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Commercial airline companies have been using customer loyalty programs for 30 years, and that's why Krishnan Saranathan, managing director of United Airlines Mileage Plus program gave the keynote address at the Gamification Summit.

United has been increasingly using games theory and gaming strategy the last couple of years, Saranathan said, and he shared a couple of the company's secrets in his brief address. 

How Gamification Shapes Consumer Marketing

Obviously, Mileage Plus focuses on the people who fly the most. The rewards program has several facets, and besides making miles flown into a competition, United adds analytics, and a sort-of in-program purchase where people can buy miles if they aren't traveling as much. 

"I've started using the term Gamification in the last couple of years," Saranathan said.

"But, gamification principles have been around for a long time, and we use intrinsic motivators to encourage customer loyalty."

Mileage Plus is United's top driver of purchases, and is the most important consideration for customers over flight schedule and even price, Saranathan said. 

"Members are very attached and they are really into the competition," he said.

For example, one Mileage Plus member flew thousands of miles, including several plane changes, over the last two days of the year just to make it to a higher rewards status.

"Members go out of their way to gain a certain status tier or get a particular reward," said Saranathan.

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Four keys of gamification. (Image Courtesy of Nicole Lazzaro)

Make Gaming Emotional with People Power

Nicole Lazzaro, the well-known gaming researcher, pointed out the above keys to gaming. It's all about recreating in real life what makes games so fun, she said.

"Play builds skills in an engaging way," Lazzaro said at Gamification Summit 2012

"The real world has natural engagement loops, and that is often lost in virtual work."

Any company thinking of using gaming mechanics to encourage certain tasks needs to make the activity engaging, and let people gather a sense of exploration, Lazzaro said. Give people control, and set some real goals, and their experience will be engaging, she said. Leaderboards can be useful as a gamification tool, but they can also backfire if not implemented properly.

Tell us in the comments if you use friendly competition or other gaming tools to drive desired behaviors on the Web or in the workplace.