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Pokémon Go #GamificationGoals for Brands

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


Whether you’re already a diehard Pokémon Go enthusiast or wondering what all the hype is about (and why people are walking aimlessly around public spaces), one thing is certain: every brand marketer can learn some great gamification lessons from this worldwide phenomenon. Pokémon Go designers got their user experience right, and here are four things you can learn from them.


1. Use the Power of Mixed Reality

One of the most prominent features of this game is mixed reality: the blur between the digital and the physical world. It features augmented reality plus a real map of the players’ physical surroundings.


Here we learn that digital doesn’t mean you can forget about the physical. You need to provide a great customer experience for both. In Pokémon Go, even the social elements have both physical and digital counterparts. For example, you can catch Pokémon with a real friend in the physical world.


You can also battle over “gyms” digitally, team up with friends in the digital world, and then come full circle and meet them in real person.

Part of the fun of this game is that you have to walk and explore the physical world rather than sit in front of the computer or stare at the phone. This is also part of the game’s novelty factor.


Augmented reality (AR) is still in its infancy and for many brands it may seem cost prohibitive to experiment with AR to engage customers.

However, one of the concepts of Pokémon Go is location sensitive engagement. Players must be at certain real, physical locations to engage in certain activities (e.g. catch a Pokémon, battle over gyms, or stock up supplies).


While there is controversy around brands sponsoring locations (e.g. the rumored McDonald’s location sponsorships), brands need to evaluate if sponsoring locations could be a way to raise brand awareness, or even participate in your own reward program linked to the game.


Bottom line: We should all be thinking in new ways in light of this game. How can your brand leverage the popularity of Pokémon Go?


2. Engage & Provide Value Before Asking Anything From the User

This strategy lets people engage with the game before they have to provide any information whatsoever. You are not compelled to purchase any items. You can enjoy the game as is. You’re not even asked to register and create a username before you learn how to capture a Pokémon and experience how easy and fun it is to engage with their AR.


What brands can learn from this is that it pays to be generous before asking anything from a potential customer. Creating engagement by providing value to your potential customers is a smart way to get people hooked. This value may be purely entertainment (i.e. fun) or something beyond. Radical generosity is an effective yet overlooked approach to win people’s loyalty.


A related point is that Pokémon Go is first a game for you before it’s a game with friends. This game is very good at focusing on the player first before leveraging any social element (e.g. friends and social graph). This is often hard for brands, because so many are so used to leveraging people’s social graph to spread the word of mouth, and ask people to share brand content.


Pokémon Go is initially a game just for you to play yourself and enjoy alone, exploring the world and catching Pokémon. Only after you’ve gained proficiency, skills and level up to level five can you compete with others in “gym” battles. Why does this matter?


The designers ensured that the game has to be fun and entertaining for a player before you get to play with friends and share the experience. The counter side of this clever design is that if you don’t find it fun, you just stop. Your friends are not affected by you stopping. This is unlike other social games that depend critically on the fact that your friends have to play (e.g. Draw Something). If you stop, their experience is impacted negatively.


Bottom line: Focusing on the individual first is a smart way to engage the individual and also to protect other people’s user experience.


3. Follow the Steps of the Gamification Spectrum to Keep the Game Going

The Gamification Spectrum is a patented framework that outlines the level of reward and corresponding level of challenge needed to keep the player engaged with the available gamification tools in the market. It provides the design paradigm for keeping the players engaged over long-term and drive the behaviors you want from them.


Pokémon Go follows this Spectrum well by starting out very simple to engage the largest possible audience. Then it levels up in baby steps with many front loaded rewards to keep as many of the initially engaged audience as possible.


Bottom line: Step-by-step, players are challenged and rewarded correspondingly to keep their engagement momentum going.


