Gamification Startup BigDoor Media Levels Up to Bigger Digs, Keeps on Hiring

Can a company that hands out digital coins make real money? That’s the idea at Seattle’s BigDoor Media, a growing startup playing in the burgeoning field of gamification. In case you’ve missed it—which is possible, since the phenomenon is really less than two years old—gamification is the video game-inspired idea that businesses can get users to stick with digital content by giving them virtual coins and other rewards.

So, if your teenage daughter checks in to her favorite celebrity gossip site for the third time in a day, she could earn some digital bling that can be traded in for real swag, like a T-shirt or free song download. Sharing that activity with her friends through social networks earns even more.

All of those virtual transactions allow content owners to collect more data about their users and keep them coming back, and open up new ways of collecting advertising dollars. And BigDoor not only provides the system, but actually plays the game itself. It’s free to implement for publishers, with BigDoor taking a cut of the virtual currency as it’s dispensed and when it’s redeemed.

“At the end of the month, we trade that in for real dollars,” co-founder and CEO Keith Smith says. “And if we’re doing our job right, we have added enough new sponsorship dollars into the overall economy where we’re actually writing publishers a check, instead of them writing us a check.”

Competitors include Bunchball, Badgeville, and iActionable. BigDoor didn’t actually start out in the gamification arena. As we reported in 2009, the original idea was to give online publishers a popup-oriented way of drawing data and selling ads. That was a few months before game designer Jesse Schell gave a now-famous speech about gamification, a talk pointed to as one of the key moments in kicking off the trend.

BigDoor is certainly going all-in now. The company has raised about $5 million, with investors including Foundry Group and Founder’s Co-op. After taking up increasing amounts of desk space on the main floor of the Founder’s Co-op/Seattle TechStars office in South Lake Union, BigDoor recently relocated to its own suite on the building’s main floor (the landlords actually had to take out a wall to get them in there).

Now up to about two dozen employees and 200 active customers, BigDoor is testing its gamification platform called “the engagement economy” in a private beta. That’s the main driver of the company’s growth, which includes an ongoing talent search.

“We’re pretty much going to bust out of this place already. That’s our next worry,” says chief operating officer Ring Nishioka. (Nishioka, Smith, and co-founder Jeff Malek are all veterans of Zango, the former adware company that grew quickly and crashed back to Earth over concerns about invasive software. Check out our original BigDoor profile for the founders’ lessons from that episode).

I stopped by the new office late last week to see what was behind all the moving and hiring, and hear what kinds of things BigDoor was learning about this new way of making money for online publishers. One of the first things I wanted to know was Smith’s response to critics who say that gamification is quickly becoming an over-simplified approach that amounts to just slapping points and little achievement badges on any conceivable online activity, to the point where it’s just more Internet clutter.

“Is this stuff going to get old? I think if everybody just had points and a badge on every single site, yeah it’s kind of like, ‘so what?'” Smith says. “And I think we’re seeing that with Foursquare now—Foursquare now is a million leaderboards of one.” Smith notes that Foursquare is … Next Page »

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4 responses to “Gamification Startup BigDoor Media Levels Up to Bigger Digs, Keeps on Hiring”

  1. Just want to suggest a correction.

    Gamification isn’t solely about giving users ‘rewards’ such as coins, nor are its routes entirely in video games. To describe it as such underplays the the effect that gamification can have in growing business.

    Gamification is much more about using the mechanics that exist in games – such as having a goal, having voluntary participation, getting continuous feedback, and having a set of understood rules – incorporating them within a business so that customers engage through a game process and thus (the argument goes) help businesses / services / websites grow faster.

    A good read on the subject that I’d recommend is Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal:

    • Thanks Paul! I was mostly trying to simplify the whole thing down to one clause for brevity’s sake in the lede, but you are correct that there are broader game mechanics/dynamics at play in the field overall. I hoped to include that broader perspective later on by linking to the Jesse Schell talk from DICE. But your description here is quite good.