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The "Play's" the thing: Gamification of surveys

The Gamification of market research surveys and how to increase respondent engagement

The "Play's" the thing: Gamification of surveys

Ian Roberts
Posted on 4 February 2015 in Online Survey
by Ian Roberts
7 min

It’s humbling for us market researchers to realize that our “modern, cutting-edge” art and science of market research actually dates back thousands of years – with ample evidence of detailed census data collected within the Roman Empire. However, data collection for the earliest public surveys looked very different than it does today. In addition to the obvious differences in communications technology, the common citizen of that era was not considered to be smart enough or trustworthy enough to respond on his own behalf. Instead, information was collected as rulers polled clergy and nobles about various aspects of their parishioners’ or serfs’ lives.


Respondents finally speak for themselves

It wasn’t until the early part of the 19th century that pollsters began to speak directly with the individuals about whom they were collecting data. It was also around this time that the power of market research data was first harnessed in earnest; survey data from research conducted with slum dwellers and factory workers served as the catalyst for revolutions in Britain and the United States, as information about the dismal living and working conditions of these respondents was unearthed and publicized.

Yet, it took another 100 years – into the early 1930s – for the world to enter what many consider to be the current, modern age of data collection. It was during those years that improvements in technology began to provide market researchers with the tools needed to survey large, representative samples of individuals within virtually any given population. For instance, telephone ownership became virtually ubiquitous in North America and parts of Europe, and air travel allowed for much wider postal distribution and quicker delivery.

Reinventing the wheel … again, and again, and again

Over the past 75 years or so – since the emergence of the contemporary research era – there has been an almost unimaginable amount of demographic, attitudinal, and usage information collected from the public. And it’s astounding to realize that this massive collective of data has been gathered over more than three-quarters of a century using batteries of questions that, in all likelihood, have changed relatively little in many instances. Reliance upon market Insights by our colleagues within the corporate, political, and social sciences sectors shows no sign of decreasing. At the same time, we researchers are confronted with the dilemma of how to make sure that the data we collect continues to be as reliable and comprehensive as possible – even as the public grows increasingly familiar with our methods, and even as they become less enthusiastic about participating in our initiatives.

So how do we keep our research activities fresh and compelling? How do we persuade a jaded public to continue to participate in our surveys? And, how do we ensure that respondents will remain as motivated at Question 22 to provide us with reliable, insightful responses as they were back at Question 2 … even as the basic type of information that we seek to collect does not change very much overall from survey to survey?

We are now entering the Era of Gamification, hold tight!

You may have heard rumblings about a new approach to many different types of business activities: Gamification. As with any new methodology or process, there is a lot of confusion about exactly what it is, and – frankly – why it exists.

Basically, “Gamification” is the process of using game mechanics and game-oriented thinking in non-game contexts, to engage audiences and solve problems. To be well-executed, Gamification requires the ability to apply knowledge and understanding of psychology and motivation, as well as excellent game design skills; optimally, this discipline creates the ideal context for behavior change and successful outcomes. It’s also a skill set that will, apparently, continue to be in growing demand: According to some projections, by year-end 2014, as many as 70% percent of 2,000 global organizations will depend on applications that have been “gamified” in some way, and 50% of corporate innovation will somehow involve Gamification.

What’s so great about Gamification, anyhow?

Why is there suddenly such an emphasis on games and game design in non-game contexts? Just watch kids of all ages incessantly trying to master Angry Birds™ or Mortal Combat™, observe the care with which players create their environs in Sim City™, or listen to co-workers crowing about mastering yet another level of one of the endless iterations of Candy Crush Saga™; you’ll quickly realize that game developers have figured out how to work magic over their target audiences. In essence, the most successful game designers have figured out how to avoid designing a boring game; instead, they have learned how to design a game that engages the player and incentivizes him to keep coming back to play … again, and again, and again. (Sound familiar?)

Potential elements of a Gamification approach

Within a market research context, Gamification may include an element of actual tasks involved in completing the survey – graphics, storylines, sound effects, etc. Alternately, Gamification may involve rewards or other types of positive reinforcement – e.g., the accumulation of tokens, avatars, or points; leaderboards; gifting; quests; content unlocking – that the respondent accrues during the course of completing the questionnaire. The hope is that earning or accumulating these items, or having the opportunity to complete surveys that are unique and engaging, will:
  • Entice respondents to participate in more surveys that are relevant to them, and
  • Yield more robust and reliable data from those surveys in which they do participate.

For a non-research example of Gamification, consider Fitbit® wristbands; within some sub-sectors of the population, these wireless devices seem to be approaching the level of ubiquity achieved by the bright yellow “LiveStrong” rubber bracelets seen on so many wrists a decade or so ago. Depending upon the specific model in use, the Fitbit manufacturer claims that these wireless activity trackers can help the wearer track and chart a slew of personal metrics, including: number of steps taken; distance travelled on foot; number of floors and altitude climbed; calories burned; sleep “efficiency”...... The Fitbit wristbands are available in different colors and models at various price points, and the interface is relatively easy to use. Again, it’s all about engagement: People who would not typically be diligent about monitoring these health-related metrics may find the act of using such a device to track their progress to be engaging enough to keep them compliant, and help them reach and maintain their individual fitness goals.

Po-TAY-toes/Po-TAH-toes: You say “Gamification”, I say … “Engagement”

You’ve probably noticed that we continue to refer to “engagement”; indeed, in many quarters the term “Gamification” has been displaced by the phrase “Engagement Design”. Some proponents of the latter label believe that it’s erroneous to frame the necessary mechanics as a “game” by default. They maintain that the priority should be ensuring that the activity or process is of sufficient interest to the members of its target audience – whether the result is “game-like” or not – to compel them to repeat the experience on a regular basis.

But what, specifically, makes something “engaging”? To be engaging, an activity must:

  • Be easily understandable
  • Be enjoyable
  • Be easy to learn, but not as easy to master
  • Incorporate a variety of mechanics or tools that appeal to a majority of its target audience
  • Require the use of only a subset of these mechanics by any one individual
  • Allow the participant to feel as though he has the potential for mastery – or at least improved performance – over time.

Of course, what engages or appeals to one person does not engage or appeal to everyone else. Some people enjoy competition, while others enjoy challenges they can overcome. Still others want to just “float along” with an activity. It may be impossible to design a single approach to customer engagement that appeals to everyone. Several different approaches will probably be needed to engage as large a portion of the group as possible. But – fortuitously – modern digital technologies make it possible to embed many difference designs into a single design.

Sweetening the Research Experience

If you can truly offer respondents the promise of a more appealing, engaging survey experience, this will allow you and your team to …

  • Build more robust respondent panels,
  • Achieve more completed interviews, and
  • Collect more insightful data for your internal research team or your external research clients.

As the quintessential British nanny, Mary Poppins, sang, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in the most delightful way!” Gamification (or Engagement Design) may just be that “spoonful of sugar” that sweetens an otherwise-lackluster survey experience, enabling you to enhance your ROI and your information base.


Nebu has an in-built library of Customer Engagement tools to enrich your survey. Request a call and learn more! ➡️➡️➡️


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