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Gamification is the Marketing Gem Most Startups Don’t Explore

As an essential segment of human-centered design, gamification is the key to stand out for creating experience marketing, often for free. Airbnb is a great example of a perfect personal gamification case study.

Gamification is about using psychology to achieve extraordinary results for non-game environments.

As a marketing professional and design enthusiast for life, I see human-centered design as one of the central pieces of marketing. Yet, it’s only used extensively by a handful of companies and the best among them is Airbnb, the company with the concept that was once seemed impossible by the most acclaimed investors.

Gamification can play a major role to boost marketing as well as almost all departments of any business if human behavior is involved.

Just to boost the conversions, a company can use progress bars, invitation-only scarcity, and many more methods.

You need to know human psychology and create the game for it.

Gamification is one of the best art forms in marketing for companies to learn and master. As you use gamification extensively, then, it becomes your advantage over the majority of your competition.

Gamification is a term coined back in 2002 by Nick Pelling. The main purpose of gamification is to combine work with fun.

Gamification is also called “Human-Centered Design” by some.

Nick Pelling making a presentation at the Gamification World Congress in Barcelona.

Top companies such as Linkedin, Google, Disney, and Airbnb use gamification throughout their many processes.

Airbnb is by far the most exemplary company out there that uses gamification extensively. The reason is that the founders themselves are designers and they considered every little detail of the user experience and it could be perfected.

I have been an avid and loyal user of Airbnb both as a host and a guest since 2012.

How Airbnb Gamifies User Experiences

I want to focus on Airbnb as I am also extremely familiar with how it works. I stayed in so many places using Airbnb around the world.

I stayed in a castle with a big gate right by the river in Verona, Italy and I partied with the locals. I stayed in Maui, Hawaii with traditional decoration experiencing the culture.

I was also a host for 5 years and I had the chance to meet so many great people from around the world.

Hosts become entrepreneurs or partners of Airbnb as they are able to fully customize their solutions. Source: Design Studio

Airbnb is the company that uses gamification most comprehensively. It was founded by designers or design thinkers, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia and it’s clearly seen from the web and mobile experience design for both the guests and the hosts.

Interestingly, contrary to the perception, Airbnb has over 1500 engineers, which may sound odd at first since it doesn’t seem to be a high technology company, however, there is so much going on in the background that creates the beautiful experience design.

The Octalysis Framework is the most extensive gamification analysis tool, which is straightforward and easy to apply by breaking down the 8 main ways to gamify the process.

The Octalysis Framework for Airbnb. Source: Octalysis Group

Let’s look into how Airbnb approaches each.

Epic Meaning

It would look near to impossible if they asked anyone whether they would stay at a stranger’s place and yet, Airbnb turned this seemingly disadvantage into an advantage by expressing that we are all interesting and helpful.

I have hosted hundreds of people and I have been a guest maybe a hundred times and almost all I remember is good memories; meeting new and nice people from around the world and becoming instant friends because Airbnb is staying at one person’s house and that’s intimate.

This may be one of the biggest strengths of the Airbnb platform. If you have ever used Airbnb, then, you would be familiar with “Belong Anywhere” or “Live There”.

This simply makes the person want to go there and be a part of the experience. It’s such a strong statement that you can compare it with the “Just Do It” of Nike.

Just two words change the whole meaning of staying or booking a place into a wholesome unique experience.

It’s not a place, but a unique experience like a local. Source: Linkedin

Apart from the main idea, the branding also revolves around supporting locals and underserved communities through the sharing economy.

Also, living life to the fullest with experiences is a major part of Airbnb branding because who would want to stay at a regular hotel which is the same everywhere instead of staying at a local’s house and sharing experiences.


Airbnb improved its gamification in time and one of the most important values they added was adding the badge of Super Host for the hosts who perform extraordinarily.

A ranking model with a certain badge showing you have been exceptional is always a good motivator that hosts want to achieve.

