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Gamification in pharma

What could gamification mean for the pharmaceutical sector? Improved HCP engagement and better education, says Alastair McQueen, senior copywriter at digital innovation agency eBee
A computer game pad

With the explosion in the popularity of mobile gaming, and the continued invasion of consoles in living rooms around the world, the video games industry is now rivalling Hollywood in terms of profit.

Hand-in-hand with this growth is the realisation that gaming can play a role beyond that of pure entertainment. The so-called 'gamification' of brands, websites and applications is becoming increasingly popular in consumer marketing. So what does it actually mean?

Gaming the system
Gamification isn't about developing a thinly veiled re-hash of space invaders with a logo in the corner. It's about harnessing some of the core aspects of successful games – immersion, interaction, feedback, goals and competition – to create more engaging content.

At its heart, gamification seeks to tap into our seemingly ingrained urge to play with, or succeed within, a defined set of rules. Provide some or all of these elements in an enticing way, goes the theory, and maybe your audience will spend more time on something than they otherwise would do.

It's about harnessing some of the core aspects of successful games – immersion, interaction, feedback, goals and competition – to create more engaging content.

A lot of this thinking has already been applied to consumer health applications. Witness the hugely successful Nike+ app, which tracks how far you have run, rewarding your achievements with virtual trophies and placing you on leadership boards. Awarding 'players' points to encourage behaviour changes – like exercise, weight loss or smoking cessation – is a natural fit.

Now advertisers and marketeers are waking up to the potential of gamification. Loyalty programmes – think Starbucks reward cards – work on similar principals. But the difference with successful gamification is that status – where you place on a leader board – or personal satisfaction at completing a task, can supplement or even replace the physical rewards of Nectar points or their equivalent.

Online, areas as diverse as personal finance or travel are adopting gaming principals, awarding points for engagement and achieving goals. Likewise the mobile location tracker Foursquare awards badges and perks for users who check in most.

Arguably Facebook's 'Like' function and the just-introduced 'Google +1' feature can be filed under gamification too – harnessing status and one-upmanship to improve functionality and user experiences. Indeed, 'collecting' followers/friends on Twitter or Facebook can be likened to game mechanics themselves. What is striking is how little of this thinking has been applied to pharma communications. Yet the principals behind gamification represent a rich seam of untapped potential in HCP engagement that it is only just beginning to be realised.

"How?" you might well ask. It's true that, at first thought, the idea of consultants playing Farmville, or tapping at their iPhone playing Angry Birds doesn't seem to sit well with big pharma marketing strategy. But look a little closer and there are countless ways that core gamification principals can apply to the industry.

Who's keeping score?
The applications for gamification in pharma range from the simple to the highly developed. For example, at a recent conference we used gamification to help drive attendance at a client's session. First, we developed a touch screen based quiz you could play at the stand. With a slick interface and countdown timer, the experience mirrored participating in a gameshow.

The questions were deliberately challenging, and centred on physiological mechanisms relating to the clients brand. Leaderboards were logged – the twist being that the winner was revealed in the session.

Image from the Masterminds in CHB interface 
The Masterminds in CHB quiz


The idea was gamification at its most basic: appeal to the competitive spirit. Yet the stand was highly popular, and attendance at the session was high. This type of playful, yet compelling marketing that speaks to doctors as humans as well as professionals is rare within pharmaceutical marketing.

Virtually there
But gamification in healthcare communications can be taken so much further. Take for example eBee's "Paper to Patient" HCP education programme. With a new COPD National Strategy and a NICE guideline published in 2010, the Primary Care Respiratory Society was looking for ways to engage primary care nurses and GPs and help them adopt new best practice.

Working with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), we used a number of gaming mechanics to come up with a fresh approach. As a key inspiration, we looked to Tamagotchis – the egg-shaped virtual pets that swept playgrounds in the '90s.

After completing a set of training modules, HCPs are tasked with putting their knowledge into practice on virtual patients. Depending on how well the user 'plays', the virtual patient – which is presented over three different scenarios – displays varying levels of health. In each scenario the HCP has set goals and is awarded points for each virtual consultation.

The approach has proven remarkably successful in encouraging HCPs to engage with otherwise dense material – not to mention helping to reinforcing their learning in its own right. To date, over 15,000 HCPs have already used "Paper to Patient".

Image from the Paper to Patient HCP education programme 
The Paper to Patient HCP education programme


Levelling up
Gamification in healthcare marketing is still in its infancy. But these examples show that the door to gamification in pharmaceutical marketing is wide open, with benefits such as improved HCP engagement and increased learning waiting on the other side.

Whether the industry will have its own 'Pharmville' remains to be seen, but – tackled right – gamification has the potential to bring digital detailing and pharma communications to a whole new level.

The Author
Alastair McQueen is senior copywriter at digital innovation agency, eBee. eBee brings digital innovation to healthcare communications, and is a finalist for the Communiqué Small Independent Consultancy of the Year, 2011. You can follow eBee on Twitter @eBeeHealth.

4th July 2011


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