Archive (3/2010): Will badges become one of the next big things?

I first published this article on March 12, 2010, on my old blog. 6 years later – a few lifetimes later in internet years – I consider it relevant enough to be re-published as an archive-post. Badges did not get as far as I imagined in this text, and marketing was not influenced as much by the mechanic as I anticipated, but many games and some single purpose apps like MyFitnessPal, Runtastic, Vivino, Tripadvisor etc. adopted these mechanics. Also, I think it stands for the big chance that Foursquare missed. Although they are still around, 6 years later, with my limited insight and only judging from a strategist’s perspective, I think they could have been really, really big by now. Here goes:

I don’t know if it is simply the picture or the kind of information, but i noticed that the frequent check-ins from Foursquare synchronized in Facebook started to annoy me, while I enjoy the badges published in the same way. One reason may be that it is a more general and richer information about someone if he unlocked the “Bender Badge” or became “Mayor” of a certain location compared to the rather twitter-like realtime check-in at some bakery in some village. And although there is no reliable data, many people think that the badges are one main reason for Foursquare’s rapid growth.

Foursquare is very secretive about how many badges there are and how to get them, but obviously, the system works for those who collect badges and, based on my experience, also for those who just read about it. Badges seem to be a beneficial mechanism for everyone involved, leading to experimental marketing approaches that seem to be very promising.

Foursquare has apparently just closed a deal with Starbucks, launching the “Barista” badge probably for a certain number of check-ins or visiting a number of different Starbucks locations. Besides the buzz and PR, Starbucks might actually really generate some business, since badges seem to be a powerful motivation, touching some basic human instincts.

Similar to “achievements” on games consoles the motivation to unlock achievements or badges does not only apply to a (male dominated) hunter-gatherer instinct and is not only intrinsic to be credited and acknowledged (be it by a machine), but of course also extrinsic, driven by the fact that your network will see your achievement – your friends will know that you earned something, what you earned, when and how you did it: by earning a badge, you communicate about yourself. In fact, you praise yourself, but in an elegant and not arrogant way, because it is someone else who ultimately talks about you: The badge-issuing institution. The “Bender Badge” for going out four nights in a row is a lot more powerful than the tweet “fourth straight night partying”. Badges come from a third, neutral party: You can talk about yourself through an “official statement” to your friends by someone else.  It’s like wearing your flight mileage account on a t-shirt – but only if you reached executive status.

Therefore it is again the social aspect that makes this thing bigger than its analog or digital (but lonesome) equivalent like a simple plastic bonus card or the good old paper stamp card. Several not only small and local businesses are doing this for decades: giving you a piece of paper that you could get stamped with every purchase, rewarding you for loyalty proven by a certain number of stamps (like this example from a Pizzeria in Berlin).
By going digital and social in combination, the motivation of each consumer goes way beyond earning “just the reward” – it becomes a personal matter of communicating about oneself to friends.

I am pretty sure that we will see a lot more of these “badge-marketing”-approaches. Not only location based, but with anything that is digital and can be connected to networks. I could imagine amazon.com offering a “movie expert”-badge for someone who orders a certain amount of DVDs or blue rays and submits a certain number of reviews in a period of time. A digital newspaper could make readers “check in” to articles by posting the link on their social network and reward a certain number of posts with a badge. BMW Motorcycles could give badges to those who ride a certain route, and businesses that are keen to collect addresses could even offer badges for some activity and reward them with some gimmick – that needs to be shipped physically, hence generating the address.

Badges seem to have the potential to (at least in some cases) reach the ultimate goal of advertising: Make consumers do what the advertisers want them to do. Badges can become one of the most powerful tools in loyalty marketing, as long as they are digital and social.

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