Category Archives: Employee Communication

Isn't Gamification Really Expensive?

It doesn't have to be.

When we think of gamification, we often think of online applications – something akin to a video game. While partnering with a gamification vendor may be the gold standard, it also can cost between $1 and $6 per user per month — a cost that can quickly reach into the six figures. 

Gamification doesn’t have to be that expensive or complicated to implement. Instead, you could take almost any existing communication tool and make it more engaging by applying gamification concepts.

Gamification really just means using principles of gaming (“game mechanics”) to teach and motivate your audience. Different game mechanics produce different game dynamics. So, it’s important to take a step back from the idea of incorporating gamification and ask, “What dynamic do you want to achieve?”

  • Do you want to foster community or collaboration?
  • Do you want your employees to compete with each other?
  • Do you want to reward achievement or progress?
  • Do you simply want employees to explore new ideas?

Once you know your goals, it’s easier to determine which game mechanics to implement. 

Examples of game mechanics and the game dynamics they can produce

Points = achievement or progress

Points are like gold stars from elementary school. Players earn points by completing small tasks and trade in the points for a reward. 

Levels = achievement or progress

Levels can be built on points and demonstrate greater achievement. Once you accumulate a certain number of points, you progress to the next level. Reaching a new level also might unlock new game features or rewards.

Missions/Quests = competition or community, achievement or exploration

A mission or quest gives the player more autonomy – it puts them in charge of finding a way to complete the mission. Players can simply explore and be exposed to a new concept, or you might create a more challenging mission to create an achievement dynamic. And since missions can work for individuals and teams, you should decide if you want to encourage collaboration and a sense of community or if you want to spark a competition.

Challenges = achievement or exploration

A challenge is a more directed version of a mission. While a mission might name a goal that players figure out how to achieve, a challenge gives players a daily or weekly bite-sized goal to accomplish. When the challenge is over, players will have completed a larger goal. In the process, they will have established a new habit or learned a new skill.

Badges = community, achievement or progress, exploration

A badge is a public reward – a sign of achievement that can be displayed on a player’s profile. Badges are useful as rewards when a player completes a certain set of challenges or masters a new skill.

Leaderboards = competition, community, achievement

A leaderboard ranks your players so everyone can see who’s ahead or behind. Depending on how you position the leaderboard, it can encourage competition (who is ranked highest?) or community (are we all pulling our weight and working together towards our shared success?).

Push Notifications = community, progress

Pop-ups built into a game can provide reminders to complete an action or offer congratulations on successfully completing a level or mission.

Quizzes = competition or community, achievement, progress

A quiz can help cement learning, prove completion of materials, and measure comprehension. After a player completes a learning module, they would take a mandatory quiz for a pass/fail grade. The quiz also would explain the correct answer when a player gets an answer wrong.

Lower-cost gamification implementation

If your budget doesn’t permit an online gamification implementation, here are some lower-cost ways to incorporate game mechanics in your existing communication strategy.

Points – Imagine an Annual Enrollment campaign where employees accumulate points from reading materials or watching campaign videos. This might be as simple as including a checklist or as involved as asking employees to scan a QR code when they finish reading a document.

Levels – Providing employees with a process map can be one way of both explaining levels to be achieved and the steps inside each level. 

Missions/Quests – A mission is like the Choose Your Own Adventure version of benefits education. Give employees a fill-in-the-bank worksheet when they attend a presentation. The worksheet will guide them to record the most relevant information from the presentation. 

Challenges – Just like an influencer runs an Instagram challenge, you can run a challenge using email. Invite employees to opt-in to the challenge, then send them one email a day or a week with their instructions. If you can set up a blog on your intranet dedicated to the challenge and open it for comments, even better.

Badges – When employees earn a badge, provide them an icon to add to their email signature.

Leaderboards – Create an online dashboard using Google Sheets so your employees can check their performance against others.

Push Notifications – Send a congratulations email or text message when your employees complete levels, missions or challenges. If your email system has the capability, set up these emails to be triggered and sent automatically.

Quizzes – Use SurveyMonkey, your Learning Management System, or even a PDF quiz to test your employee’s recall and understanding of content.

More Ideas

“People Don’t Read”

Why Your Employees Won’t Read Your Next Communication and What You Can Do About It

“People don’t read.”

