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Applying the Gamification Spectrum: Part 2—Level Up

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

In my last post, we used the gamification spectrum to examine the scale and sustainability of various gamification tools. Interestingly, these 2 properties have an inverse relationship. Tools that are more scalable are less sustainable, and tools that are more sustainable, tend to be less scalable. The business implication is there isn’t a single gamification tool that can achieve both scale and sustainability.


That being said, some of the most challenging business problems involve both scale (i.e. changing the behaviors for a large population), and sustainability (i.e. changing the behaviors for good—forever, or at the very least, for a long time).


Couple of examples:

  1. Community co-creation: enlisting community lurkers (who are under no obligation to work with brands) to collaborate and co-create product offerings with brand
  2. Loyalty (to a brand or a company): turning shop-and-hop consumers (or workers) into loyal customers (employees)


The question therefore, is how can gamification help us tackle these big business problems? Today I will show you how to drive behavior changes that achieve both scale and sustainability via the gamification spectrum.


The Effective Timescale

Before we show you the solution to these big business problems, we need to understand 1 more concept. That is, the effective timescale of a behavior change—how long the gamified behavior will last or is intended to last realistically.


Effective Timescale define 300px.pngWhen a business wants to drive behaviors, they probably want the behavior to last forever. But in reality, nothing lasts forever, and no single gamification can drive any behavior forever. If you want to drive a behavior in your customer base for the rest of their lifetime, then you need to figure out the average life expectancy for your customer base. Depending on the average age of your customer base, this may be 5 years, 10 years, or 50 years. Even though that’s a long time, it’s not forever. In practice, the effective timescale of any behavior is rarely more than 10 years.


Depending on the precise behavior you want to drive, the effective timescales vary significantly from a few days to many years. For example, if you want to drive social media participation (e.g. tweeting, sharing photos, etc.) at a conference, then the effective timescale is in the order of a few days, because most conferences only last a few days. Ideally, you probably want them to continue their social media participation after the conference, but that is a different behavior with a longer effective timescale. On the other hand, if you are trying to drive engagement during a marketing campaign, then the effective time scale is roughly a few months, because that is how long most marketing campaigns last. If you want the audience to continue their engagement after the marketing campaign, again, that is a different behavior (one with a much longer effective time scale).


What if you want to drive loyalty? Wouldn’t you want your audience to be loyal for life? Whether it is customers’ loyalty to a brand or employees’ loyalty to a company, this behavior seems to have an effective timescale of a lifetime (e.g. 30, 50, or 70 years). But in reality, it’s not that long. Just ask yourself honestly, how long must a customer (or employee) stay with you to be considered as a loyal customer (or employee)? If you can honestly and publicly claim that only those customers who have been doing business with you for 50+ years are loyal (in which case, only a tiny fraction of your customer base will be loyal), and the rest of your customer base aren’t loyal, then driving loyalty for your customer base would have an effective timescale of 50 years. However, the criteria to be considered a loyal customer won’t be so stringent for most businesses. Typically 5, 10, or 15 years is more than enough to be considered a loyal customer (or employee).


Effective Timescale of Biz Problems 625px.png


The figure above illustrates the effective timescale for various business problems. I previously discussed the feedback timescale—how long it takes a gamification tool to feedback performance data to the players. The effective timescale is similar to the feedback timescale because both are rough ballpark (order of magnitude) estimates rather than a precise time measure, but that’s where the similarity ends.


The Solution—Build a Level-Up Strategy

Since there isn’t a single gamification tool that can achieve both scale and sustainability, we can stop looking for that silver bullet. However, tackling any big problem in life rarely involves only one tool. Big problems are challenging precisely because it requires many people with different skills using many different tools in order to solve it. The same is true when trying to use gamification tools to solve challenging business problems. Although no single gamification tool can achieve both scale and sustainability, a combination of tools can!


This is precisely the topic I spoke about during last year’s Gamification Summit. The strategy is to build a ladder for people to climb up. Start with tools on the far left of the gamification spectrum (e.g. points)—the easiest games—to engage the widest possible audience. As, people master these easy games, level them up and introduce them to the next tool on the spectrum (e.g. badges). Since this tool is just slightly harder, most of the audience will still be engaged and continue to play. However, badges are harder to collect than points. It will take them longer to collect enough badges before they master this game and get bored. And when that happens, you level them up again and introduce the next tools on the spectrum (e.g. a leaderboard), and so on. 



