I spent this past weekend with my siblings. Four of the five of us, plus my brother-in-law, spent a good amount of the weekend playing Words with Friends, Draw Something, and Scramble with each other. Now up until this point, I had mostly avoided mobile games. If I’ve got down time, I prefer to read. It’s not that I don’t play games, I do. I just wanted to keep my phone a game-free zone. That came to an abrupt end.
I don’t live near my siblings and now that I am back home, I am continuing to play with them. It’s addictive. It’s also a lot of fun. It’s a great way for me to have small interactions throughout the day with my family who I don’t get to see that often.
Last week, i read an article in the Journal of Product Innovation Management on social cognition. The article defines social cognition as the process by which consumers influence each other to adopt or use a product. Most academic research focuses on the attributes of consumers as catalysts for social cognition – think Malcolm Gladwell’s connectors and mavens from The Tipping Point. This paper, however, defines a framework for understanding what product attributes contribute to social contagion. I couldn’t help but think of this article when I suddenly found myself addicted to three new games. Let’s take a look at their model from the context of these games.
The social contagion article outlines three attributes that contribute to social contagion: product fecundity, product fidelity, and product longevity. Fecundity is a needlessly big word that comes from biology – here it refers to the capacity a product-consumer pairing has to influence other consumers to adopt or imitate the same behavior. Product fecundity includes the following attributes:
- Reach – do people come into contact with the product? Yes, I had seen all three of these games on Facebook many times over.
- Observability – do people see you using the product? – Again, thanks to social media, yes the use of these games are very visible.
- Intrinsic Persuasion – does its use intrinsically persuade others to use it? Yes, if someone starts a game and invites you to play, they are waiting for you to respond. Odds are you will play.
- Simplicity – is the product easy to explain? All three games are fairly simple and draw from other popular word or board games (ie. Pictionary, Scrabble, and Word Finds).
- Novelty – is the product new or innovative? In this case, the game concepts are not novel, but the ability to play anytime, anywhere via your phone with your friends and family is novel.
- Credible Source – is the information about the product coming from a credible source? Yes, you are invited to play by someone you know, most likely a Facebook friend.
- Publicity – is the message broadly distributed? I had heard of all three of these games long before playing and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of at least one of them.
Product fidelity refers to the ability of a consumer to use the product for its intended purpose. It includes:
- Trialability – is it easy for someone to try the product? Yes, all three games are free and easy to use.
- Simplicity of the behavior – can the product be used without frustration or error? Yes, each draws from a familiar game and is easy to use.
- Psychological risk – will using the product cause the user to feel bad, guilty, worried, etc? I suppose there could be some embarrassment associated with being bad at a game – this might be why it took family (and not friends) to get me to start playing.
- Social risk – will using the product cause the user to feel disapproval or be an outcast? Given how popular these games are, not likely.
- Formality – does the behavior need to be done in a precise or unambiguous way? Not really. There aren’t any consequences for being bad at the games and all three are fairly easy to learn. Draw Something, in particular, does a really good job of offering easy, medium, and hard options. It also has additional hooks like the letter choices and bombs to remove some letters to help you out when you get stuck.
- Negative consequences when done incorrectly – can the user be disadvantaged if he / she uses the product incorrectly? I could be teased by my family, but that’s going to happen anyway and isn’t necessarily a negative consequence. I’d say there might be some slight social embarrassment, but it’s easily overcome.
Product Longevity refers to the ability of a product-related behavior to be long-lived. It includes:
- Availability of the product and related resources – is it easy to access the product or acquire the things needed to use the product? Yes, it’s on my phone and with me all the time. Yikes!
- Social norm – is there social pressure for the user to use the product? Yes, my family plays constantly.
- Compatibility – does using the product connect with other behaviors the user does or wants to do? In this case, yes. I’d like to interact with my family more and this allows me to do so easily.
- Financial advantage – does using the product allow the user to save money? Nope.
- Invariance – does the product encourage the behavior to recur over and over again? Yes, did I mention the games are addictive? The three vary slightly in how they create addictive play. All three are turn-based, meaning you take a turn, then your opponent takes a turn, and so on. This means that people are waiting on you to continue so there is some social pressure to keep playing. Scramble also limits your game play by requiring coins to play, which are earned by letting time lapse. The intent is for you to buy more coins rather than waiting. But what it does for me is it encourages me to play as soon as my coins are maxed out so that I can start earning more coins again. This is probably the primary motivator of what keeps me coming back for more. It’s evil.
- Self-justification – do the components of the behavior mutually support each other? I’d say yes. The more you play the better you get, the more you want to play.
Within five minutes of playing any of these games you can see why they are fun and addictive. Add in the desire to connect with people I rarely see and you can imagine that I have a lot of mobile gaming in my future. I’m not surprised that Zynga has nailed most of these elements and I’m happy to see that the academic research is starting to focus on product attributes and not just on consumer attributes. This framework is helpful for evaluating your product launch and adoption strategy but also for extending the longevity of a product lifecycle. This will be an interesting line of research to watch. If you want to learn more about this model, you can find the article I reference here:
- Langley, D. J., Bijmolt, T. H. A., Ortt, J. R. and Pals, N. (2012), Determinants of Social Contagion during New Product Adoption. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 29: 623–638. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-5885.2012.00929.x