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October 25, 2014

The Newsonomics of Gamification -- and Civilization

First published at Nieman Journalism Lab

Ask most publishers or editors about games, and they’ll tell you their business isn’t about fun and games. It’s about the serious, semi-Constitutional role of informing the public.

Game dynamics may change that thinking.

When we think of games these days, our minds move to enraged birds or fortune-seeking farmers. We think of the little games now app’d onto our smartphones, a diversion, something trivial. But think of the playable game — the fun — as the hood ornament. The business of game dynamics — or gamification — is what happens under the hood.

Game dynamics isn’t about time-wasting. Au contraire: it’s about a seductive, powerful drawing-in of human habit. It’s about changing those habits, leading us to do new things (over and over again). This being America, those habits increasingly have a lot to do with selling stuff, with commerce. On the Internet, they increasingly help companies chase greater engagement with customers, be they buyers, readers, or both.

Silas Lyons is a pioneer among newspaper people in understanding the potential value of game dynamics to the news business. “It’s basic human psychology,” says Silas Lyons, editor of the Record Searchlight in Redding, Calif., VP of new media content and a co-chair of one of the Scripps’ task forces that pushed forward with the game dynamics idea. “We’re not trying to solve an audience problem — we’re trying to solve an engagement problem. The reader is being rewarded for consuming, sharing, commenting, and finding insight.”

Lyons explained the new notions to readers, in a column, entitled “Civilization comes to Redding.com.”

The goal here isn’t simply to build core customers. It’s to bring greater civility and perspective — what Lyons calls “insight” — to the site. Readers now can mark others’ comments as “insightful,” resulting, over time, in higher ranking of commenters the community seems to value. You gotta love it, at this time and place in America: Let’s play civilization.

The Redding Record Searchlight (circulation of 25,000 on Sunday, 22,500 daily, and more than a half million unique visitors monthly) is an E.W. Scripps newspaper located in northern California, about 200 miles north of San Francisco. It’s far from big media markets and a paper of record for its far-flung geography. In print, it’s long been a little center of civilization, a community center. Online, it hasn’t, like most newspaper websites. The new initiative, partnered with gamification pioneer Bunchball, is an effort to apply old values on the new medium.

Take a look at the two-week-old new features page on Redding.com. Readers are invited to check it out with an invitation at the top of the home page: “Redding.com now recognizes users who contribute to the community. Explore the new features“.

It is prize- and recognition-based. “Badges recognize you for being a valued member of our local news community”. They can earn points a number of ways, including viewing stories or photos, sharing news on Facebook or Twitter, or commenting on a story. The more you participate, the more points you earn. Your points build on your profile page — your own place on the site, your “trophy case” — and allow you to compete for placement on Redding.com’s leaderboard.

Overall, the two- to three-week-old metrics are promising. Registration is up 35 percent and comments are up 19 percent. 7,600 users are in the game. (Redding.com’s top user has toted up 8,800 points already; profile here.) 16,200 comments have been rated “insightful.”

“We’re seeing some very strong movement in engagement — users commenting, marking other comments insightful, sharing our content, registering, opting in to email products and news alerts,” Lyons told me this week. “If these trends hold up, they give us a very strong foundation on which to build. The key to making this work so far, and potentially to building it out in the future, has been the Scripps development and user experience teams. They’ve been working deep in the code and templates so that the game dynamics are tightly intertwined with the full experience on the site, and they’ve created something that relies on our technology partner, but is really unique. It doesn’t feel bolted on, because it’s not. Strategically, that’s where we want to be.”

In addition to the civilizing effort, what are the newsonomics of game dynamics? More page views and greater audience data-for-targeting for advertisers, for starters. Engaged core customers who really make Redding.com a starting point, a center of their digital lives will be a great market to serve anything from daily deals to special services to new products, and possibly to charge for digital access (as Redding watches Scripps’ digital circulation initiative soon to be tested in Memphis.)

The Redding experiment is an intriguing one and good start. It forces us all to think about what community, community engagement and civil behavior should be in this digital age. Redding.com is emphasizing commenting out of the chute. That may be worthwhile — it’s high-minded to hope that insight can be rewarded — and we’ll watch eagerly to see how it succeeds.

But commenting, I think, is at best the tip of iceberg here. We really want to greatly re-engage local readers in community, engagement far beyond what was ever possible in print. That print newspaper was a wonderful community water cooler — with 50-percent-plus household penetration — but it was tough for readers to go beyond discussion.

Now we have the tools to do that. So let’s start to think about the kinds of additional engagement that game dynamics could incent, re-enforce and help build. We’re five years into thinking of readers (courtesy of Jay Rosen) as the people formerly known as the audience. Readers are a lot more than audience these days, but can we use habit-forming incentives to create new pro-news behaviors? For instance, what if news companies provided a wider array of incentives for help in:

  • Crowdsourcing: Occasional news tips are great. What if community tipsters got points?
  • City guide population: MediaNews’ new TapIn Bay Area tablet product is big into points as well, as it seeks to have readers help it build its next-generation city guide product. Newspapers have something of value to offer those who help populate city guides that Yelp doesn’t: digital (and/or print) subscription discounts, better daily deals and ad discounts for merchant contributors.
  • Blog writing: Gamification can support pro-am community blogger outreach. “Pay” ongoing contributors with points.
  • Buying stuff: Why not earn points by buying stuff from advertisers? It’s co-op, game-inflected capitalism for the 21st Century.
  • Data crunching, visualizations: The Guardian and The New York Times, among others, are open-sourcing more of their code, inviting wider collaboration. Why not incent this behavior as well?
  • Design: Build a better site section, a better app or a cool new product. Give major points — major benefits — to those who make major contributions.

For one great example of applying incentive techniques to business building, check out WSJ’s Andy Jordan’s Tech Journal video segment, “From Web Surfer to Successful Inventor.” It tells the story of New York invention start-up Quirky, “a social product development company,” a great tale unto itself. But catch this quote from Quirky’s 24-year-old CEO Ben Kaufman: “For literally centuries, it’s been really, really hard to make stuff. You needed access to capital. You needed to know the right people. You needed to be multi-disciplinary between design, engineering, manufacturing and retail, and you needed all these things to push one new product out into the world. We’re just not okay with that.”

So Quirky uses its widening community to refine dozens of products in invention. It incents contributors with something we all understand — money — and shows their small, but growing, receipts (based on the value they add to the products) in real-time on a website.

Creating new physical goods is in many ways harder, and different, than new digital news goods, but the thinking is immediately applicable. Are the rewards points, or badges, or money, or community standing? We don’t know yet, but there’s clearly a new ability to value readers — and for readers to value news/community centers.

That belief is increasingly shared. Scripps, along with MediaNews’ TapIn, is one of the leading-edge experiments here. Hearst and Morris are testing out gamification. Even The Economist tells me it is looking at testing game dynamics over the next year.

These game techniques are beginning to pervade our lives. They are used by media more widely, and by merchants of all kinds. Mike Earhart is vice president for marketing at Silicon Valley-based Bunchball, Scripps’ technology partner. The 40-employee company was into games “too early,” he says, before mobile ignited casual gaming. So it turned to helping established companies use game techniques. It counts 125 million unique visitors through its products, with those visitors executing 2.3 million “actions” a month.

Bunchball has worked with NBC (“The Office”), Bravo (“Top Chef”), Meredith National Media Group, and Wendy’s among others. Using game dynamics to jumpstart new business strategies may seem like a stretch — initially — for both marketers and media. Yet, says Earhart, it boils down to using the new techniques to answer an age-old question: “What are you trying to get your users to do?”

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