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November 16

The Potential of Gamification In Enrollment Marketing In the 2020s


The word gamification has been around for several years now. It describes a marketing and recruitment trend that at times has felt like a fad. But I’d like to explore the power of gamification as a concept that we should all be thinking more about in the coming decade.

Let’s start by establishing what it is. I like this definition, even though it doesn’t come from the world of academia or marketing. It’s from talent management software vendor Capterra:

Gamification is the process of making an educational or work activity more like a game by finding ways to make it more entertaining and rewarding.

What’s interesting about this definition is that it points out that the application of games in life is pretty universal. It’s hard to think of examples of life tasks we find difficult or tedious that don’t fall under the broad categories of education or work.

Gamification is about transforming these difficult “tasks” – jobs, research, applying for work or school, etc. – into “games,” something we see as challenging in a fun way.

One of these difficult tasks is applying to college. The question is, what can you do as an enrollment marketer to transform this task into an exciting challenge? In what ways can you turn enrollment into a game?

Let’s start by taking a look at how gamification has been utilized in recent years.

Gamification in the 21st Century

We all instinctively know that “games” are fun tasks we’re naturally motivated to take on. In addition, research supports the idea that game elements (accomplishment badges, leaderboard scores, etc.) satisfy psychological needs for meaning, self-determination and social connection.

This is why gamification has been eagerly employed in many areas that connect in some way to your efforts in enrollment marketing.

Employee Recruitment

Some big companies have been using games to engage (and test) recruits for many years. 

  • Siemens’ “Plantsville” is a Sims-like game that allows players to experience the day-to-day challenges in the life of a facility manager.
  • Another similar example is Marriott’s “My Marriott Hotel,” which allows players to step into the shoes of a hotel manager.

Of course, the basic concept of gamification in the recruitment process doesn’t require companies to spend millions of dollars on developing software. 

  • As part of Google’s recruitment process back in 2004, the company created a sort of mathematical riddle “game.” It was designed for the kind of people they were looking for: those for whom solving a series of equations is fun. (I did not apply.)
  • The CEO of recruiting firm Oneinamil invites candidates to solve a mystery or puzzle to assess problem-solving skills and other traits.

While the primary purpose of these games is assessment in these scenarios, the added benefit is that it creates a perception of the company as enjoyable and fun. That’s where the broader marketing potential comes in.

Marketing Applications

In marketing, gamification translates into gamified content. This is distinct from content that is experienced passively (viewed, heard, read). It is experienced actively. It is meant to be played.

  • In the ‘80s, McDonald’s became a trailblazer in gamified content with its famous Monopoly game. The game of stamp collection for prizes encouraged a ton of engagement. Earlier fraud notwithstanding, it remains popular as an offline/online hybrid today. The game’s last run was in 2019.
  • Verizon Wireless made a game out of its whole website back in 2012. Users were rewarded with badges for engagements like commenting on articles and sharing content. The result was a 30% increase in browsing time recorded for half of their users.
  • In 2013, Ford Motors created an interactive TV show for social media called Ford Escape Routes to promote its new Escape model. Similar to an Amazing Race-style reality show, virtual players participated in the challenges. Ford’s gamified content increased Facebook likes by 600% and sales by $8 million.

These are among the flashiest, most expensive examples from previous years. Marketers obviously don’t all have the resources to create something like an interactive reality series. 

But we can all take away the lesson here. These companies have led the way in establishing the validity of the theory that games are powerful tools to help us reach marketing objectives.

Gamification in Higher Education

There are two primary ways that gamification has been utilized in colleges and universities: student retention and instruction in the classroom. Let’s explore some examples that I think can connect to and support our primary goals in enrollment marketing.


Gamification as a retention strategy can easily translate into mid-funnel and lower-funnel marketing content.


  • The University of California has gamified engagement in co-curricular activities. Students earn points and can win self-care prizes (stress balls, chamomile tea) when they take advantage of campus resources, read about stress management, etc.
  • Ball State University developed an app for Pell Grant recipients that awards points to individual students for activities like touring campus, studying at the library, etc., and for achievements such as making the dean’s list. It encourages group participation as well.
  • The University of Michigan’s Talent Gateway is another point-based system that encourages challenges with a focus on developing soft skills.

Adaptation for Enrollment Marketing

Retention is important, but why not also utilize similar tools in the pre-enrollment or even pre-application phase? 

A point-based prize system could be adapted to an event for prospective students. Activity awards could be applied during campus tours for prospective families. Applications of point-based reward systems are endless.


Even gamification within academic programming can be adapted into experiential content for prospects throughout the enrollment funnel.


  • Dr. Lee Sheldon of Worcester Polytechnic Institute began modeling his classroom on role-playing games (RPGs) in 2009. Students took on personas, tackled assignments in order of their choice and had to move up “levels” to “beat the game.”
  • When he was teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Kurt Squire helped design an astronomy video game called A Play in the Cosmos. The award-winning game “motivates students to participate in the process of scientific discovery” as instructors assess their understanding.
  • Barry Fishman, professor at the University of Michigan, incorporates the motivational principles behind video games in his courses – “players” get small rewards along the way, bigger ones for “winning,” many chances to try again, etc.

Adaptation for Enrollment Marketing

In some cases, the potential here is very simple. If professors at your school are using games in the classroom, consider letting prospects play. Give them a “free sample,” e.g. an introductory gamified astronomy lesson for aspiring astrophysicists.

More broadly, consider using the same motivational principles in any interactive experience. Give aspiring nurses a biomedical problem to solve, with plenty of chances, instant feedback, small point rewards along the way and a big win at the end. (Maybe something like the old Operation game?)

This doesn’t have to be as complex as creating a full-blown video game. You can utilize the principle with fairly simple email or website elements:

  • Surveys
  • Quizzes
  • Trivia
  • Guessing Games
  • Click to Reveal

The idea is to think like an instructor. Consider how you can make some of your content feel less like a high-stakes research exercise to inform a major life-changing decision … and more like a game. A small challenge. Instant gratification along the way. Winning at the end.

You know, fun!

The bottom line:

Gamification is a powerful tool with great potential for enrollment marketing innovation in the decade to come.

Does your school use gamification strategies? If so, tell me about it in the comments below.

If not, let’s explore how we might infuse gamification into your enrollment marketing strategy.

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