Guest article by Thomas Leclercq, finalist of the 2018 SERVSIG Best Dissertation Award.

A month ago, I decided to start a sports training program. My objective was losing weight before summer. Due to the COVID-19 situation, I opted for a fully-digitalized service. When I started, it was fun. I was genuinely motivated. I always wore the activity tracker, did all the exercises, and corrected myself thanks to the tutorials of a virtual coach. I even commented on some sessions through the online community linked to the program. However, over the weeks, my motivation decreased. I had the feeling that I discovered every feature. I then limited my contributions to the community to read posts. It became boring, and I progressively gave up.

This feedback illustrates the challenge of engaging consumers, despite the myriad of technologies they have at their disposal. Indeed, social networks, apps, chatbots, mobile devices, and augmented reality are few examples of technologies revolutionizing the service field. Reading news on Twitter, doing online shopping, asking a digital agent about product-related information, or seeking help in an online community, has become part of our daily life. Although, while the vast range of technologies offer unprecedented opportunities for consumers to interact with service providers, maintaining consumers’ long-lasting interactions with these interfaces remains a considerable challenge for managers. The low level of technology usage after adoption, the increasing tendency of lurking, and consumer disengagement are all indicators of this phenomenon. That is especially critical during the pandemic and post-pandemic situation we experience, where most of the interactions between consumers and services rely on technologies. Accordingly, practitioners and researchers are exploring ways to design technology to support long-lasting engagement from consumers.

Gamification has exponentially been used to reach this objective. It indicates a process of enhancing services by applying mechanisms commonly used in (video) games. Gamification found applications in contexts including e-commerce, education, retailing, online community, healthcare service, or workplace. It may be operationalized through point systems, contests, badges, performance ranking, challenges, or playful environments. For instance, offers a gamified service to promote employees’ well-being by stimulating healthy habits. Therefore, the number of daily-steps is collected for each employee and accumulated by teams. The sum of steps from each team enables them to reach a virtual destination, around the world (e.g., Germany, Perou, Mexico, Hawaii). A competition is then organized based on how far the teams are. Employee teams may play with VirginPulse interfaces in many different ways. They can compete against the other teams but also strengthen the collaboration within teams by having equivalent contributions from every member or even try to reach an ambitious virtual destination, requiring the teams to surpass themselves. About 85% of employees using declared having adopted healthier habits and maintained their behaviors.

While gamification is extensively used and seems to be efficient in many cases, understanding regarding how it works remains limited. This lack of knowledge may lead practitioners to counterproductive usages. For instance, promoting a fierce competition may add stress to consumer experience or even support deviant behaviors like cheating, or too ambitious challenge may demotivate consumers. To open this black box, researchers have started to investigate what makes gamification successful and fun. Three main recommendations emerge from the existing literature.

First, use meaningful indicators to gamify your activity! Adding gamified features to technologies is not sufficient to ensure their efficiency. Many companies use gamification as a way to reward consumers’ behaviors that are aligned with their managerial objectives. However, gamified features instead need to consider activities that are aligned with consumers’ motives and help them to create value. Otherwise, gamification may be ignored or, in the worst cases, considered as adding complexity to the activity they undertake.

Second, raise intrinsic motivations, fun is prize-less! Intrinsic motivations (vs. extrinsic motivations) indicate factors influencing people to initiate an activity for its own sake rather than for some separable consequences. While extrinsic motivations have only short-term effects and require continuous reinforcement, individuals who are intrinsically motivated tend to continue to execute the task over time. Displaying consumers’ progress, dividing objectives into small challenges, keeping track of achievement (e.g., badges), promoting social relatedness by creating teams are different ways to activate intrinsic motivations through gamification.

Third, celebrate successes and neglect failures. Most of the gamified settings imply losses or negative feedback. Beyond the direct negative effect on consumer experience, successive losses may also increase consumers’ attention to winning or losing conditions during their future participation, thus promoting extrinsic motivations. Accordingly, gamification relies on emphasizing successes and achievements. Therefore, multiple ways to reach the objectives, namely, quests, should be suggested, and intermediate challenges should be calibrated.

Although gamification has been explored these last years, the concept still needs to be further examined to identify practices enabling service providers to engage their consumers over time. I believe the next step for researchers requires to analyze the effect of gamification beyond customers’ experience to understand how it may contribute to their entire journey. Exploring gamification as a way to engage consumers in the long-term implies adapting this strategy over time, considering consumers’ skills and abilities increases, potential risks of fatigue, and habituation.

Thomas Leclercq
Assistant Professor, IESEG School of Management, Lille, France