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Gamification Case Study: Air Canada’s Earn Your Wings Program

The term “gamification” is being used more and more frequently, but many people remain unfamiliar with the concept and its myriad of applications. Merriam-Webster defines gamification as “the process of adding games or gamelike elements to something (such as a task) so as to encourage participation” — but what does this actually look like in practice? For one, gamification really is everywhere, whether we recognize it or not. After all, making a task more competitive and playful is an intuitive way to get people engaged. As such, gamification is typically used in order to boost user motivation and participation, often through strategies that include leaderboards, objectives, points, badges, and prizes.

Here are a few real-world examples of gamification in action:

Gamification has been especially successful when applied to rewards programs. In fact, Air Canada made gamification a central component of their Earn Your Wings promotion program, which is a periodic augmentation of the Air Canada Altitude experience (which is the highest status that Air Canada’s frequent flyers can achieve). To date, they’ve implemented five limited-time editions of this promotion and, as the repeated renewal of the program suggests, each edition has been quite successful. In fact, the first two editions led to 114,716 total registrations (an average of 57,358 registrations per edition) and generated C$26.2 million of incremental revenue. The promotion’s third edition then produced an 875% ROI. The program clearly boosted customer engagement and efficiently incentivized purchases made by existing customers.

So — what exactly makes this program so effective? Before we dive into this question, let’s take a look at some of the nitty-gritty details of the program.

The Rules

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Image via Air Canada

The fifth and most recent edition of the promotion (which took place in 2016) was only open to individuals with Air Canada Altitude status — that is, the airline’s most frequent flyers. These participants were given a clear objective: accrue as many “Wings” as possible, both absolutely and relative to other players. They were also given various ways to earn these Wings — 500 Wings were awarded with registration, and each Air Canada takeoff and landing that the individual partook in over the course of the promotion was worth, at minimum, 100. However, in certain cities, participants could also earn “Destination” and “Super Destination” badges, which were worth additional Wings. Separate badges were also given out when participants completed specific, pre-set challenges.

In order to participate in the promotion, players had from May 16th until June 30th to register and book their flights; those flights then needed to occur between May 16th and July 31st in order to qualify for Wings. In all, then, this particular edition of the program lasted for about two and a half months.

Prizes could then be earned in two separate ways: noncompetitively and competitively. On the noncompetitive front, once a person had earned 2,000 Wings, they could redeem 2,000 miles through an outside program called Aeroplan. More competitively, the Earn Your Wings website displayed a leaderboard throughout the promotion, prominently ranking players based on total Wings earned and displaying players’ badges. At the end of the promotion, the top 10 participants were awarded an additional 1,000,000 miles each, while the top 11-30 participants were awarded 500,000 miles each.

What makes this so effective? 

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There are a number of reasons why gamification can render tasks so engaging, beyond even the fact that “play” can increase task motivation.

Firstly, as Franken and Brown discuss in their 1995 paper, there is considerable evidence to suggest that some people are motivated by competition, while others are more motivated by a desire to perform well on a less comparative level. The Earn Your Wings program effectively caters to both of these potential motivations, since it offers players both competitive and noncompetitive recognition.

For those who are competitively inclined, the promotion features a prominent leaderboard and offers substantial rewards for out-performing other participants. And it’s not particularly surprising that there is a substantial portion of the population that is motivated by competition, since relative status is a very powerful motivator.

On the other hand, the program also rewards performance non-comparatively. Independently of other players’ achievements, participants are given badges for the completion of challenges, and Aeroplan miles are awarded in exchange for Wings. Many people’s high motivation to complete these sorts of individualized tasks can be explained in part by a phenomenon outlined in Edwin Locke’s 1996 review: that specifically-set goals which are difficult but still attainable motivate achievement, and that the completion of such goals produces an intrinsic feeling of satisfaction. Indeed, the Earn Your Wings program was able to successfully set goals such that they were difficult but still feasible (these goals included completing ambitious challenges and earning 2,000 Wings so that they could be redeemed for miles). The badges awarded for completing such challenges then served to amplify the organic feelings of pride and achievement that stem from goal accomplishment.

In setting goals, gamification can also encourage complicated behaviors that are otherwise difficult to incentivize. In fact, Air Canada implemented the aforementioned badges in order to simplify communication of the promotion’s often-complex challenges (some of which, for example, involved visiting a certain number of countries out of a pre-provided list). This more-organized form of communication effectively minimized the effort that participants had to invest in order to understand program rules, which is valuable given humans’ limited cognitive resources. In this way, Air Canada was able to encourage more enthusiastic participation.

But what does this all mean for me?

Even if your e-commerce store isn’t looking to create an entire promotion around the concept of gamification, there are subtle ways to integrate gamified elements into your rewards or referral programs in order to make them more engaging.

For instance, establishing challenging but realistic goals for rewards program members can powerfully motivate people to engage. VIP Tiers are a natural example of this, because they set a minimum number of points that must be met in order to unlock the next status tier. Setting explicit goals encourages customers to work towards the satisfaction produced by goal completion, and rewarding such achievements with points serves to augment this satisfaction. Best Choice Products, for example, has implemented a VIP loyalty program wherein they reward customers with point multipliers if they earn a certain number of points over the course of a year.

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Image via Best Choice Products

And because some of the more competitive, status-oriented elements of gamification rely largely upon publicly visible player achievements, this can also be a powerful feature to integrate into your program. While many fully-gamified programs rely on leaderboards to make user accomplishments visible, there are other ways to achieve this. For example, Sephora tags certain users’ product reviews and community posts with “Top Contributor”, “Beauty Insider”, “VIB”, and “VIB Rouge” labels (the latter three labels indicate respective tiers in Sephora’s customer loyalty program). This concept can be adapted and adjusted to suit individual e-commerce stores, but the fundamental objective is to generate a sense of esteem by displaying participants’ program-relevant achievements.  This ultimately engages your store’s more competitively-inclined customers.

Finally, offering your customers a reward for completing a series or combination of actions is a good example of simplification. For example, if your goal is to boost your social media following, then you may choose to reward shoppers when they follow your account on three separate platforms and like at least two posts. You may find that this series of actions — which few customers were likely to complete without the reward — actually becomes a popular task once it is communicated and incentivized effectively. This “bundling” approach, similar to Air Canada’s use of badges to reward multi-part behaviors, is particularly powerful if there are difficult-to-communicate sets of customer actions that are very valuable to your brand.

The Takeaway

While gamification may seem like a daunting or unconventional concept, it has a demonstrated ability to motivate and engage. Air Canada’s very successful use of gamification principles in their Earn Your Wings promotion provides a glimpse into how this powerful engagement strategy can be incorporated into the world of incentive marketing.

Nikhil Naidu • August 24, 2017


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