Gamify to Boost Customer Engagement


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Every parent knows a contest or game can transform many situations by redirecting kids’ unruly energy. “Who can sit still the longest?” Counting backward from 100. Twenty questions. These are just a few of the go-to, often impromptu, games that can help rein in potential chaos. It’s amazing how often these simple games capture the right type of behavioral engagement, even in challenging situations.

The same principle has been applied by marketers for their brands over the years with great success. Iconic contests such as McDonald’s Monopoly or Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes have shown the power of incorporating the competition and entertainment of games. Both of those campaigns drive immense growth for their brands, while creating long-lasting engagement and loyalty.

Today’s influential digital platforms and social media have greatly expanded the viable landscape for potential customer gamification touch points. Now any brand can utilize gamification as a loyalty marketing strategy. These new mediums also allow innovative, real-time engagements with quicker penetration to key audiences. Even better, with current platforms, a transaction isn’t required—but gamification strategies can help acquire new customers.

Let’s explore some recent innovative and strategic applications of gamification in customer engagement that have the potential to boost loyalty throughout all stages of the customer lifecycle.

Amuse—and Entice with Perks

Recently two major brands, Chipotle and Southwest Airlines, launched video game–inspired experiences to immerse their loyal customers in gamification initiatives. Chipotle partnered with Tesla for their Race to Rewards, a three-day contest in which the player with the top score won a free Tesla. While that grand prize had high appeal and value, the real draw was the easy ability for players to win free chips for their next order.

Image c/o Chipotle

Similarly, Southwest Airlines chose to celebrate the company’s fiftieth anniversary with an interactive giveaway of points, gift certificates, and companion passes. Not only did this center their celebration on their customers, but it also helped renew interest in traveling after the pandemic.

Image c/o Southwest Airlines

Ignite New Interest with Contests

Gamification isn’t just for everyday products and services; any brand can use contests and giveaways to engage their audience around lesser-frequented offerings. In fact, the less common the product, the greater the opportunity to build positive engagement. This is exactly what U.S. Bank learned with its ongoing social media photo contests to cleverly promote the benefits of its home-equity lines of credit (aka second mortgages).

Its #Nostalchic photo contest encouraged followers to share photos of extreme examples of outdated homes or rooms in dire need of updating on U.S. Bank’s social media channels. Prizes were awarded to the best submissions to help in getting started with renovation costs. And everyone who participated or viewed the contest quickly understood the benefits of home improvement loans.

Image c/o U.S. Bank

U.S. Bank has continued driving success through this engagement strategy by using different themes for photo submission contests. This was the case with its #DIYFails contest, which also generated hundreds of submissions and thousands of views.

c/o Twitter

Image c/o U.S. Bank

Engage Hard-to-Reach Audiences

Timberland has long been a pioneer in using social media contests to capture images of product usage from its loyal customers and continues to do so yet today. The brand’s early user-generated campaigns focused on outdoor enthusiasts for mountain biking and climbing. While maintaining a high affinity with those audiences, Timberland wanted to drive similar engagement among customer groups that are typically less engaged online.

To do so, the brand ran a photo contest for construction workers to show their use of Timberland boots on job sites—with new, upgraded boots as the prizes. This online customer segment quickly became active with hundreds of submissions and stated feature preferences. The contest became a long-running campaign that garnered the attention of this hard-to-reach audience and captured valuable product development information.

Image c/o Timberland

Spotlight Brand Ambassadors

Skittles is well known as a candy favorite, but the brand’s use of social media has taken their customer enthusiasm to the next level. Skittles encourages fans to act out its Taste the Rainbow slogan, with the possibility of being highlighted in Skittles’ weekly Best Fan Forever content campaign. As expected, entrants’ creativity and engagement are always remarkably high—and they hail from all over the world.

Image c/o Skittles

Gamified Discounts and Sales

Image c/o Target

Social commerce has rapidly evolved into a necessity for capturing consumer purchases, especially around peak gift-giving seasons. Target leverages gamification to entice its social media followers with early access to exclusive sale prices on in-demand products. Customers accessed the discounts by unlocking various puzzles, riddles, and quizzes. Eventually, the same deals were offered publicly in the weekly print circular, but granting early access by gating the deals behind fun daily challenges heightened the incentives’ appeal.

Image c/o Macy’s

Macy’s used a similar, but simpler, approach with frequent social media voting to let followers determine which item would be eligible for a weekly flash sale. The strategy let Macy’s give a voice to customers and fostered a higher likelihood for purchase among those who voted for the winning item.

c/o Twitter
Image c/o Disney

Turn Dreams into Realities

More people are returning to travel, and their adventure and leisure wish lists are extensive. Tapping into this yearning to make up for lost travel, Disney Cruise Line launched the #YearofWishes photo contest to reactivate its customer base. Entrants get chances to win tickets to cruise on the new Disney Wish, which sets sail in summer 2022. Contest participation is massive and centers on a new theme each month.

Image c/o 7-Eleven

Put Your Customers on a Winning Streak

For some retailers, such as convenience stores, getting customers to make purchasing from their stores a daily habit is real loyalty possibility. 7-Eleven recognized the opportunity to encourage daily purchases and expand customer loyalty in the process with their Streak rewards challenges. The program rewards loyalty members by accelerating their point accruals when they show ongoing purchasing streaks through daily scans of the 7-Eleven app.

Image c/o Target

Similarly, Target deploys streak promotions to further incentivize Target Circle program members with additional earnings for multiple purchases within a certain time frame. This streak reward drives repeat purchases and cart additions to meet the minimum spend threshold—all to earn the gift certificate to apply to future purchases. It’s a win-win scenario for Target and its loyalty program members.

Turn Points into Prize Entries

Image c/o Sleep Number

Earning points in Sleep Number’s InnerCircle Rewards program is much easier than most other programs that require paid purchases. Sleep Number also awards points for engagement actions, such as reading blog posts, interacting with its social media content, or leaving a review online. Given the easy path to rack up points, the redemption process is a bit unique as well. Every month several high-value bedding items are offered up as prizes, and members can use their points to enter for a chance to win. With these drawings as the crux of the loyalty program, customers are encouraged to keep engaging with brand content to earn more contest entries.

Ready. Set. Go.

Gamification and customer loyalty go together like Chutes and Ladders. Loyalty programs help brands earn repeat purchases—and creating appealing additional engagement opportunities through gamification helps create ongoing advocacy and fosters emotional loyalty. After all, with earned perks like discounts, experiences, prizes, and higher tier status, aren’t loyalty programs essentially an elaborate, ongoing, and rewarding game for customers to play?

Todd Hedberg
As the Director of Digital Strategy at The Lacek Group I provides strategic digital channel and engagement recommendations to support clients' loyalty reward program growth and performance. Previous experiences include strategic marketing roles in the healthcare, financial, and medical device companies, along with agency work leading digital marketing client services. I have an M.B.A. degree from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, where he also serves as adjunct faculty for the Executive Education program for advanced digital marketing certification courses.


  1. Great post regarding increasing customer engagement through gamify, Gamifying an experience does not equal creating a game to engage customers. It is about applying game-like mechanisms to a non-game context, to encourage your target audience.


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