Marketing Brand Strategy Ecommerce

Explorative selling: how game design can inspire a new model for customer journeys

By Chris Hogue | Head of strategy & product, customer experience & commerce



Opinion article

September 21, 2022 | 7 min read

For all the talk of ‘gamification,’ how many customer experience designers truly use gaming techniques? For The Drum’s e-commerce deep dive, Merkle’s Chris Hogue and Mark Moskal tell us how games can level up your e-commerce.

Black pieces on a chess board

Could game design inspire a new customer journey model? / Hassan Pasha via Unsplash

Retailers today understand that consumer shopping journeys are multichannel. Customer touchpoints are carefully crafted for social, search, site and store. The goal is to move consumers down the purchase funnel from awareness to consideration, purchase and, hopefully, loyalty.

Many retailers also understand that the consumer journey is no longer linear. Less well understood is how to design experiences for these non-linear, omnichannel shoppers.

In their Messy Middle report, Google posits that there are two mental models consumers have when evaluating products and brands: exploration (an expansive activity) and evaluation (a reductive activity). People loop through these twin modes of exploration and evaluation, repeating the cycle as many times as necessary to make a purchase decision. Designing a shopping experience to accommodate this type of consumer behavior is more akin to game design than it is to traditional commerce design.

In game design, players start with expansive activities that allow them to explore the world they are in and begin to understand the mechanics of the game and how it works. As they gain experience, missions or quests are revealed to them, at which point they switch to a more reductive mindset in which they evaluate and make choices that lead them toward achieving their mission. These are the same exploration and evaluation mindsets we see in the consumer’s mental model when shopping.

While retail and game experiences are not the same, incorporating some basics of game design will align the customer experience (CX) with the way consumers shop today, creating longer-lasting and more engaged customer relationships.

Designing for players

Like all well-designed experiences, game design begins from a user-centered perspective.

Gameplay is centered on a set of base characters outlined in seminal research by Richard Bartle. Characters are grouped into four types: killers, achievers, explorers and socializers. These are then imagined in a quadrant model based on preference for interacting with other players v exploring the world and preference for interaction v unilateral action. For example, explorers favor interacting with the world; killers favor taking unilateral action against other players.

One of the most impactful insights to come from this research and classification system is the finding that 80% of game players are socializers. Most players exhibit traits from multiple types, but most play games not to win but to socialize. Classic research finds this to be true outside of video games as well. We see this in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which places love and belonging at level three, just above food, shelter and safety.

But when we think of the experiences we create for retail customers, most are individual and transaction-focused. A social media ad with a call to action (CTA) to ‘shop this season’s latest styles’ does very little to connect us with others, or understand how a brand’s styles and values match their own.

Designing explorative selling experiences

In game design, we begin by engaging new players to ensure success. The basic pattern is to give them a simple task, reward them when they do it, present more simple tasks, reward them again and then invite them to make a bigger commitment.

Using this pattern, we can reimagine CX as an explorative activity. The interaction might start with a low-risk, no-commitment task, such as asking someone which of three colors they prefer. After making a selection, we reward them with congratulations and a simple piece of knowledge (eg: ‘Congratulations! You are part of the Blue Crew; the 53% of people who prefer blue’). We might then direct them to their next experience where they vote up/down style choices, connecting with a group of others who also favor blue and, say, bohemian chic.

After asking for a preference or opinions, we have gained knowledge about our new user (which is increasingly important in a post-cookie world) and gained generalized insights (such as color and style preferences) among our target customer base. This is the point of the experience where we reveal a ‘mission’ and ask them to join in. Our goal is to create an experience that ladders up to a cooperative or social one, which is the primary reason people engage at all.

We can leverage single-player actions that roll up into a group: for example, inviting members of the ‘Blue Crew’ in each community to join together in competition against other communities, select a cause and raise money for it through purchases of merchandise. This allows players to begin forming relationships and establishes shared values between brand and consumer – an increasingly important aspect of loyalty and purchase intent. Rewards could be given to the people who bring in the most new members, or to communities that raise the most money.

Like all good games, hopefully we’ve piqued your interest to the point that you’d like to dig in a little deeper. A good place to start is Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.

Chris Hogue is head of strategy and product, customer experience and commerce at Merkle. Mark Moskal is executive creative director at Merkle.

For more opinion and insight on selling online, head over to our e-commerce deep dive hub.

Marketing Brand Strategy Ecommerce

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Merkle is a leading data-driven customer experience management (CXM) company that specializes in the delivery of unique, personalized customer experiences across platforms and devices. For more than 30 years, Fortune 1000 companies and leading nonprofit organizations have partnered with Merkle to maximize the value of their customer portfolios.

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