Let the (Email) Games Begin

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The psychology of games can be a powerful tool for marketers.
The psychology of games can be a powerful tool for marketers.

Few things are more engaging than an enthralling game—a sports match, a lotto draw, a computer puzzle; you name it. Games tap into the core of human psychology and spark motivation, connection, passion, and the feeling of accomplishment. That's why an ever-increasing number of marketers are using gamification in their campaigns—crafting emails, apps, and collateral that use game principles to engage their target audiences. In fact, Gartner predicts that by the end of 2014 more than 70% of the world's top 2,000 public companies will have at least one application that uses gamification.

Recently, fundraisers at Brandeis University saw an opportunity to connect with alumni through an innovative email-driven fundraising campaign that used gamification. “The idea was to break up the [fundraising] goals into smaller challenges,” says Aaron Louison, assistant director of annual giving. “And we wanted to inspire people to give at each challenge.” So Louison teamed up with the university's director of development communications, David Nathan, and created The Louis Challenge: 2014 by 2014.

Brandeis used technology from email marketing company Emma to run the email campaigns promoting a virtual map game that persuaded alumni to donate to the university. The goal was to secure 2,014 gifts before the end of the fall semester in December 2013. The challenge included a virtual map of seven major landmarks on campus—from the admissions center and athletic complex to the university's prominent Usen Castle and Brandeis statue. The mission for participants was to get Justice Louis Brandeis, the university's namesake, from one end of the map to the other. The catch? The only way Justice Brandeis could move to the next milestone was after Brandeis alumni had donated enough online gifts. Alumni, teachers, and supporters had a mere six weeks to get the justice across campus with 2,014 gifts.

“With this email campaign, we tried to tug at the heart strings,” Nathan says. “For each stop we tied in an email message that would be specific to that alum.” In total, the university sent nine batches of emails, each targeted. Former athletes, recent grads, longtime alumni, and other groups received varying messages during the campaign. Messages, Nathan says, that made the campaign more personal. “It's our job to make Brandeis alumni remember their experiences here.” Both directors say alumni would follow, share, and engage—even if they didn't make a gift. Gamification, the directors add, built a sense of urgency around a looming deadline. “The total amount of gifts isn't as important. It's more the participation,” Nathan says. “What percentage of alumni are giving back matters most.”

Those personal connections and that game-based strategy proved to be a winning combination. At the end of the six-week email campaign Brandeis alumni had donated 2,025 online gifts, more than the original goal. “We didn't just have a successful fundraising campaign. We ended up with a pretty extensive market research campaign,” Louison says. He adds that the university's fundraisers have learned which email features worked best—subject lines, time of delivery, specific images, and even text size. “There's so much data to be gleaned from this; it has really turned out to be a learning opportunity for the future.” An opportunity and strategy that any marketer can apply to make goals more manageable and to engage customers.

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