From the April 2014 issue of Entrepreneur
badge-rewards.jpgThis is the time of year when business strategists are asked to give their take on the future of the web and online entrepreneurship in general. I've been asked no less than a dozen times between October and the end of December to prognosticate in writing about trends and predictions for the upcoming year. And to date, I've successfully dodged that literary bullet.

But since I'm writing today about game theory, I thought I might segue into that topic by predicting that 2011 will be just like 2010, with more of the same and some new stuff sprinkled in for good measure.

I know this sounds more like a cop-out than a profound prediction, but hear me out. In this New Year, I predict more businesses will employ game theory and gaming mechanics in an attempt to engage with and reward their customers online.

Not familiar with game mechanics or game theory? Ralph Koster, author of Theory of Fun for Game Design, says game mechanics are "rule-based systems / simulations that facilitate and encourage a user to explore and learn the properties of their possibility space through the use of feedback mechanisms."

In conventional terms, think earning rewards for swiping your credit or debit card or staying at a particular hotel or flying a certain airline. Unconventionally - and this is where my prediction comes into play - think affording your customers and prospects accumulating rewards in exchange for engaging via your website (i.e., points, badges, leaderboards, awards, etc.).

These rewards could be bestowed on those visitors who download a white paper, comment on an article or blog post (or tweet one of your blog posts), or share information about your product with a colleague via your web-based email forwarding system. They might get points or a badge just for signing up for your eNewsletter or scheduling and participating in an online demo or sales call.

Sounds great. But when it comes to creating such a system for your start-up/entrepreneurial effort, what's a fledging company to do? I mean, you're running a business here. What do you know about web programming -- or game theory and game mechanics, for that matter? Does it make sense for you to become an expert in that, as well? No, it does not.

Which is why I recommend working with a third-party GSP (Gamification Service Provider) -- perhaps one of these described below:

Big Door: This startup provides a platform that gives your site a simple means of offering badges, points and leaderboards to your customers. What that does is spark interest in visitors to your site, increasing user engagement, loyalty and viral growth. To ensure that engagement from users, Big Door utilizes a widget that appear as a "minibar" on your website.

Badgeville: Like Big Door, Badgeville provides the technological underbelly that powers a social rewards and analytics platform intended to pump up and maintain website interaction.

Bunchball: Also providing gamification services is Bunchball, which promotes participation, loyalty and revenue for such known-brand customers as Warner Bros, Comcast, Victoria's Secret PINK, USA Network, LiveOps and Hasbro. These corporate giants use Bunchball's Nitro gamification platform to create entertaining experiences for consumers and employees.

IActionable: This provider lets you create your own reward system, including achievements and how your customers earn points. You tell the platform what your users are doing and IActionable determines if they've earned points and follows their progress as they earn them via your website.

Reputely: Reputely utilizes game mechanics to ensure your company increases its user engagement, loyalty and revenue, offering solutions aimed at creating monetization and user acquisition and retention.