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Published: 01 May 2019

Suggesting marketers need to play more could sound like a strange statement to some. In the marketing agency world, we do have a reputation for immersing ourselves in playful environments. Offices and work spaces that contain joyful toys such as electric scooters, retro arcade machines and actual playground slides are not uncommon in this industry. We love all that stuff almost as much as the tech start-ups do.

But although, as marketers, we see the value in using play to inspire creativity in the workplace, the irony is that among all the talk about metrics, KPIs, click-throughs, and key messages, we can sometimes over-look the fact that play can be a fantastic motivator for customers to engage with brands as well.

online games

Learning Through Play

Use of play techniques to enable learning is an established practice in education. There is a wealth of research on how play is integral to a child’s development of cognitive and social skills. In fact, learning through play is recognised by the United Nations Convention and forms part of OFSTED statutory framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage.

One of the reasons play is recognised as such an effective learning technique is the influence it has on memory-building. By experiencing a situation first-hand, taking part in challenges, and problem-solving, the brain creates much stronger memory paths. We have read numerous academic articles and research papers that confirm this. The National Centre for Biotechnology Information database available through the US National Library of Medicine has a plethora of research carried out that shows the link between cognitive enhancement and video games. The Benefits and Challenges of Implementing Motivational Features to Boost Cognitive Training Outcome is a particularly relevant paper if you would like a little light further reading on this subject.

In this paper, Professor Howard-Jones, acclaimed neuroscientist and genius behind the award-winning channel 4 show the Secret Lives of 4 Year Olds, explores the link between reward, play, and memory formation, especially in relation to games.

“…midbrain dopaminergic activity has been shown to increase when humans are exposed to a variety of pleasures including food, money, and computer games…’

In other words, our brains are hardwired to deliver a happy dopamine hit as a reward for taking part in play. This chemical mechanism does not disappear when we reach adulthood, so we have a natural urge to seek out challenges and experiences that will offer up the same reward.

online games for marketing

The enhancement of cognitive function through use of video games can be seen in adulthood too. Professor Howard Jones offers the example of surgical students given VR games to help them practise and improve surgical procedures.

“The huge explosion of computer-based play and gaming has enhanced our ludic capabilities, for example through the development of virtual and alternative reality communities that enable players to engage with new concepts, ideas and experiences.”

Put simply, participating in play helps us remember things better, so our brains provide the motivation by rewarding us with a happy feeling.

How can this be applied to marketing?

Contrary to popular beliefs about how marketing works, there is growing evidence to suggest that we rarely use conscious, rational thought to make our purchase decisions.

In the interests of being quick, and energy-efficient, most decisions are made using ‘system one’ thinking - a process in the unconscious mind that relies on experience, emotion, and rule of thumb.

Research published by Byron Sharp, Director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, also shows that ‘mental availability’ is key to generating long-term business return. Sharp’s findings (based on decades of empirical evidence) state that the brands that come to mind easily, quickly, and very often, sell more in the long run.

The stronger the memory associations with your brand, the more likely customers are to buy from you instead of a competitor.

In the context of communicating with your customers more effectively, play offers up a double-hit:

  • People are more likely to build stronger memories (and therefore brand associations) when engaging with your games.
  • They will get a warm fuzzy feeling simply by taking part – which means a bigger incentive to engage with your communications (for longer), and more likelihood they will keep doing so.

So, creating a playful environment for customers to interact with your brand can provide a powerful way to help you achieve memorability.

Science aside, this propensity for games to aid brand engagement is immediately evident in the game-led campaigns we’ve delivered for clients since partnering with Lead:famly.

Despite GDPR-geddon in 2018, we’ve also seen an uplift in the number of people choosing to opt-in to our clients’ email lists after playing a game (whether incentivised with a prize or not).

One campaign we ran for Hallmark Hotels using the platform resulted in 39,810 registrations and 46,000 landing page visits in the space of 4 weeks. You can read the full case study here.

Hallmark Hotels Gamification

In this age of digital clutter, it’s extremely challenging to find novel ways to carve out more than a few seconds of a customer’s attention whilst they are online, let alone achieve that marketing nirvana of actual interaction.

Those who offer complex products and services have an even steeper hill to climb when it comes to educating their customers on the benefits of choosing them.

But when we are knee-deep in marketing data and budget anxieties, it’s easy to forget that introducing simple human concepts like ‘fun’ can sometimes make all the difference in whether our campaign sinks or swims.

So next time you are weighing up the options, it might be worth considering how games could offer your voucher promotion, competition, or social campaign the edge that it needs to deliver real results.

To explore this topic more, why not join us at our seminar, Harnessing the Power of Play, at Social Media Week Bristol 2019? You can find out more about the event, and get tickets here.

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