Ultimate Checklist to Gamify Your Online Course
The fact that you're here speaks to your commitment to your students' success, and I want to congratulate you on that.
If you just follow the 12 steps I've laid out below to create the kind of gamified learning experience that students will love and want to engage with.
And — completely obvious plot twist — the more of these you implement — the higher your student completion rate will be ... and the higher your levels of follow-on and follow-up sales too.
And when you consider that most "traditional" courses have a shocking 3% student completion rate, gamified learning is the surest path to generating serious CHA-CHING for your business over the long term, thanks to higher levels of happier, more successful, repeat customers.
To keep this checklist as valuable to you as possible, I've deliberately tried to keep it as "platform agnostic" as possible (in case you aren't yet using Xperiencify). But honestly, there are some things that only we do that make a big difference to students and I've mentioned some of those as well in this article.
One very important note before you dig in.
In this article, I won't be covering what you put IN your course — your curriculum. I figure you already have that covered. And if you don't, there are plenty of other articles here about how to design a great curriculum.
- How to Create an Online Course (& Make Big Bucks in 2022!)
- Cohort-Based Courses: The Future of Course Creation in 2022!
- Want to Create A Membership Site in 2022? Do It the Right Way!
Instead, I'm specifically covering how to add Gamification principles into an existing course (or a yet-to-be-created course) so you can get the results I'm talking about.
I hope you enjoy this checklist — let me know what you think and the results you get implementing it!
1️. Add Your Course Duration as a Countdown
Every video game design you'll ever see gives you some kind of time limit to get a specific thing done — whether it's to finish the level, defeat the enemy or just achieve a goal.
This has the effect of getting you focused, into action, and even feeling a little pressure to get things done in time.
And this is where most courses go off the rails immediately.
They don't give their students any sense of timeframe or urgency whatsoever.
Without fail, they're all "take as long as you want" kinds of experiences, which always sets students up for massive procrastination and, as a result, course abandonment.
Furthermore, our research suggests that the longer a student waits to take action, the more likely it is that they'll abandon a course.
That's why we recommend gamifying this by figuring out how long it should take an average student to complete a learning objective and setting it up as a visible countdown inside your course pages that they can see.
Note: You don't actually have to have anything happen when the countdown reaches zero. (You can just have it disappear if you like.)
However, in some free courses, we actually tell students that we'll be removing their access to it if they DON'T take action, which drives a crazy amount of FOMO-induced action to get through the course material.
This gamification technique has been proven to generate urgency for your students to take action from the very first moment they enter your course.
Corollary: Most course creators never set a time limit for their courses simply because they're far too large. (They're trying to all of the problems in their course — something we call a "kitchen sink course".)
Our advice is to make your course as short as possible by picking ONE single tightly-focused, painful problem to solve.
This is the key to creating a course that students will stick with and complete. And you can always create more courses that solve other problems, giving you more opportunities to help and profit.
2. Create a Course "Mission"
We humans are naturally hard-wired to love a finish line, especially when we know EXACTLY where it is and how to get there.
Video game makers figured out that they need to give players a clear and specific Mission right at the start, so they know exactly why they're playing their game and how to win it.
Here's an old-school example of one of my favorite childhood games — Karateka.
By the end of this story, we know exactly who WE are and exactly WHAT we need to do to win the game.
Another example: in a marathon, you know that you'll need to run 26 miles along a well-defined path to find the finish line. Plus you know in advance how you'll feel at that finish line: strong feelings of accomplishment, pride, happiness, and satisfaction. (Side note: knowing all of this will actually help keep you going when it gets hard.)
In other words: when we know exactly what we need to do to cross a finish line, how we'll feel when we get there, and how our lives might be different compared to now, it's so much more likely that we'll start taking action, and keep taking action.
But without all of that, you're probably not even going to start the race. And if you do, odds are that you'll probably give up when it starts to get hard.
OK, so how does this relate to courses?
To answer that, here's a screenshot of a course I once bought (with the name removed to protect the not-so-innocent), and it vividly demonstrates what most courses feel like to students; a seemingly-endless "wall" of course content with no finish line in sight.