The precise criteria for getting a certain badge or getting on the leaderboard will still need to be designed so the next level up will appear easy to achieve. This is critically important, because otherwise, a substantial portion of the engaged audience will drop off and stop playing the game because the next level is either too challenging (frustrating) or too easy (boring). How we design the precise level up criteria requires a deeper understanding of how baby-steps work in behavior design. This is a topic that deserves its own post, which we will discuss next time.


Now, the last question we need to address is how far do we continue to level up? In other words, how far up do we need to build this level-up ladder? This is where the concept of effective timescale comes in. You must figure out what’s the effective timescale for the behavior you want to drive? Once you know the effective timescale, the answer is simple. You simply end with a gamification tool that has a feedback timescale approximately equal to the effective timescale of the behavior you want to drive.



Although there isn’t a single gamification tool that can engage a huge audience (scalable) for a long time (sustainable), we can achieve scale and sustainability through a combination of tools. The recipe for solving challenging business problems involving both scale and sustainability is:

 gamification recipe 300px.png

  1. identify the effective timescale of your desired behavior
  2. find a gamification tool with a feedback timescale ≈ your effective timescale
  3. build a level-up ladder by filling in the gaps with tools that have successively longer feedback timescale along the gamification spectrum
  • always start with immediate feedback (e.g. points) to achieve scale
  • fill all gaps (so the ladder is easy to climb) in order to maintain the scale as your players level up to the final rung of the ladder (i.e. the tool with feedback timescale ≈ effective timescale)


If you’ve built your level-up strategy according to this recipe, then as your players level up to the final rung of the ladder, they would have stayed engaged for a period that is approximately as long as the effective timescale of your desired behavior.


Now you know how to use gamification to solve big business problems, what problem do you want to solve with this recipe? I’d be interested to hear how you plan to use this concept if you would like to share it on this blog. As I once said, gamification is powerful. It can change behaviors in the real world and as such there are also real consequences. So use it responsibly.


Next time, we can dive into the details and discuss the design of the level-up ladder using the principles of baby-step behavior design.



Michael Wu, Ph.D.mwu_whiteKangolHat_blog.jpg is CRM2010MKTAWRD_influentials.pngLithium's Chief Scientist. His research includes: deriving insights from big data, understanding the behavioral economics of gamification, engaging + finding true social media influencers, developing predictive + actionable social analytics algorithms, social CRM, and using cyber anthropology + social network analysis to unravel the collective dynamics of communities + social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics + its application to Social CRM. He's a blogger on Lithosphere, and you can follow him @mich8elwu or Google+.

About the Author
Dr. Michael Wu was the Chief Scientist at Lithium Technologies from 2008 until 2018, where he applied data-driven methodologies to investigate and understand the social web. Michael developed many predictive social analytics with actionable insights. His R&D work won him the recognition as a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine. His insights are made accessible through “The Science of Social,” and “The Science of Social 2”—two easy-reading e-books for business audience. Prior to industry, Michael received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley’s Biophysics program, where he also received his triple major undergraduate degree in Applied Math, Physics, and Molecular & Cell Biology.
1 Comment
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 @MikeW ,


Your approach to user behhavior pleasantly reminds me of different biomolecular motion timescales in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance.(


How do you propose to engage users who operate on an intermediate timescale of 1-to-5 years? With such a low frequency of interaction, gamification matters little to them.


Consumers of scientific equipment may make major ($20K - $5M) purchasing decisions every 5 to 10 years for their laboratories. While some may come to the community to share knowledge and best practices on the week-to-couple months timescale, most return only when they need help, which occurs on the month-to-3year timescale. 


Further, these infrequent users care little about their status/badge level in the online community aslong as they're respected in the external scientific community. 


How do you suggest engaging such users to increase their level of participation in the community? They care little about the short-term timescale, and their instruments may outlive their tenure at their jobs.


Thanks for your insights.


- Josh