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How to Tell if Gamification is Right for Your Event


Gamification can be used by event planners in many different ways before, during, and after events to drive effective attendee habits and behaviors. But why should event gamification really appeal to the strategic event planner? 

Why Should Event Planners Want Gamification at Events?

Games and gamification at your conferences and events give attendees a way to relax and better connect with your event and the ROI they can receive from it. Simply, games and gamification can bring joy and connections through play. 

As event planners, you create attendee experiences that combine business with joy and pleasure. It makes sense you'd want your attendees to play a bit and enjoy themselves! Games and gamification are a good way to enable this. 

“We don’t lose the need for novelty and pleasure as we grow up,” according to Scott G. Eberle, Ph.D, vice president for play studies at The Strong and editor of the American Journal of Play.

When your event gamification is effective at bringing your attendees into play, even adults who may not love the ideas of games will at least have some connection to the happiness they found when they were children playing nearly every day: on the playground, in the classroom, at home, and with friends or sports competitors and relate it back to your event.

You've likely been using some form of gamification already, even if you don't call it that. From the awkward “introduction games” – where attendees introduce themselves by saying what spirit animal represents them best – to social games and even exhibit hall scavenger hunt challenges devised to increase foot traffic to all of the booths, games and events are tied together.

What's Your Conference Goal for Gamification?

 As an event app company, one of our primary goals is helping event planners and strategists create a phenomenal attendee experience. We view our conference mobile app as a valuable tool event planners can use to make their jobs easier, rather than an end all solution that ensures great experiences.

You're the secret ingredient there, not us.

This is why, when we’re asked, does your conference app do gamification, we turn the question back around. We ask the event planner, what’s your goal with gamification? What do you want the attendee experience to be as a result of the game? And most importantly, how does everything tie into your organization or conference goals?

Why ask you all these questions? Of course, we want you to try out our version of gamification, but not if it's not going to be the right fit. We want to help you customize the tools to fit your attendee and event needs, rather than the other way around. 

We’ve discovered three things by asking these questions:

1. Many event planners aren’t really sure what gamification is (it's the process of taking something that already exists – in this instance, your event, conference, meeting or online community – and blending in features of games and play to increase desired outcomes).

2. Many event planners aren't entirely clear on why they want games and gamification at their events in the first place.

3. Many event planners aren't sure how to set up and implement games and gamification at their events.

If this is you, don't fear. We did some research and put together five premises you might find yourself at when trying to answer the question: when is gamification the right fit for my event?

When You Want More Attendee Engagement:

Not everyone is an extrovert. And conference attendees are coming to an event where they may or may not have a group of people to hang out with. Games and gamification are a great way to increase attendee engagement. 

As Corbin Ball said on a recent Pathable webinar, humans are social animals. We need those connections with other people. We’re anxious when networking might not be high in our skillset. Play through games and gamification can offset that anxiety and allow us to make better connections.

Research shows that high engagement with the program and the people they meet at the event make attendees more likely to repeat attendance to the event, increase their knowledge in particular topic, and enable them to gain or strengthen valuable personal and professional contacts during networking. 

Some of our favorite examples of engagement gamification are executed through the conference event app and the message boards. Plant the seeds of a few topics that your attendees can chime in on:

  • ground travel options (who has the local rideshare spreadsheet)
  • who is looking for a roommate
  • what’s the best local restaurant or attraction or information about morning yoga or running
  • what are concepts that they’ll be discussing during conference learning

Then, ask a few of your attendees who’ve come to the event before to serve as informal moderators and discussion participants. Usually, they don’t mind speaking up to help grow the seeds of conversation and culture for your event. 

By instituting this simple type of gamification when you encourage your attendees to download the app prior to the event, you can uncover real ROI of adoption of the event app by attendees. Additionally, you can encourage engagement for the attendees with one another through a running tally of voices who are connecting and sharing information before they get onsite. It’s informal and communal.

The best part about this kind of engagement gamification is that you CAN have, but don’t HAVE TO HAVE a leaderboard which places attendees in competition with each as they share information. Rather, remember that you’re building a community for all attendees to thrive in instead of creating a space where only your high-scorers want to live. 

Conferences are like a small town of people who each bring valuable insights and different strengths. As each of these voices shares in a visible way in your community message space, other attendees can better identify who they might be able to create an in person bond with.  And as anyone who is from a small town or neighborhood knows, you might not always like everyone, but you love and accept them all because they’re a part of the fabric of what makes your small town and neighborhood unique.

When You Want Increased Attendee Learning and Development:

Many planners also wear the hat of learning and development in addition to ensuring that the logistical pieces of an event are executed well. Gamification can be a powerful tool because it allows organizations to combine networking and doses of curriculum or strategy.

Pro Tip:  Narrow the focus of your game to cover a specific skill or set of knowledge and then deliver repetition in the principles you want your attendees to grasp and understand by transmitting it through your speakers and then socially through other attendees and sometimes through your exhibitors and sponsors. Keep it simple. 

There are several articles out there on how to use gamification as your next association conference. However, the principles and tips they outline are delightfully multi-purpose for nearly any training and development event. 

Here are some of our favorite strategies: As you’re designing your conference program, pull out your top 2-3 education goals you want your attendees to achieve. Then, as you’re designing the conference or event, blend in easy and engaging games that help motivate your attendees to achieve the education goals. Maybe it’s through attending so many unique sessions, maybe you design a game where they report back through social, maybe they unlock a badge...the possibilities are endless.

