From earning points toward prizes upon listening to breakout speakers, to team-building events that award the most successful teams, to interactive games that result in free giveaways, the gamification of today’s meetings and events is popular among attendees and planners alike.
Madeline Purches, B2B business manager and meeting planning expert with Team Building Hub, the corporate events brand of The Escape Game, is definitely seeing gamification as a growing trend in the last couple of years.
“People are always looking for new ways to engage their attendees, whether for large conferences with thousands, or even just a small team meeting,” Purches says. “I see it used anywhere from networking events to provide connection opportunities, to a teaching tool during a summit, and even a leadership training tool. There’s always an opportunity to offer something that gets people’s attention and their buy in. It increases the engagement of the attendees, and the overall success of the event.”
Recently, Team Building Hub created a custom event for PWC called Grounded, to be used during their annual conference. This was a three-session activation that participants came back to for all three days of the conference.
“It created a huge buzz around the conference each time we did it, engaging participants with each other leading up to the announcement of the winning team on the final day,” Purches says. In addition, Team Building Hub has an ongoing partnership with Bridgestone to run an event called The Art Thief during their leadership development programs. The game serves as a kick-off for the program, letting team members loosen up and communicate with each other before the program. The game is then referenced as an example of communication and leadership throughout the program.
“We also do a number of virtual activations. The largest so far was a group of 1,800 regional managers from Verizon, who played one of our Mystery Games online,” Purches says. “It served as part of their yearly meeting, and helped to foster a sense of connection and community, even though they weren’t able to meet in person.”
Lee Gimpel is a meeting planning expert and founder of Better Meetings, a meeting design, facilitation and training company in Washington, D.C. that works on improving in-person and online meetings with a focus on engagement. Gimpel says some gamification at events seems like “gimmicky window dressing,” and it doesn’t really move the needle in terms of engagement or bottom-line results. In addition, the variety of gamification strategies don’t always offer the best results.
A typical example of gamification Gimpel has seen for decades at conferences is something like a ‘passport’ system to encourage visits to the exhibitors. “There are a number of variations on this, but it basically looks like visiting numerous vendors where you get a stamp or a signature and if you collect all of them, then you get a prize,” Gimpel says. “From the outside, this can look successful because it means there are a bunch of people racing around an exhibit floor and seemingly interacting with exhibitors. But the reality is a lot of those interactions are not very valuable. It’s just attendees trying to win an iPad and they don’t really care about the exhibitors, and it means they’re visiting exhibitors that really aren’t a good fit with them just to get that stamp.”
Gimpel points to another example that might fall into the gamification category, which is a sort of lottery where people who are still present at the very last session win a big prize because they haven’t already hopped a plane home. “It’s not necessarily a bad idea, but if staying until the end is in essence a bribe, that may be a sign that the event itself isn’t worth staying for,” Gimpel says. “If people are really only there for the big-screen TV or the airline tickets to a destination of their choice, it may be a ‘canary in the coal mine’ about the value of the event itself.”
A number of online and hybrid events also build in gamification, but they may be looking too much at quality over quantity. For example, gamification in the virtual world may involve how many sessions a person attended or how many questions they asked. These points then net some sort of reward, but again, it doesn’t really correlate to quality interactions.
“Although it might not typically be seen as gamification, there’s value in ranked voting for audience questions, which can be run through a number of platforms, online or in person,” Gimpel says. “We definitely want to get the best, most relevant questions from the audience, and if we have a window into that through a point system, then that’s a good use of what could seem like gamification.”
As a general rule, Gimpel would advise conferences to look more toward collaboration than competition if they’re thinking about gamification. In other words, “How can we get disparate attendees to come together and talk and work on challenges to our industry, as opposed to individuals amassing points and getting prizes for it?”
“I would also encourage conference organizers to focus on the fun that we associate with games as opposed to necessarily handing out prizes. Frankly, a lot of conferences are rather dry, passive and boring,” Gimpel says. “An event that is two days of watching people lecture with some small gamification thrown in where one person wins a prize could be vastly improved by changing the structure and format, and rewarding people with dynamic content instead.”
David Jacobson is founder & CEO of TrivWorks, which specializes in corporate trivia events, and has produced gamification experiences for small startups to Fortune 500 companies nationwide for more than 15 years. Jacobson has seen consistent and growing interest in ways to engage corporate meeting, conference and event attendees with engaging activities.
“It may go by different names — icebreakers, mixers, team builders, energizers, etc. — but at the end of the day, what planners are really looking for are fun, compelling ways to engage an audience,” Jacobson says. This trend only accelerated during the pandemic, when planners of all stripes were desperate for ways to keep remote attendees connected and engaged — and it has shown no signs of slowing down any time soon.
“The one thing which corporate meeting and event attendees who engage in some form of gamification seem to enjoy the most is competition,” Jacobson says. “There’s just something that a good-natured contest taps into people, regardless of industry, region or personality type. Folks love to win, so any way planners can capture that in a fun and impactful way will almost always be a sure-fire hit among corporate event participants.”