I’ve been told this consistently by clients throughout my career. If you believe this, then spending any effort on creating content and communication is futile. The only reason to put anything in writing is to comply with a law or ward off liability.

As a professional communicator, this would be a frightening fact to face. But, is it true?

If we look at the research, we could conclude that Americans don’t read that much. Here are a few highlights:

Unfortunately, this data is not that helpful in answering our question. For one, these are national averages. They might say little or nothing about your employee population. Second, these studies examine how much we read for personal interest. They don’t consider how much we read as part of our jobs, and I haven’t been able to find any good estimates for that.

It’s also important to acknowledge that reading is just one way we consume information. We also use sounds and images. We could also use tastes, smells and touch. Surely, you’ve offered a coworker a slice of birthday cake, been drawn (or repulsed) by the smell of popcorn or given a high five.

In our three-dimensional, multimedia world, we all know that the traditional definition of “reading” is far too narrow to encompass all the forms of content and communication we can create.

So, when a client says to me, People don’t read, what they’re really saying is:

People don’t pay attention.

And, that’s definitely true. Well, sort of.

Our brains evolved to help us survive, but we only have so much cognitive bandwidth at our disposal. We’ve become really good at focusing on things that matter most to us — like food or threats to our safety — and filtering out the rest.

But, let’s not throw our hands up with an exasperated, “People don’t read!” Instead, we need to realize that people only pay attention when you give them something worthwhile.

We can do something with that.

How to Get People to Read Pay Attention to Your Message

The phrase “pay attention” tells you what you need to know. Attention is like money. It’s our cognitive currency. We only have so much of it to spend, and when we spend it, we expect something in return.

Here are two simple tips to catch and keep your audience’s attention.

1. Write Better Headlines

Here’s a fun fact from the world of copywriting: On average, 8 out of 10 people will read a headline, but only 2 out of 10 will read the rest.

Now, this ratio applies to what people encounter “out there” in the world where thousands of messages are competing for attention. (According to researchers at the University of Southern California, humans broadcast the equivalent of 174 newspapers to every person in the world every day.)

In the workplace, I think it’s different. It’s more likely that your message has at least some amount of inherent importance to your audience. But, remember, we are designed to block out signals we deem unimportant. Don’t make your audience work to find personal meaning or benefit. Don’t make it their problem to figure out whether what you’re trying to communicate matters. Make the meaning obvious from the get-go with a great headline.

Compare the following email subject lines:

SUBJECT: Important! New Facility Security Procedures

SUBJECT: How to get into your office, starting tomorrow

Which of these emails are you likely to open first?

When it comes to catching people’s attention, some communicators get caught up in trying to be clever. And, many marketers know how to use salacious headlines and quirky images to get you to click on a link. I think employers should be careful about using such gimmicks in workplace communications. These tactics essentially trick people into paying attention without giving them a satisfying serving of meaning or benefit in return. Not to mention, such tricks will probably violate your organization’s brand standards. Good creative emerges from understanding what is important to your audience and making that immediately understandable, not from being outlandish.

2. Write to You

Your headline (or subject line) makes a promise to your audience. You’ve promised to deliver information that is personally meaningful or beneficial in some way. The rest of your message needs to deliver on that promise. To do that, it’s best to “write to you.”

By that, I mean you should write in such a way that you can address the audience directly as “you.” Compare the following sentences.

A. “All eligible employees should enroll.”

B. “You should enroll.”

A. “All affected employees will receive an email.”

B. “You will receive an email.”

A. “All participating employees must log in.”

B. “You must log in.”

All the B sentences  speak to directly and clearly to me as a member of the audience. I know it’s about me and, let’s face it, talking about me is a great way to get me to keep paying attention. To boot, these sentences are much shorter and easier to read.

The A statements leave too much for the audience to figure out. Any doubt about personal relevance creates an opportunity for the employee’s attention to be tempted by untold distractions. Writing to you is not hard. In fact, writing to you makes writing content and communications much easier. What can be hard is figuring out what matters to your audience and whether or not you are able to specifically target the right “you.”

Sometimes, targeting “you” is a technical matter. Do you have the right email list? Will only the right people have access to the intranet page? Do you have a budget to create versions of the material so that the message can be sufficiently segmented? Whatever the limitation, go to it so you can get as close to “you” as possible.

