21/12/2012 06:51 GMT | Updated 20/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Ice, Lycra and Nike Plus - Getting Gamification and Engagement Right

Outside my window, it's dark, wet and so cold that the rain is freezing on the glass, but as soon as I finish writing this, I'm going to go running in it. Not because it's healthy or fun, but because Nike understands how I feel about exercise and is smart enough to use that to get me out of the house in a pair of tights at 11pm in sub-zero temperatures. Not bad for a company of people I've never met who flog trainers from an ivory tower 5000 miles away.

Let me back up.

Running is a lonely activity and it can be really hard to get motivated enough to head outside when the alternative is a bottle of wine and an episode of Homeland on the sofa with my wife.

Nike knows this, but it also knows that somewhere deep inside, some of us would love to be the guy who runs through the ice, to conquer the cold on a Tuesday. And it knows that if we were that guy, we'd buy more shoes.

So what does Nike do? It helps us become that guy.

But how do you convince someone that it's in their best interest to turn their back on a loved one, and a centrally heated home, to risk hypothermia on the icy streets of London? You give them a little pain.

Pain, brought about as a consequence of not doing something, is an effective factor in motivating you to change your behaviour and it works in two ways:

1. Pain is an effective feedback mechanism: it gives you an immediate and noticeable indication that there's something that you need to pay attention to.

2. Experiencing pain has a punitive effect, which discourages you from the behaviour which caused it in the first place.

Unfortunately, for most of the fun things in life that we actually want to do, we don't have the immediate feedback loop to help keep us on track with little doses of pain and encouragement.

Better Performance Through Gaming

Effective gamification can help us perform better at activities that we want to do, by providing a framework which gives us immediate feedback about how we're tracking against our goals, and a sense of motivation (encouragement or pain) to help us go the extra distance to achieve them. What's the catch? People have to want to play.

And it's this, "getting people to want to play" where brands really come unstuck.

One of the reasons brands' efforts at gamification and engagement often, well... suck, is that these efforts are driven by brand requirements (e.g. selling shoes), not consumer requirements (i.e. feeling motivated to exercise).

People don't share photos, or score points for the sake of it, they do it because on a deeper level, it affirms who they want to be. Socialized gamification allows people to create controlled and curated projections of how we want others to see them and to share those with the world. The affirmation that comes from creating those projections and then the Internet accepting and validating them is a powerful, motivating force.

With the Nike+ gamification system, Nike has demonstrated a deep understanding of how exercise and fitness are important but difficult parts of people's lives. They know people want to exercise, but the motivation required to get out there coupled with the lack of recognition afterwards, are huge hurdles. To address this, Nike created a framework for gamifying fitness by applying instant feedback, a clear set of rules, milestones, motivation and voluntary engagement to this otherwise problematic human endeavor. And boy does it work.

Goals and Tools

By assisting people to achieve fitness goals and then providing a social toolset for tracking and sharing these achievements, Nike is an active and engaged partner in helping people define and create sharable, self-projections. Nike is helping their customers become who they want to be.

Of course, Nike is doing this because it wants you to buy more shoes, thermal tops and skin-tight, fluorescent running tights, but it knows you're only likely to engage in such lunacy, if you can be bothered to step out into a blizzard for a casual jog dressed like a cut-price superhero when most people are sensibly tucked up on the sofa with a vino and an hour of Damien Lewis.

By gamifying actions that encourage an outcome favorable to both the consumer and the brand, Nike is helping their customers self actualize, which has the knock-on effect of making them better customers. It ends with selling more shoes, but it starts with addressing a human desire to be better than who we are today, and to feel that that is both a worthy and achievable goal.

Now excuse me while I slip into something more high-vis and run through the cold towards a new pair of sneakers.