Purches says the biggest mistake she sees meeting planners make as it relates to gamification is substituting fun and engagement for relevancy and learning.
“These things can exist in harmony, but I’ve seen planners turn what was intended to be a fun event into an overt ad for a sponsor, or stuff a trivia game so full of talking points from the meeting that it no longer feels like a game — it feels like a pop quiz. Trust that the game and the engagement will be enough — even if it’s not explicitly related to the content of the event, it will drive overall engagement in other aspects,” Purches says.
That’s why Purches advises meeting planners that the earlier they can start thinking about what the gamification of an event will look like, the better.
“Include gamification in your planning from the very beginning, and you’ll be able to create solutions that are fully integrated into your event and give the best results,” Purches says. “It’s the difference between a networking happy hour with a trivia game, and a networking happy hour with an immersive game with multiple game stations, live hosts and a secret mission woven throughout. So much is possible when you make it a part of your planning process equal to catering, speakers and venue.”
Jacobson agrees with Purches in that planners who are seeking to incorporate some form of gamification into their function also should resist the temptation to make it too industry or company focused. Using trivia as an example, the natural inclination for planners is to ask as many trivia questions as possible about industry news, products/services/capabilities of related companies, facts about key stakeholders, etc.
“In reality, from the perspective of the attendee, this seems less like a fun time, and more like a ‘quiz,’” Jacobson says. “Planners should of course strive to make whatever gamification elements relevant to the function as well as the audience, however it should be well-balanced.”
It’s also important for planners to recognize there is no “one-size-fits-all” activity which works for every meeting, event or conference. Planners have really got to know their audience, as well as have a clear idea in mind of what they’re trying to achieve through the activity.
“Is this primarily a professional networking opportunity? A sales kickoff? A new hire or intern orientation? Gamifying each event and audience requires some nuance into what might work well, and what won’t,” Jacobson says. “I obviously love corporate trivia events; however, I also know there are limitations as to who it will work for as a meeting or conference gamification device, and who it won’t. Be as clear as can be about both your audience and your goals for the event, and be sure you are booking a vendor which is the best match for both.”
When devising gamification, Marvin McTaw, CEO of Sched, says planners should keep the following in mind and remember that gamification must:
“Attendees are increasingly familiar with gamification trends. There are many gamification tools out there that offer similar experiences. For regular event attendees, the novelty is wearing off,” McTaw says. “To stay on top of the game, event planners should think outside the box and ensure that any gamification is bespoke and targeted to the content of the event and the people in attendance.”
And remember that solely digital gamification activities can actually isolate attendees from your event. Rather than fostering a sense of community and engagement, it can lead attendees to stare at their phones and ignore the rest of the event. Rather, use gamification as a prompt for people to interact with peers, the event content and the space around them.
“Another mistake to avoid is assuming that all attendees approach gamification activities in the same way or with the same level of enthusiasm,” McTaw says. “Try to map the different personas you’re targeting and create roles within games that can appeal to them. You can try to capture this information during your event registration process.”
Also, be sure not to lose sight of the content of your event. Any gamification should enhance your session content, not outshine it. “If your attendee missed the keynote because they were too busy playing bingo, you need to readjust the balance,” McTaw says.
Finally, don’t overwhelm attendees with technology. If you’re using event scheduling software, you don’t want to distract attendees from your conference schedule by flooding them with different apps for gamification activities. “You’ll also minimize the number of times you get asked, ‘Is there somewhere I can charge my phone?’” McTaw says.
So, is gamification here to stay? Absolutely, say the experts. “Since 2020, getting people to attend events has become more and more difficult — folks have gotten used to fewer in-person interactions, and you need to really raise the bar to get them to attend and engage,” Purches says. “Gamification has been a really great way to do that. I think as we move forward, we’re only going to see more impressive and immersive forms of gamification.”
As humans, Jacobson points out that we are naturally hard-wired for competition; whether it’s introverted analysts or hard-charging salespeople, professional audiences will always respond to a well-planned, well-executed game to keep things fun and entertaining at corporate events of all types.
“What I see as the future of corporate gamification is hybrid events: in-person audiences with remote professionals running the show,” Jacobson says. “This allows planners the flexibility to bring in top-tier gamification to places and events they might otherwise not have been able to, at a fraction of the cost.”
Post-pandemic, there’s been a wave of increased social anxiety after months of isolation and remote working. Although the desire is there, networking in large groups can be daunting. “Gamification is a fantastic buffer that can organically bring people together with a sense of fun and community,” McTaw says. “While many people attend events with their own agendas and priorities, gamification rallies attendees together behind an objective and activity.”
Every month, Sched surveys attendees to find out what they really want from the events they attend. Recent findings show that attendees aren’t bothered about flashy gimmicks and the latest technology. The bigger focus is on content and engaging with peers.
“We think gamification will stay, but with less emphasis on flashy tech as event budgets dwindle,” McTaw says. “Event planners are getting creative, going old school and implementing non-technological gamification elements.” C&IT