We’ve all been there, that moment where you reach for your wallet to make a purchase and realize it’s…not…there. That was me yesterday at Costco, scrambling around in my giant bag at the checkout before apologizing profusely and returning to my car in a panic. After a few moments spent tearing apart my car (I can’t be the only one who frequently loses things in there?), I resigned myself to the inevitable hassle of calling credit card companies and restricting all my accounts. While the process is a massive inconvenience and my afternoon plans were derailed, there was something else bothering me about the loss of my wallet.
As I sat making a list of all the cards I carry, the ones that weighed the most heavily upon me were my loyalty program cards. The Starbucks gold card I have been carrying since 2010, the Feierabend Stein Club Level Two card (I wrote about here) with only 6 punches left to fill out or the local pet store program where my next bag of better-than-I-feed-myself cat food will be free. It’s silly and maybe irrational, but I can’t be alone.
A few of my precious loyalty cards...
These programs represent important parts of my life as well as a commitment of time to each brand I am loyal to. The barista at the Starbucks across the street from my apartment knows my drink, and knows what I look like when I need an extra shot of espresso in the morning. My gold card represents not only my status as a customer, but my daily interactions with a brand and its employees. My Feierabend Stein Club card represents a weekly lunch with friends, an embarrassing number of beers and a status as a well-known customer at a great bar. My point is that when brands get these loyalty programs right, they really are creating a relationship with a customer that goes beyond the free coffee, or t-shirt. It’s about status and a sense of community that can be created by small brands and large corporations alike.
The gamification industry doesn’t seem to give customers who are engaging in these rewards based loyalty programs much credit. The majority opinion is that customers are being manipulated, given free stuff to distract them, and that this tactic will inevitably fail. I think the industry has it wrong. Customers of retail or ecommerce brands are going to choose a brand that gives back, over a brand that doesn’t. I choose Starbucks over their competitors because I get a free coffee once in a while. I choose Best Buy because I get reward points that lead to gift certificates that I can use on high value items I want. I am not being manipulated in a negative way, I’m getting access to things I want, for choosing brands that I would engage with anyways, I just engage now at a higher volume, with greater loyalty.
That isn’t to say that free stuff is the only reason I stick around. As I mentioned above there are plenty of intrinsic reasons I visit these brands regularly as well. But the unfortunate reality retail brands are facing is that the personal value I get from buying an iPod at Best Buy isn’t much different from the value I get buying the same product from their competitor. There are just too many options for customers, and customers want something back.
This might seem heavily focused on traditional loyalty programs, and it is. But as the gamification industry is expanding and changing, gamification companies like BigDoor are tying into these traditional “punch card” programs I love so much and making them more dynamic and engaging especially on the web. Increasingly it is becoming important for brands that get it right in person with their customers, to also make a better impression online. As I spend less time in physical stores and more and more time online the relationship I have with these brands needs to shift online as well and if my loyalty programs and rewards follow me there, that is even better. Apart from online purchases, I can be valuable to these brands in other ways. My reviews on products, my recommendations to friends in my social graph, these are actions that brands value but previously haven’t tracked or rewarded customers for in the past. I’m so excited to see this changing and gamification is playing an important role for big brands who aren’t sure how to accomplish this.
An incredibly sweet person returned my wallet to me late last night and as I checked through it to see what I was missing, I happily noted that the thief had not stolen any of my loyalty cards. I’m still sorting out all my accounts this morning, and my debit card won’t arrive until tomorrow, but I was still able to pay for my morning coffee at Starbucks. When life is temporarily hectic and upside down, access to my morning coffee and routine, is priceless.