to a game -- as a starting point for developing those engaging player relationships?

Don't get me wrong: Southwest does a zillion things right. But it did its best to make me feel like an outsider last week. And that makes me less likely to return to playing the game. Oops. I mean buying the brand.

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/03/i-didnt-know-the-rules.html

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