4. Track the Data

Lastly, the game does a good job at tracking everything the player does, as well as all the Pokémon a player has captured. Pokémon have different types, heights and weights and can be powered up and evolved. This provides the player many different opportunities for rewards and recognitions. For example, you get a badge for catching five flying Pokémon, or a badge for 10 poisonous Pokémon, etc. Players can also get badges for the different behaviors they exhibit (e.g. collector, breeder, scientist, backpacker, ace trainers, etc.). No matter how you much (or how little) you play, or how you do or like to play the game, there are always numerous, individualized rewards that are relevant to your specific playing behavior.


Bottom line: No two customers are exactly alike. Don’t put them into big general buckets as with traditional demographics. Use the wealth of social and behavioral data to segment them finely in multiple dimensions and understand them individually.


Getting Gamification Right

Although gamification is a great way to engage people, few brands have gotten it right. The success of Pokémon Go provides many great insights and design strategies as a game.


For brands, they need to use this as inspiration to help them leverage the power of gamification to help engage their customers.

Learn what you can from it and see how you can create your own “go” for your brand.


Image Credit: iphonedigital.

This article originally appeared in CMSWire.


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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.
Regular Commentator
Regular Commentator
Amazing article. I wanted to see Wu's comments about the game today, because that hype is unfortunately over. I know the player base would go down at some point just because way too many people have downloaded it when it released (and many of them would stop after few tries), but I think the company (Niantic) didn't communicate very well with the customers. They couldn't keep up with what the community was asking for, and customers don't get replies from the company (e.g. take a look at Pokemon Go official twitter account and check the replies for their tweets, it's basically frustrated players that are waiting for updates - it's been 2 months since the last big update where new pokemon were introduced). There was only once a press conference (last year) with John Hanke, Niantic's Marketing Director, but he didn't clarify that much, and worse: it created expectations to the customers about new features, but nothing big was delivered so far. Anyway, I don't get the company's interests, but I just wanted to keep playing with my friends - but most of them have already give up the game, due to no updates.
Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello @ArturF



PokemonGoing Down the Drain.pngThank you for the comment and inquiry. My apology for taking so long to reply. 

For that, I'll give you this image composite. Hope you get a crack at it. 


You are right. The hype for PokemonGo is over and the player base did go down. And that is expected, even for great games that are designed very well. There are very few games that can really stand the test of time.


But let me clarify a point before commenting on the game itself. Whether a game is well-designed or not has little to do with whether your business is well-ran. Although one can affect another, they are certainly not the same.


First, let’s look at the business.

In the case of PokemonGo, I still think it is a fairly well-designed game that is pretty innovative for its time. That is not to say that it doesn’t have any problem (more on this later). However, the business isn't run very well, both strategically and operationally.


Although I don’t know the detail operating constraint of the company, so it is hard to understand exactly why they don’t have a customer-centric strategy (i.e. don’t communicate with customers and don’t respond to their frustrations and needs). As you mentioned, maybe they want to, but cannot keep up with what the community is asking for. In that case, it would be a business operation problem.


IMHO, I think that in this age, it is more important for companies to have a customer-centric strategy than to have a killer product initially (if we only consider these 2 factors). Because companies that are customer-centric (but don’t have an innovative product) will learn from their customer and slowly improve their product to really meet the needs of the customers. Over time, they will eventually become more successful than companies that have an innovative product initially (but are not customer centric).


Unfortunately, Niantic was the opposite. They had an innovative product, but because they did not focus on being customer-centric, they can’t keep with the evolving needs of the customers. So even if they were successful initially, they will eventually fall behind compare to companies that do not have an innovative product initially.


Now, keep in mind that this is an overly simplistic view, because in real life, there are many more factors involved. There is competition, global operation constraints, global economics, etc. But if all things equal (which is rarely the case), I am saying that a customer-centric strategy is more important than a killer product initially in today’s world. Certainly, Niantic did not do well on this as a business and a company.


Now, let move on to the game.

Gamification Tenet04.pngAs I said earlier, PokemonGo is a fairly innovative game. But from a gamification/behavior science perspective, it can certain do much better. For one thing, it violated one of the tenets of successful gamification I wrote earlier: The Better it Work, the Faster you Must Change. PokemonGo worked very well initially. It was an instant hit when they launch (they became the top grossing app in the US in 13 hours, and Nintendo’s Market value increase by $9 Billion in 5 days). However, they did not change fast enough. It’s more of the same game over and over again, so that was the beginning of the fall of their user base.


