Game On! Digital Badges Convey Merit and Influence Consumer Behavior

By Eric Hollenbeck

Kunter Gunasti
The last time you traveled for work or vacation, how did you decide where to eat? Maybe you asked your hotel clerk for recommendations, or perhaps you followed the advice of a friend who raved about the café you “just have to check out!”

Most likely, you grabbed your smartphone and, just like millions of people do every day, opened up a location-based app or website and read user reviews on restaurants near you.

Electronic word-of-mouth platforms such as Foursquare, Swarm, TripAdvisor, and Yelp make it easy to quickly look up and read reviews for restaurants and other business from people who have already visited.

For years, platforms have been incorporating gaming elements, similar to those used in video game and software design, to motivate people and reward them for rating and reviewing local businesses. Users may earn points or stars for their reviews and “level up” the more they contribute. These gaming elements encourage more in-depth user interaction and engagement.

However, new research forthcoming in MIS Quarterly, coauthored by WSU professor Kunter Gunasti, shows how the presence of “gamification” elements—specifically badges, tokens, and other visual symbols of merit—can influence consumers’ perceptions about reviewers. How consumers feel about reviewers may ultimately affect their attitudes toward a business, and whether they intend to visit the business, say the researchers.

Badges signal legitimacy

In order to gain insights on the effect of visual symbols on consumers’ perceptions, researchers surveyed 404 people through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) marketplace.

Participants viewed both positive and negative reviews—either with or without badges displayed next to the reviewer’s profile. Next, they were asked to rank the reviewer’s experience, usefulness of the review, and their likelihood of visiting the business after reading the review.

Results revealed that when badges appeared in a reviewer’s profile, participants tended to hold those reviewers in higher regard than those who did not have a badge. “What we found is that when you have badges, people see you as competent and reliable,” says Gunasti.

Gunasti, who studies consumer behavior, says badges are visual icons that signify achievement and motivate users of the platforms. However, the study revealed that badges also affect those who are not active users.

“What is surprising from our findings is that people who are outside of the game also respect the badges and are affected by them,” says Gunasti. “It’s as if these visual tokens act as real credentials for the reviewer.”

Even more revealing, the study found, people may read identical reviews for the same place but still respond more favorably to the reviewer with a badge.

Visual cues can boost reviewer credibility

The impact visual cues have on consumer perceptions means badged reviewers wield an enormous amount of influence, even when the reviewer might not hold any real-world credentials—something of which businesses should be keenly aware.

“If you say positive things, readers have higher regard for the business. They are more likely to visit the business and recommend it to others. If the review is negative, users take it literally, and it can really hurt the business,” says Gunasti. “It all works through the reader’s perception of the reviewer.”

According to the paper, companies that capitalize on these effects can reap substantial rewards such as deeper engagement with consumers and increased customer loyalty.

“Companies have been focused on rewarding people to write the reviews, but since these (gamification) elements are having an effect on the audience, managers should pay close attention to who is writing these reviews,” says Gunasti.