We’ve heard a lot about gamification in recent years as marketers use game techniques to drive consumer engagement, create incentives for individuals to interact with brands and ultimately influence consumer behavior. The increasingly rapid integration of marketing and insights functions in many organizations has meant that gamification has also found recent traction and popularity as a tool to help understand consumers – even if gamification has, in one form or another, been in use for an incredibly long time.
The trend of gamification as a tool to generate consumer insights has risen largely because it is an effective, indirect form of questioning. The game scenario will (often) present an imaginary situation where answering or solving a problem in one way or the other will not have repercussions for the individual. Essentially, a hypothetical avatar is adopted by the consumer that protects the individual from censure in replying to questions on topics or answers that might otherwise be unpopular. Essentially, gamification allows the individual to answer honestly and without fear of social repercussion – and the ensuing discussion can reveal incredibly honest and insightful direction on behavior, attitudes and experiences.
It is only in recent years that the formal process of ‘gamifcation’ has entered the insights vernacular and garnered attention as a unique discipline. It is seen in many circles as one of the ‘next big things,’ along with big data. However, when looking honestly at the process, we can see that it clearly has roots in projective techniques – which have been around for a very long time.
What is a projective technique?
Grounded in psychological theory, the projective technique is an insights process that avoids direct questioning. Asking a consumer “What do you think of brand X?” can result in less than honest answers; a clearly defined question such as this will often result in an answer that is carefully crafted by the consumer’s conscious mind to confirm to social norms and expectations. For example, if a consumer assumes that the questioner is working for a particular brand, this may elicit a more positive evaluation of the brand in an attempt to please the interviewer. Generally, these less-than-honest answers are useless for marketers and strategists, as it may not reflect the true feelings and emotions of that particular consumer.
And how does it apply to consumer insights?
Projective techniques derive their value in providing the participant with a question or stimulus that is not clear – with the result that the underlying and unconscious motivations or attitudes can be revealed. Common forms include personification (“If your wallet could talk, what would it say about you?”), word and imagery associations (“Which of these pictures best represents brand X?”), and role-playing (“If you were the president of brand X, what would you do?).
Revising our direct question about brand X above, perhaps we ask a consumer to imagine that brand X is, in fact, an entire planet. This unlocks a series of hypothetical questions that can be very revealing about the consumer’s true feelings toward the brand: What kind of people might live on this planet? What system of government might this planet have? Is it peaceful? Warlike? How do the people on this planet act towards one another? Are they just, or do they cheat/steal? Properly probed and interpreted, this line of questioning can uncover latent associations, experiences, attitudes and beliefs related to the brand that might otherwise be unattainable through normal, direct insights work. And, similar to the process of gamification, it provides a hypothetical situation where the respondent may or may not be the protagonist, but is given the opportunity to answer without repercussion.
The boundaries of the projective technique
There are limitations to this kind of technique, but it is best used in situations where respondents are unaware of the importance of their answers – and the approach is presented as unobstructed and novel (in essence, a game). There can be no right or wrong answers, but rather, respondents must be free to provide whatever responses they see fit with the real insight generated in probing and follow-up by the trained psychologist, anthropologist or sociologist conducting the interviews.
The result is that these techniques excel in generating hypotheses on why consumers behave as they do, why they buy a particular brand (or not) and how they are influenced (or not) may emerge from the response protocols. It can reveal the most honest brand, product and concept perceptions that would otherwise be lost.
It becomes clear then, that gamification has the potential to act as the evolution of these long-standing projective techniques. The ability of games in consumer insights work to handle sensitive topics and overcome barriers related to social expectation is certainly attractive – and becomes even more powerful when combined with media-rich tools and techniques (Pinterest comes to mind), and involves other stimuli designed to drive honest answers from consumers, but also provide additional context and fuel for downstream strategy development.