Did you know that 155 million Americans regularly play video games? Even those of us who aren’t serious gamers enjoy fun apps, online quizzes and the occasional game on a Nintendo Wii. These activities play a remarkable role in our daily life, allowing us to to step into an alternative universe where our only job is to have fun.

Because of the dynamic impact of play on our minds and behaviors, gamification is a hot topic in the digital sphere. Marketers are learning to incorporate the defining aspects of games into their strategy to expand and deepen their connection to audiences.

Building on the psychology of play, this interactive approach to demand generation motivates your leads and offers your audience a bit of fun, too.

Why does play work so well? Keep reading to find out the psychological underpinnings of our interest in games and learn how you could apply these principles to your own marketing.

Hardwired for Play

Have you ever seen little kids playing on the beach or a playground? As humans, we’re hardwired for play — it’s an integral part of the way we interact with others and learn about the world. Dr. Stuart Brown, the head of the National Institute for Play, defines play as “something done for its own sake….It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.” Some researchers even believe that play is more important to brain development than traditional classroom work.

Incorporating play into your content strategy is a positive way to reinforce learning and develop trust, just as you would on the playground. And — no — a playful perspective is not just reserved for B2C markets. Gamification is just as important for B2B buyers, who crave unique and flavorful content, too.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation


To create gamified content, you have to understand what motivates people to play. Unlike the decision to go to work or to take out the garbage, people play for the joy of it. This kind of intrinsic motivation values internal rewards: a sense of happiness, accomplishment, or perceived learning.

Extrinsic motivation, however, remains fixed on a particular outcome – such as good grades, recognition from peers, or even a paycheck.

What do intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have to do with your marketing? It can inform how your audience interacts with your content and your brand. Your audience may engage with your content because they learn, have fun, and appreciate your offerings (intrinsic motivation), or because they’re hoping for a reward at the end, like a discount, piece of long-form content, or even a gift card (extrinsic motivation).

Good gamification design will typically involve both forms of motivation, with extrinsic rewards offered along the way to drive adoption and long-term intrinsic motivation to engage.

(Image source: Janaki Kumar and Mario Herger)

The Role of Games

According to Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, external motivators are not as effective as internal motivators in driving participation. Your strategy should encourage engagement by offering an intrinsically rewarding content experience.

By offering your content in the form of a game, you invoke the ultimate motivator: playtime.

An experiment conducted at Aarhaus University in Denmark revealed just how much gamification encourages participation. The author Andreas Lieberoth explains that “people can be made more intrinsically motivated simply by presenting an activity as a game.” Framing an interaction as a “quiz” or a “contest” prompts individuals to switch into “play” mode, and increases their willingness to partake, as well as nurturing positive feelings associated with the experience.

Complement your playful experience with a light external motivator. A reward should be the icing on the cake rather than the facilitator of the interaction. Personality quizzes, for example, naturally create opportunities for social rewards with easy sharing on channels Facebook and Twitter. The desire to see and be seen can act in tandem a deeper intrinsic motivation to partake in a game.

Three Factors to Motivate Your Audience

To capitalize on the intrinsic motivation of playtime, you have to understand three characteristics that sustain your audience’s engagement. A Scientific American article cited by Lifehacker suggests that to motivate anyone, even to play, you must offer three things: autonomy, value, and competence.

1. Autonomy

Individuals feel motivated when they are in charge — and gamified content, more than passive content, puts your audience in the driver’s seat. Instead of asking leads to follow along with a blog post or e-book, gamified content empowers them to influence their own experience. Through a two-way conversation, your audience can also offer you feedback and shape your interactions, which is a step up from the traditional role of an audience.

2. Value

To motivate your readers, you must offer something of value. This idea is a golden rule of psychology and a core tenet of content marketing. Moz’s Rand Fishkin broke down the steps for providing unique value in a Whiteboard Friday. Here’s what he found:

Photo Credit: Moz

  • Your content must offer a massive upgrade in terms of aggregation, accessibility, and design
  • The information must be available nowhere else
  • The content must be presented with a massively differentiated voice/style

What this means, precisely, varies company to company – but is the only way for your content to rise above the noise and truly connect with your audience.

3. Competence

A sense of competency bolsters motivation. By educating your audience with a knowledge-based quiz or interactive infographic, you reinforce learning. Offer your audience a gauge of their own understanding as a secondary intrinsic reward – and motivation to continue participating.

The drive to display and confirm competence can also be a strong motivator at the point of lead conversion. In an interactive experience, gate your result outcome with a short lead form before users can find out how they scored or how they compare to their peers. That’s just one reason interactive content tends to convert at twice the rate of static content.


Gamification is a powerful tool to motivate and engage your audience. By building a sense of play into your content, you will be more likely to see longer-term engagement and return visits – in other words, an intrinsic connection to your marketing.

Build content that focuses on providing autonomy, value, and a sense of competence for your users. The easiest way to hit all three goals is with an interactive experience.

Gamified content hinges on a strong understanding of human nature and who your buyer is as a person. The more you understand about motivation, the easier it will be to create amazing conversations with your leads.

Learn more about how you could apply gamification across your marketing programs.