So, the moral of the story is that if you can’t change fast enough (for whatever reasons), it may be better to limit your release in phases, so it makes a smaller splash initially in exchange for the longevity of the game. Unless a big bang and a then a crash is what you want, of course (and surprisingly, sometimes people really want just that).


In terms of the design, PokemonGo has excellent onboarding, but they didn’t do so well for the scaffolding and the end game. They could have leveraged the principle of baby step and unlocking more effectively. Rather than making users collect all 151 (initially, they subsequently added more) of them at the beginning, break it up into smaller groups. That way it’s more achievable and players can get more frequent feedbacks and so they continue to play longer.


There are many ways to break up the game into many mini-games (levels). But the important point being that by designing more levels and milestones in the middle of the game, they can engage the players much longer. And players won’t suffer as much from the fatigue and boredom of getting the same kind of feedback from the same game over and over again.


Alright, this reply is getting a bit long, so let me take a pause here.

I hope this addresses your question. 

Thank you again for the question and your interest, and hope to see you again next time.



Regular Commentator
Regular Commentator



Hello Mr. Wu,


Thank you so much for your reply. I honestly didn't expect that. It opened my mind for many things indeed.


It's funny because 1 week after I commented here, Niantic released an update where you could go and catch 80+ pokemon from Generation 2 of the Pokemon series, which was something that many users were expecting. And more interesting fact is that Niantic's CEO John Hanke gave a big speech for the press by the time gen 2 was released stating 2 curious facts which were:


- The "game" (they actually call it augmented reality)  is about "events". Those are mostly focused on pokemon species appearing more frequently, such as "Water festival", where you could find plenty of water type pokemon, or "Halloween event", where you could find more ghost type pokemon. There's also "Douple XP" events to level up faster, and other types of events that are common in other games.


- There will be 4 major updates in 2017 - one for each quarter of the year.


So considering this speech by itself, I think it fitted perfectly to the expectations of most players, like me. It gives hope, and a feeling that they are actually doing something to improve the game.


The "events" thing I think it's wonderful, because keeps you interested and always wondering what comes next. The "4 major updates" is even bigger and I think it's keeping the player base "alive".


It's great to see my friends back playing the game, and hoping for even better things in the future. Not just thinking that Niantic doesn't give a.. to their player base.


I think Niantic improved so much the communication with their customers that they were able to bring a whole new level of excitement and hope to the game and to their player base, and I don't see anymore so many frustrated users complaining about lack of new features.


In the end, I think I underrated the company, and it was a great surprise for me to see that they aren't as "noobs" as I thought. Lol


Let's see what comes next.


Ps: I had the chance to see you in person at one of your presentations about Gamification at HP Global Meetup in San Francisco (2015), and since then it opened my mind so much about this process. It's a really interesting matter and so powerful to engage customers. Congratulations for all of your work in this subject.


Thanks again for your reply.



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

Hello @ArturF,


I'm glad to hear that my comment opened your mind. And also I am glad that you changing your thoughts about Niantic.


I know it's hard to believe that companies will actually listen to the customers in light of all the recent crisis with United Airline. This speaks further to the importance of customer centricity in this age of digital media. Traditional companies that are self-serving will eventually extinct if they don't learn the rule of the game in the digital age.


However, I do think that there are some companies that get this and genuinely want to deliver what customers want. It may take sometimes to turn the customer voice into market deliverables, but they genuinely want to do it. I think this is the case with Niantic.


That said, I also think that there room to improve, and that is on the communication front. They could definitely do better to update the consumer about the status of the release leading up to the actual release rather than going radio silence and then a big PR.


Finally, thank you for remembering me and reminding me of that HP Global Meet Up in SF 2015. I do remember that event. Thank you for all your support and interest in my work.


See you again next time.