December 12, 2011
At MTV, we have long suspected that understanding the relationship between Millennials and game play is one of the keys to understanding the generation as a whole. Our 2011 study, “Let’s Play Brand,” attempts to understand some of the implications of this “meta-game-mentality” for brand builders and marketers. The study has given us startling reaffirmation of our intuition that a “game-like metaphor” applies to almost every aspect of Millennial life. Half of Millennials said “People my age see real life as a video game” and almost 6 out of 10 said “#winning is the slogan of my generation” (certainly #epic_fail seems to have become their anti-slogan!)
To anyone who has spent as much time with Millennials as we at MTV have (and certainly for anyone who employs as many Millennials as we do), it quickly becomes apparent how adept this generation is at navigating the loopholes, trap doors and “Easter eggs” of life, using their smarts, technological resources, and “peer power.” They see the workplace as a multiplayer game where power players can find the back door to the top floor; cell phone contracts are riddled with exploitable loopholes; and navigating the car purchasing experience is akin to advancing levels, with ‘experience points’ gained along the way.
Perhaps we should be unsurprised by all this. Millennials learned to game the system early in their own homes, negotiating homework rules, privileges and punishments in family democracies with peer-like parents. Indeed, in the study, almost 7 out of 10 Millennials believe they “can successfully negotiate anything with authority figures.” And Millennials’ brains are — according to the game designers we interviewed in the study — “hard wired” differently than those of older generations. Older generations played analogue — chess with actual people who eventually got tired, sword-fighting with sticks that eventually snapped. Millennials played digital, with an opponent that never tired, that increased and decreased in intensity at their command. World-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal estimates that a 21-year-old has spent 10,000 hours gaming — about the same amount of time he’s spent in school from 5th to 12th grade.
No wonder, then, that the hottest business trend of the moment is the gamification of marketing. Whether your brand is playing along or not, Millennials are already playing with you! We put together this “playbook” to further the conversation on how to create a gamified brand experience for Millennials:
MTV’s Playbook for Engaging With Millennials
Principle #1: Play fair or you are “fair game”
Millennials demand fairness, transparency, and clear, consistent rules in every aspect of life. And as consumers, they feel comfortable leveraging their power (individually or collectively) to “level the playing field” — with 70% claiming “If a company is unfair with me, I’ll figure out how to make things fair.” Millennials use their tech-savvy slingshots to take aim at Goliath brands and knock them down to their level. Consider how they more or less took down the record industry, demanding the right to buy and download single songs versus entire CDs.
As consumers, they look to “out” and outsmart companies that craft unfair contracts or even “change the rules” mid-game, such as offering reward points, but imposing unfair restrictions on usage. Not surprisingly, Southwest’s “no red tape” program, which eliminates restrictions on rewards miles, is a #winning strategy. But Millennials don’t expect perfection — they accept apologies from brands that have “wronged” them.
Principle #2: Leverage the leaderboard
A virtual addiction to constant feedback is a quintessential Millennial trait, as they love to know where they stand on the figurative leaderboard of life. A generation that’s accustomed to feedback from peer-ents and teachers, as well as public kudos in video games and Facebook posts, craves that same feedback as consumers. Four out of five want to know how the deals they get compare to what others are getting. 74% percent feel that they’ve “won” when they get more than the average consumer. Our inventive Millennials even envisaged cleaning products that let you know how well you swept the floor versus everyone else — a floor cleaner with built-in public praise!
Zappos gets it — the brand surprises its best customers “randomly” with free overnight shipping upgrades on purchases (we discuss the concept of “positive randomness” more below).
Principle #3: Smart-cuts, not short-cuts
While many incorrectly stereotype this generation as feeling entitled to rewards without effort, MTV’s research shows that they want to feel like they’ve used their smarts and resources to “level up,” hack the system, or find cheat codes, trap doors, and back stairs to the next level. Halo marketing is now famous for the labyrinth of codified messaging buried in layers throughout its launch campaign, leading the savviest player through virtual wormholes to exclusive content. Part of the “intrinsic” reward of gaming (the pleasure of playing versus the end reward) is a sense of efficacy and smartness. There’s a clear case for layering this into the marketing interaction.
Principle #4: Deliver dopamine/adrenaline fixes
Half of respondents in our study — perhaps those more prone to Millennial micro-boredom — believe that “life can be less stimulating than gaming.” Game designers explained to us how games are constructed to deliver excitement/reward cycles, but that Millennials are so used to (perhaps burned out on) these cycles that they need more intense and higher frequency experiences to satiate.
The complementary game dynamic we found fascinating was “positive randomness” — if a game is too predictable, it is boring, but if there are too many random surprises, it is too complex. The perfect combination is enough structure to understand the rules, with enough unpredictability to keep it interesting in perpetuity. A gum that changes flavor mid-chew, or a shampoo that surprises teen girls with different colors of hair streaks, is built for this dynamic. Forever 21 offers a retail experience that seems to be feeding directly into this speeding change-up cycle (if you have visited a Forever 21 lately, you can almost feel the cycle speed in the way the customer frantically shops the store). For a marketer, it’s about finding a way for consumers to commit to your brand more fully while operating in product “versions” more swiftly.
Principle #5: Hand over that joystick.
Millennials are accustomed to having a voice, and having it heeded. And they’re frustrated when big corporations don’t give them a voice or a true “role” as a consumer in the game.
Clearly, the marketing world has recognized the importance of letting consumers be heard, evidenced by the massive investment in social media programs. But opportunities to truly give consumers the controls go well beyond listening. We’ve seen brands crowdsource TV ads, logo designs and product flavors, and of course there’s the spectacular growth of Groupon. Our Millennials said, for example, they want “three lives,” and “do-overs” on cell phone contracts — akin to pressing the “reset” button on an Xbox. It’s about consumer empowerment on unprecedented levels.
To mashup a little Shakespeare, it would seem that for the next generation of consumers, “All the world’s a game and all the kids and twenty-somethings power players.” For the smart marketers who have seen the new rules, there’s a world of opportunity to take it to a whole new level.