March 15th, 2011
One of the somewhat-obnoxious buzzwords going around the South by Southwest Interactive Festival is the “gamification” of, well, everything, including the gamification of news. In a nutshell, that means taking video-game style processes and applying them to everything, from the way we educate our children to the way we keep up with what’s going on in the community. Location-based service game SCVNGR’s “Chief Ninja” Seth Priebatsch’s keynote address on Saturday afternoon was all about using game mechanics to interest people to do important but often-mundane tasks (such as succeeding at school).
Some news organizations, notably The Huffington Post, have been keen to figure out how to add game mechanics to online news in hopes of gaining reader loyalty and increasing clicks. Users can earn points by reading articles or play HuffPo’s “Predict the News” feature, which launched at the end of last year.
“Gamification” is a goofy made-up word, but its idea, I believe, has merits. The key, as Gowalla CEO Josh Williams put it during a SXSW panel on Monday, is to make the game useful and relevant to real people, not just the early adopter crowds that attend SXSW.
Foursquare has about 7.5 million users, and Gowalla has about 1 million. Both have been around for two years and have been pushing their services pretty hard. What will it take to push those numbers into nationwide acceptance? Relevance.
Williams, who says he dislikes the term “gamification,” said Monday that virtual “badges are bullshit.” He said to truly reach the masses, these services have to go beyond “checking in” to places or earning virtual badges. For his part, Williams says he wants Gowalla’s service to mean something to people’s lives. He said the goal of Gowalla is to help people explore the world around them and archive vacations, complete with pictures, comments and more — all put into a neat little box that you can review.
Williams makes a lot of sense. There’s some fun to becoming the “mayor” of a location on Foursquare. There’s also some fun to collecting virtual items for your passport on Gowalla. However, it takes earning good discounts, archiving valuable memories or gaining valuable content — something — to make it worthwhile to the general population. Gowalla, for instance, worked with TOMS Shoes and AT&T to give Gowalla users a chance to earn a pair of shoes (which also means TOMS gives a pair to a needy child somewhere in the world). That’s value that will make people want to keep using your service.
That got me to thinking about what value a news organization could offer by making the news more of a game. There’s no question that mobile and location are going to be an even bigger part of the landscape in the years to come as more people get better smart phones (and as the smart phones continue to evolve at a blistering pace).
So, what if news organizations started adding location data to each URL? This idea came up while I was chatting with Gowalla developer Rob Mack at a party later Monday night. Imagine a reader using her smart phone to open your news app while she’s sitting at a coffee shop. Instead of just the latest, or even hand-picked top stories, appearing on the main page, what if it had a section that showed news that was relevant to the area around that coffee shop? What if the “game” were that users get points for reading the news about all sections of the city (as they travel and check your stories, a map fills in, showing they saw the latest news for that area)? The game mechanic added in could also just be to show which of their Facebook friends had read the same stories, at the same location. So when you log into the app at that coffee shop, it tells you that three of your friends read the news from your site from that same shop. Users could also leave comments on the story that are location-specific or just a tip about the coffee shop (which could be displayed next to your news organization’s review, which also could appear thanks to location tagging).
This wouldn’t be “gamification” just for the sake of having a game. Users would get value in return — relevant, targeted news content and a communal experience.
Other ideas I have for using location to “gamifiy” the news include a fun online mobile scavenger hunt or tagging user photos and news tips at locations, which could appear on a news organization’s website. Or what about giving users a virtual tour of your city, using your news content? That’s exactly what I did for the Statesman — I set up virtual “trips” on Gowalla using the Statesman’s content to get people to explore Austin.
It’s not just the newsroom that needs to be thinking about this. Priebatsch pointed out in his keynote that the reason Groupon is so successful is because it uses game mechanics effectively to hook users. It gives out a “free lunch” by giving steep discounts, it has a time element (clock is ticking on each deal), and it encourages team play by having a “tipping point” before the deal is active. And Groupon is moving into news organization’s advertising territory in a hurry. Why can’t news organizations, which already have the retailer relationships set up, and the news content to make the app worth using, fight to take it back? Some are trying various Groupon-like services, including my parent company CMGd, which created DealSwarm. What’s the next step, though? If I could guess, it would be adding that element of location to the mix. There’s huge potential for advertising when it comes to location-based information and gamification. News organizations are used to reaching local retailers, and location is a natural when it comes to shopping. Imagine that that same woman sitting in a coffee shop reading your news learns, thanks to a banner ad or some type of alert, that there’s a sale two blocks away.
These might sound like far-down-the-road ideas, but more and more people are using smart phones in lieu of computers (or newsprint or TV stations, for that matter). It’s time to start thinking about how news organizations can add value in this space. Williams said that a new location-based service starts up “every week” but we forget about them almost as fast. The reason they go away — they don’t focus on value. News organizations have something they don’t — good content. They just need to think about how to use it in new ways … and make it, dare I say, a game.