Here, gamification becomes the competition to become the best version of yourself to achieve an exceptional goal.

This is automated quality control to reach new heights. Source: Octalysis Group

What I like about the entire Airbnb is that it’s designed to automate the control of all types of human behaviors.

Airbnb is a big data company checking all the parameters seeing the behaviors of all users and making sense of them.


Creativity is an important part of being a home or experience host. If you are a host you know that design and unique touches sell as well as the amenities and additional services.

In the last few years, Airbnb created contests that stimulate creativity for home design and people all over the world saw this as an opportunity to market their home designs.

An Airbnb home. Source: Love Exploring

If you are an Airbnb experience host, then, you know that offering creative and unique experiences that people want to tick on their checklist is an important part of acquiring new customers.

Stimulating creativity by giving certain incentives can create a company that innovation comes from the users giving them the right incentives.


Airbnb creates ownership of the business for its hosts by giving them the freedom to post their homes as a side income and edit their calendars and price points while having the ability to edit the photos and description for a totally custom profile.

This way, Airbnb hosts have become hospitality entrepreneurs in the best design thinking way possible.

Source: Travel Weekly

Social Influence

By most measures, Airbnb grew through an exponentially growing community.

As a community-driven business, guests gradually became hosts and the word spread extraordinarily through incentives such as sharing with friends to receive free credits.

Airbnb experience is personal and creates instant trust between strangers. Source: Loop Jamaica

Also, both hosts and guests are happy to meet new people from around the world and share experiences.

Unlike hotels, Airbnb brings the human-centered design to the experience and this brings a value that people love to share.

People share the experiences they love and creating the human-centered detailed design was key to Airbnb’s incredible growth.


The feeling of scarcity creates a sense of urgency, which stimulates the senses to move fast. Airbnb uses this in two major ways. One is saying that only a certain % of homes are available for the days and the other is saying that normally the particular home is mostly unavailable showing that it’s highly demanded.

Airbnb using scarcity to add urgency

This basic approach is used by many e-commerce platforms and businesses around the world. If the discount is only available for today, which is the main business model of Groupon, then, people have an urge to buy the product to not lose the opportunity.

Unpredictability & Curiosity

When you book a hotel room, even if it’s a great brand hotel, you know what you will experience most of the time. While Airbnb creates quality service with its rating system, it’s a fairly open platform for new experiences. I once booked a room in Istanbul because one of its photos had a disco ball in the living room. Another time, I stayed at a photographer’s studio in Milano. Airbnb opens its arms wide open for creativity.

Airbnb is also about personal connection. Even if the people aren’t extroverts, they tend to be more expressive and helpful than they would normally be because guests share their experiences in the reviews. In time, as people change with habits, hosts tend to become more familiar with strangers living in their apartments.


Airbnb has one of the most effective review and rating systems that create auto-control of 2 million listings and millions of guests. Both the guests and hosts review each other evaluating the key criteria, which are cleanliness, communication, accuracy, location, check-in, and value. If you don’t keep your rating over 4 stars for an extended period of time, then, your account can be suspended any time without notice.

If this doesn’t motivate the host, what does?


Overall, gamification is a truly human-centered design process. Airbnb uses it from all kinds of dimensions whether it’s boosting engagement, conversions, or auto-controlling the quality.

Every company can use these methods to gamify the business, marketing, quality control, or any department for that matter using the Octalysis method to bring fun to their relationship with their customers.

You can simply create multiple versions for a certain goal and then, test them with your customers and see which one is the best choice.

When you implement the right gamification steps, your customers embrace your culture and you are then able to boost your business using customer-generated value.

Gamification oftentimes requires deep brainstorming because there are so many parameters at play in a business, however, when you write down notes, design simple flow charts, and discuss with your team, you will eventually reach the point where your company takes a big leap having thought over human behavior deeply.

Gamification is a step up in marketing and so many companies can do a lot better thinking about how to implement it creatively.


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