In Short …

I think a key thing to remember is that the decision to read something is not solely a conscious one. While we can and do consciously choose to read things all the time, our attention is limited and selective. From out of a deluge of information, things we perceive as important to our survival and our nourishment draw our attention subconsciously, like a magnet. If you want people to read, craft your communications accordingly.

More Ideas

Summary Plan Descriptions

Why I Love SPDs.

I love SPDs. This is a feeling not universally shared by those clients and colleagues who are tasked with developing and maintaining them (or even most of us who receive them).

When I first began working on SPDs, I didn’t fully appreciate them. I often described them in terms that weren’t always (let’s just say) the most flattering. However, more exposure to these documents has helped me value their finer points.

Benefits make a difference. Benefits are a critical part of employees’ total rewards from their employer. A thoughtfully developed benefits program provides a safety net for employees and their families. How employees participate in these programs can affect their overall financial picture, now and far into the future.

I create multiple communication/education programs associated with employee benefits, ranging from recruiting to new hire to annual enrollment materials and beyond. SPDs assume a unique position in this communication universe. In many ways, they are the backbone of any benefits program.

SPDs are legally mandated under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). ERISA specifies information, timing and distribution requirements to make sure participants are informed about how their benefits work and legal protections provided to them. [ERISA background]

SPDs provide employees important legal and regulatory details, such as rights and protections provided under ERISA. These include where to go for help; who is responsible for running the plan and what their duties entail; what benefits are insured, e.g., defined benefit plans under the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation; what rights are in place if a claim is denied; and required notices, such as the Women’s Cancer Rights Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.

SPDs are a comprehensive user’s manual and reliable reference tool. The SPD provides information about eligibility, enrollment, timing requirements, benefits provided, where to go for more information and much more. Rules can be complicated and have big financial implications.  [Requirements for a 401k SPD]

Participants are encouraged to read the documents carefully and keep them in a convenient place for future reference. Now SPDs are commonly posted electronically for easy access at any time.

Keeping an SPD up-to-date is the realm of a team of benefit professionals—HR staff, technical benefit consultants, specialized attorneys, and communicators. Legal contracts, insurance policies and documents that spell out how a benefit plan works must be translated into understandable language for the average person. [SPD Development Strategy]

Such an important document deserves our respect. We should all view the SPD as a valuable resource that helps employees find information, use their benefits effectively and appreciate their employer’s investment in their well-being.

For those  reasons, I love SPDs!

Pat Dodd is a senior consultant  at Smith Communication Partners. 

More Ideas

Putting Games to Work

Gamers’ Pwn Scientists with Epic Win in Molecular Biology

Can games really change the world for the better? A few weeks ago, I finished the book Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal, PhD, a world-renowned designer of alternate reality games. In the book, McGonigal argues that gaming can lead the way to solving real-life problems.


There are some interesting takeaways for managers and employers of all kinds. For example, badges, or “leveling up,” could offer employees new forms of recognition and achievement that can engage them at work and encourage them to grow.

Already we’re seeing companies use games as a form of marketing. One example is Dodge’s hide-and-seek campaign for the Journey. The car company hid three of these vehicles around the country; find one and it’s yours.

But who has effectively used a game to solve a problem, as McGonigal describes, and not just as a marketing gimmick? Well, these guys have … Online Gamers Crack AIDS Enzyme Puzzle.

The games McGonigal explores in her book encourage collaboration, give people challenges that test their skills and provide recognition for reaching the next level of achievement. But, applying game theory doesn’t mean employees will trade in their drills for joysticks.

As a communicator, I see games as a useful metaphor, a new interface with work, a new context and fresh language for the work experience. In this sense, gaming seems to be an effective way to communicate the personal value of work to the individual. I mean, wouldn’t it be more interesting to “beat a high score” than “reach a quota”? Would you rather be a “Level 5 Project Management Guru” or a “PMO Coordinator”? The idea is to apply to work the elements of gaming that are shown to engage players for hours on end in tasks that, when you get down to it, are needlessly difficult and have no material benefit other than a feeling of total immersion.

Could re-imagining work as a game at your company help you untap your employees’ full potential? If carefully designed, the answer seems to be yes. If gamers did in three weeks what scientists had been unable to do for years, it might be worth popping in a quarter and giving it a try.

More Ideas