Game-Based Marketing: Book Review

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Contrary to what the authors suggest, your marketing program is not going to be automatically fun if you simply slap points and a leaderboard on it.


In my years in the advertising business, I have amassed a shelf overflowing with books on just about every new thing that came in vogue during the past decade, from Second Life and neuromarketing to crowdsourcing and design thinking. These books are usually a great time saver and a handy reference even if the expiry date on some of these new things arrives before the respective book goes into print.

Gamification, or using principles of game-play design for non-game applications and particularly marketing, is one of the newest new things that has gained prominence in 2010, much to the enthusiasm of marketers and the chagrin of professional game designers. Game-Based Marketing (Wiley, 2010) by Gabe Zicherman and Joselin Linder is a book that attempts to explain how to bridge the gap between a level boss in a first-person shooter and your own boss at your company’s marketing department. To quote a blurb from the dust jacket, “Most importantly, you’ll see how to create game-based marketing plans that measurably increase both sales and profits.”

The authors are not shy about their enthusiasm for gamification, an approach they call Funware: “In short, the future of Funware and game design in business is breathtaking,” they write. Similarly breathtaking is their predictable dismissal of the traditional advertising practices: “In this socially networked, choice-driven world, the old methods of reaching consumers with advertising messages have simply stopped working as well as they need to,” a thesis they chose to illustrate not with data but with a single example of a failed, in their opinion, commercial. Beyond the introduction where these two quotes appear, the book oscillates between numerous similar head-scratchers and occasional moments of brilliance.

The authors’ overview of the Boy Scouts’ system of badges is very timely in this age of Foursquare and services such as Badgeville that offer recognition programs to let website owners direct and reward visitors’ behavior through public acknowledgement of their actions. Their chapter-long overview of frequent flyer programs that they call “The Ultimate Funware” is thorough and provides useful gems such as an observation that shifting direct action-reward relationships (“buy 10 coffees, get 1 free”) to abstract point systems provides marketers with greater scalability of their loyalty programs. The head-scratching moment comes soon after, when on one page the authors rave about how airlines’ frequent-flyer programs create strong customer loyalty only to follow with a photograph of one of the authors’ own reward cards, not fewer than 16. One would also wish that authors had added texture to the book – one that is largely about loyalty programs – by referencing any of the numerous studies on frequent flyer program design published elsewhere over the past two decades.

Marketers working on certain brands will find plenty of unsolicited advice directed squarely at them. Safeway “is missing great opportunities to build game mechanics into a product that everyone loves – food,” while “for a brand like McDonald’s […] it’s going to take more than a million dollar grand prize and some local radio station coverage to fix what ails it.” Whether the advice is sound is left up to the marketers to decide as the authors offer little in the way of factual evidence to support their ideas; whatever might ail McDonald’s hasn’t prevented the company to grow its stock price more than twofold over the past five years.

Ultimately, Game-Based Marketing is not really about games, which is particularly unfortunate for a book whose one author is a “twelve-year game-industry veteran.” Raph Koster, a famed game designer behind Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies and the author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design — one of six game-related books Zichermann and Linder cite in their bibliography — writes that games are about fun, and fun is about challenging players to learn new skills and then stretch themselves in applying these skills to new situations. As a book that introduces and then actively promotes the concept of Funware as a system of “putting fun into everything”, Game-Based Marketing offers no explanation of what fun really is. And herein lies the biggest problem with Game-Based Marketing: contrary to what the authors suggest, your marketing program is not going to be automatically fun if you simply slap points and a leaderboard on it.

If you are looking for an overview of marketing programs that involve rewards and leaderboards, you will find Game-Based Marketing a valuable addition to your collection. If you are looking to borrow design elements that make players spend hours playing video games for your next marketing campaign or other business problems, I recommend Changing The Game (FT Press, 2008) by David Edery and Ethan Mollick, and a presentation “Pawned: Gamification and Its Discontents” by Sebastian Deterding that can be found on Slideshare.


Game-Based Marketing: Inspire Customer Loyalty Through Rewards, Challenges, and Contests (Wiley, 2010) – $15 on Amazon

An edited version of this review for Game-Based Marketing: Inspire Customer Loyalty Through Rewards, Challenges, and Contests appears in the first 2011 issue of The International Journal of Advertising.

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