When You Want to Incentivize or Motivate Attendee Behavior:

Coming off of our first two premises, it leads us directly to incentivization. Since the beginning of time, people have wanted other people to do something: read this, buy this, engage with this, learn this.

And no matter how you frame it, the old adage of “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” still rings true.

Incentivizing attendee behavior has roots in many of the reasons that event planners use gamification for growing engagement or boosting learning and development goals. However, remember that people have to want to do something.

This is valid whether you are telling them that by completing a serious game that might lead them to industry certification once you’ve completed your required training or by participating in this scavenger hunt around the exhibit hall, you’ll get a free drink ticket.

Unless your attendees are highly intrinsically motivated personalities, we recommend incentivization through providing prizes and rewards.

Don’t think carrot and the stick. Again, studies show that positive encouragement returns far more dividends. Encouragement from senior leadership or influencers that your attendee trust or admire can be even more effective.

Be aware, though, that some studies show offering excessive external rewards for an already internally rewarding behavior can lead to a reduction in intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect. In one study, for example, children who were rewarded for playing with a toy they had already expressed interest in playing with became less interested in the item after being externally rewarded.

Balance incentivizing with the intrinsic joy that your attendees will discover. Just like crowds of children grow on a playground when an engaging game gets going, your conferences games will likely grow organically as more attendees take part and share favorable impressions and outcomes.

When You Want to Reinforce an Attendee Behavior:

Reinforcement sounds like a forceful term when applied to conferences and events. However, turn the concept around in your mind a bit like this: as an event planner you’re helping to build a conference culture. Your attendees will be able to better achieve their conference goals when they have access and acceptance of the common vocabulary and rules of the conference, so to speak.

Games and gamification make great reinforcement tools in helping your conference culture seep in more strongly and organically. In fact, the most successful conferences and events that use games and gamification position the games as either a reinforcement or as a first exposure to content that is covered before, during, and after the event.

Helping to achieve a cohesive conference culture is just one example. It’s also easier to launch a game as a reinforcement of something you want to have happen (increased engagement, increased learning and development, etc) at your event consistently when you are attempting your first go-around with serious games rather than expecting everyone to just jump on board.

Think back to the first time you learned to play Monopoly, Scrabble, or even a simple card game. To be successful, you had to understand the framework in which the game was played. It was maybe frustrating while you learned the rules and you lost a few times. But, when you persisted, you improved and began winning or were able to relax enough to enjoy the experience.

Now, think of that analogy laid over a conference experience. Your first-time attendee is coming to your event with no social network.  They have a mandate from their boss to learn lots and make profitable business development contacts. They don’t know many of the rules or norms of the event.  How do they break into the conference network where many of the attendees already know each other?

One of your jobs as an effective event planner is to help them do that well. Through gamification, you can help your attendees ease into your culture more completely in an engaging and interesting way (complete with occasional prizes!) rather than beating them over the head with more know before you go emails filled with things they’ll read maybe once but not necessarily remember. 

When you want to attract more attendees as an event marketing tactic:

Gamification as part of your event marketing strategy can be beyond powerful. The social sharing aspect of the internet has allowed people to get the word out on your behalf and penetrate more deeply than the most robust ad buy.

Event marketing campaigns can be measured as being the best when they complete two crucial prongs in a litmus test. 

  1. The first prong: the campaigns are not driven strongly by the event organizers, rather the campaigns are being driven primarily by attendee and influencer word of mouth and referral. .
  2. The second prong: the campaigns are largely organic, meaning that it is mostly free or low cost without the marketing team having to pony up large amounts of cash for advertisements.

Why is passing this event marketing ROI litmus test important? Because studies show that people are 4 times more likely to purchase a product based on a referral or recommendation from a trusted friend. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association states that one offline word of mouth impression drives sales at least 5 times more than 1 paid, and much more (as much as 100 times more) for higher-dollar purchases.

Speaker and gamification expert Yu-Kai Chou keeps an up to date an ongoing robust list of successful gamification marketing campaigns that you might be able to adapt for your event. The thing about these types of games is they are incredibly reliant on understanding what persuades your attendees (and potential attendees) buy.

As you devise and implement the campaigns and games, be sure to ask a few long time or loyal attendees what attracted AND motivated them to continue coming back year to year to your event. Then you can take other ingredients from what’s hot and relevant in the viral space to encourage people to share and rave about the event.

Event Gamification is only as powerful as the event strategy it stems from.

Games can be powerful tools in your event planner toolkit, but remember, they are a tool rather than a result. After participating in conference games at your event, attendees will likely remember, share, and discuss the event or experience increased educational outcomes, depending on how you’ve designed the games. 

Or they'll share how it was just flash in the pan. Design carefully. Keep it simple. And keep your event strategy and goals at the forefront.

In Conclusion

When you're thinking of outcomes you want to achieve to create that great attendee experience, don’t just say gamification.

Rather seek to stand out from the crowd through a unique gamified strategy that is central to your event goals and design all of your tools and tactics to achieve that strategy's goals. Seek out partners, like Pathable, or other colleagues in the event industry space who are willing to help you work through the tough strategic questions rather than just selling you a solution that might not fit the attendee experience you’re creating.  

Seek out what matters most to your attendees.