Gamification for digital communities, defined


In an earlier post, I quibbled with Gartner's denotation of gamification and promised my own—but one that is laser-focused on a specific application. Having worked closely with many gamified web properties sporting social features while at Pluck (Nestlé, Walgreens, et al) and again at Spiceworks, I've developed expertise in that kind of gamification. What I'll lay out here certainly isn't intended to replace any of the accepted generic definitions (the simplest of which is "employing game-like elements in a non-game context"). Rather, mine will narrow them tightly to a sole class of implementation.

But first, what's a "digital community"?

My simple and permissive definition:

"A digital community is any web site or application that allows the contribution of attributed, user-generated content."

Review-centric sites—everything from Amazon to Yelp to—qualify. Anything Facebook-like qualifies, of course. thesixtyone qualifies, as does Spotify. Spiceworks qualifies. qualifies. Deviantart qualifies. Whole Foods has an iPad app (and site) allowing users to rate and comment on recipes—it qualifies. The early versions of Foursquare didn't count, even though it was a canonical example of gamification, but since it added the ability to leave mini-reviews, it qualifies. Sites powered by Jive, Lithium, Bazaarvoice, Pluck, GetSatisfaction, and similar social packages—they all qualify.

Notably, any site or app that has UGC but doesn't attribute it does not qualify. (An attributed user can hide behind pseudonymity, but as long as the content is associated with a distinct persona, the site or app is covered by my definition. Therefore, even 4chan qualifies.)

Despite the tremendous amount of latitude in what I'm calling a digital community, the commonalities (UGC and social sharing) allow us to remove a good deal of extraneous theory and practice when thinking about gamifying them.

Gamification for digital communities

Given that baseline, I can get very specific with what I think the relevant elements and goals are:

"Gamification for digital communities is the use of
points, leaderboards, badges, and levels
to encourage, reward, and measure
high-value contributors and brand advocates."

Let's look at each of those parts, starting from the bottom.

The goals

Marketers spend their energy and budget on digital communities in order to manufacture brand advocates. (Though it can be stated differently, that's the gist of it.) Since digital communities are built around UGC, the better the content, the more the marketer gets for her money. Any gamification of a community should be fundamentally aimed at these objectives, so the goal statement is right there in the definition: "to encourage, reward, and measure high-value contributors and brand advocates." (Nothing ain't nothing without measurement, of course.)

The elements

You'll notice that I've been precise in listing four techniques of gamification. Two are game mechanics (points and levels) and the other two are reward types. (Arguably, when points are displayed, they're a reward type as well, but I'll stick with this breakdown.) These are the elements at work in a gamified digital community.

  • Any game-like system awards points for valued activities, even if they're not visible. They are the "currency" used to assign value to actions taken, and accrue that value for use by the other elements.
  • A leaderboard is a visible ranking of users according to the points they've accrued.
  • Badges are visible indications of some achievement attained by the user. (They don't necessarily have to be based on point accumulation, but can be thought of in those terms.)
  • Levels are varying degrees of some achievement. They're easy to understand in the context of badges and points. For instance, after accruing 100 points, I might get a white ribbon, then "level up" to blue at 200 points.

Even though there are only four elements, this is hardly a restrictive list. They can create powerful incentives for the kinds of activities desired in digital communities. Any given gamified site or app might not use or display all four—for instance, some communities would be turned off by leaderboards—but people setting up gamification should consider the value of each.