Join Google+, Google’s (GOOG) latest attempt to displace Facebook and Twitter, and you’ll see a wonderfully clean social-media interface. Simple updates, clever “Circles” privacy features, and 10-way video chat have helped Google+ attract an estimated 10 million users in its first two weeks.
But something is missing: a prominent score of followers or friends to fuel your ego.
Google has side-stepped the “game mechanics” fad of the past five years, in which tech companies award users with badges, points, and titles. This is fascinating given the billions of dollars in advertising at stake. Consumers have migrated in droves to social media, and use of Google’s search engine may fade as a result—so after two social-media failures with Wave and Buzz, Google can’t afford to mess up a third time.
Yet Google+ has cast a vote against the silliness of ego awards by not including them. All you get, buried inside your Google+ profile, is a tiny number showing how many people have put you in “Circles.” Google is betting the future of social media is more serious, and this has implications for any business chasing Facebook “Likes.”
PLAYING WITH YOUR MIND
First, understand that “game mechanics” is different than games, which are hotter than ever before. U.S. consumers spent $25.1 billion on video games and hardware last year; today the heaviest U.S. gamers have an average age of 41. Zynga‘s FarmVille games helped propel Facebook into the mom and senior citizen crowd.
Game mechanics, by comparison, is what happens when marketers play with your mind. This form of psychological persuasion has been around since the invention of coupons and is designed to take advantage of flaws in human psychology.
You see, people are bad at judging value—especially when we have no basis for comparison. Behavioral psychologist Richard Thaler calls this “mental accounting,” in which we all try to calculate the best deals in our head, and was one of the first to note that marketers could influence our internal accounting by forcing “framing” on us. A classic example is a leather coat priced at $500, perhaps too costly for your wallet. But if the same jacket is priced “50 percent off, marked down from $1,000,” you might jump at the deal. Groupon is making millions with this price-framing approach, which of course makes no real sense for consumers.
REWARDS AS HOOKS
Game mechanics follows us through life: We get grades in high school and college, bonuses tied to our salaries, frequent-flier miles for taking a given airline. But as the social-media bubble took off, tech companies rushed to expand game hooks, because online there is no other basis for judging value.
- Twitter gives you prominent Followers and Following scores atop each page;
- Klout and PeerIndex rank your supposed influence over others in social media;
- Foursquare Labs awards users with badges and titles such as “Mayor” for checking in to locations;
- And in perhaps the craziest craze, Facebook has convinced the business world that chasing “Likes,” in which consumers click an icon once to signal favor for a product, is paramount. The bottled water company Crystal Rock (CRVP) recently ran an ad campaign offering to donate $5 to charity for every “Like” on its Facebook page for up to $25,000 in total donations. As of July 13, Crystal Rock had 1,737 Likes.
Yes, game mechanics works sometimes. In his South by Southwest keynote speech this spring, Seth Priebatsch, founder of location-based game company SCVNGR, told how Princeton University used gaming psychology to reduce incidents of test cheating from 400 per year to two. Princeton removed teachers from the classroom during tests and instead had each student sign an affirmation that he or she would report anyone cheating around them. By turning the “villain” from the teacher to the cheater, peer pressure changed the “game” of honesty.
But game mechanics has three fatal flaws:
GAME POINTS AREN’T SALES
Competitors can match your game. Points, status, and rewards are a form of price competition and as such can be replicated. Elevating someone’s peer status is no more a competitive advantage than putting your product on sale. Moreover, gaming rewards don’t translate into action. If every business eventually gains thousands of Likes on Facebook, eventually executives will ask how that translates into sales. Giving someone a score is not the same as listening to them or buying their product.
Finally, game mechanics as a marketing technique fails in mass adoption. Gaming tricks work best among enthusiasts, which is why services with a small portion of high-value customers, such as airlines and hotels, deploy rewards. But if your target audience is broad, game mechanics fades in appeal. Bank of America (BAC), which provides financial services to more than half the homes in the U.S., has fewer than 10,000 Likes on its Facebook page. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad institution, simply that most consumers—absent an ad campaign compelling them to Like the bank—don’t care to give it a silly score.
In the end, if everyone chases status, all reward levels become meaningless. If every marketer tries to influence you with gaming psychology, you become immune to the ploys. Count the number of coupons in your mailbox, think of how many you respond to, and you’ll see why gaming silliness may eventually end.
So why is Google+ growing so fast? Perhaps because its Circles for easily sharing with private groups are a real innovation. When someone contacts you for the first time, Google+ lets you know, creating a desire to expand your network without games. You build out connections rapidly, because at every step you are in control. Google does include a +1 button as a way to comment lightly on a post, but the effect is only that of a typing shortcut.
At Google+ there are no points, badges, or prominent follower counts to stroke your ego. Google apparently believes you’ve grown up enough that you’ll play without a score.