How to Reward Players during the Onboarding Phase in Gamification

By Kris Duggan, Kate Shoup

The onboarding phase for users of a gamification system is relatively short — maybe one or two sessions. Nevertheless, it is extremely important. After all, this is a new user’s introduction to your gamification program.

During this phase, the user doesn’t know anything about the gamification program and has no reason to like it. If anything, the user probably feels a little irritated by the interruption of his or her usual site usage. It’s especially crucial, then, to reward users handsomely during this phase.

To catch the user’s interest, you need to open with a positive experience. Give the player recognition for a desirable gameplay behavior right off the bat — a quick, easy moment of victory. The user’s first reward should be easy to obtain — indeed, it should be impossible not to obtain it. This accomplishes two things:

  • It gets the user off to a positive start.

  • It introduces the action-reaction loop.

Use this moment of victory to introduce the gamification system on an up note. Draw attention to the behavior and the reward; connecting the cause and effect is critical. For example, you might display a message such as “Congratulations! By creating an account, you’ve earned the New Kid badge!” In this way, the user grasps the idea that certain gameplay behavior, receives specific recognition.

Once the user understands the connection between gameplay behavior and reward, there must be pressure to engage. That is, the user must realize that failing to do so will result in lost progress. An obvious way of conveying this might be through a blatant call to action to preserve the acquired status.

The first award is the most important, but the next few are also critical. They establish scope. Sure, this site tracks visits — but what else does it track? Anything more interesting? Anything more personal?

You should give away at least three rewards per session during this phase. During this phase, you are essentially selling the user on your system. As you do, the user will naturally be studying how the reward system is integrated into your site. Consciously or not, the user will be wondering:

  • Is progress surfaced somewhere obvious and accessible?

  • Is progress/status represented in social interactions?

  • Does status have benefits?

In case you’re unsure, the answers to all these questions should be yes. After all, if the site doesn’t take the reward system seriously, why should the user?

The user needs to know that a gamification system exists. If the system is hidden — if you’re waiting for users to stumble over a first achievement — your program is going to underperform, particularly with new users.

Although you do want to reward users early and often in this phase, you must be careful to avoid diluting the rewards. In other words, don’t reward users for every single comment or page view. Eventually, users will view those gameplay rewards as being meaningless.