This is a mistake that all-too-many course creators make. They leave students in the dark about:
- WHERE the finish line is
- WHAT it looks like
- HOW to get there
- HOW LONG it'll take to get there,
- How they'll FEEL once they get there, and what they'll have ACHIEVED by then
And when you do this, you're almost "forcing" your students to abandon.
But when you focus your course on a single "painful" problem with an inspirational "finish line" that people can really picture themselves crossing (collectively, a Mission), you'll inspire students to not just purchase your gamified course, but take action immediately and keep going until the end of your course.
Think of it like a "Big Why" behind your course that can keep students motivated to keep going — even when it gets hard or challenging — which is always going to happen.
To give you an idea, here are some examples of great Missions from my clients.
Pay attention to how clearly and vividly they describe the finish line that students can expect to cross, how long it will take them, and most importantly — how their lives will have changed by that time.
- Your mission should you choose to accept it, is to amplify your performance without sacrificing your sanity, your health/energy, or your relationships. In 12 weeks or less, reclaim your focus, accelerate your progress, get more done, make Time your friend and keep yourself and your loved ones a priority.
- Your mission should you choose to accept it, is to master a powerful life system to more easeful living, reducing stress overload by 50% or more within 6 weeks or less and continuing to expand in ease, resilience, and joy.
- Your mission should you choose to accept it, is to incorporate color in your home like a pro. In 4 weeks or less, you will learn how to create the ideal color scheme for any room in your home and create an environment where you can achieve your desired mood.
- Your mission should you choose to accept it, is to gain competence with online meeting solutions in 8 weeks so that you can confidently and effectively host and present in virtual meetings.
- Your mission should you choose to accept it, is to be part of the child-trafficking solution through trafficking awareness education.... So, you can help identify, prevent and protect vulnerable children.
- Your mission should you choose to accept it, is to increase your brand and online visibility and get your business on the first page of Google search results in 6 months or less so that you will reach your audience easily, get more clients and grow your business.
Can you see how these kinds of Missions do 3 things:
- help students imagine exactly what the finish line looks like
- tells them exactly what they have to do in order to get there, and
- keeps them focused on the Big Why behind why they're doing it in the first place?
When done right, it has a dramatic difference on your students when compared with traditional courses.
And as an added bonus: having a tightly-focused course Mission actually helps you identify the bare minimum content that YOU should teach to make that happen. This helps keep your course as short as possible.
A great way to create a customer-focused course Mission is to complete the following templated question:
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to... (you fill in the rest)
So, what's YOUR course Mission going to be?
3. Create Three Course Goals
A few years ago, Harvard University did a study on goals which showed that:
- 83% of the population doesn't set goals of any kind
- 14% of people have a general plan, but no specific, written-down goals to measure their progress
- And just 3% of people write down specific, measurable goals. And these people are THIRTY TIMES more likely to have success than the average person.
In other words, just having and writing down your goals actually has the power to make you up to 30 times more successful.
It can also transform students into unstoppable, achievement-seeking machines who can't be derailed, who always take action, even when it's hard or scary, and who never give up until they achieve what they set out to do.
And when you compare that with the typical online course experience where just 3% of students get results... it's enough to make you wonder why you never see goals in courses.
Well, we wondered the same thing, so we added some to one of our courses a few years ago. And what happened next completely rocked our worlds.
Firstly and most importantly, our students instantly got more excited about taking action! In fact, they even started posting selfies with their written goals in our Facebook group!
Second, a lot more of them started taking action daily, instead of dropping off as they'd done in the past.
Third, we started more & more students posting in our Facebook group that they actually hit their goal, which was incredibly motivating for ALL of our students.
And remember, all we did was add points and goals to our course.
But here's the thing about goals: they can be a little tricky to get right. Because to work well, a goal needs to be both reachable & worthwhile. In other words, the top of the mountain needs to be both inspiring while also being possible for everyone to reach.
The problem is that definitions of "worthwhile" and "reachable" can vary dramatically from student to student and it's actually impossible to set just one universal goal that's going to suit all of your students.
- If you set it too low, then some students are likely to achieve it quickly and not feel motivated to keep going and try to do even better, and
- Higher goals are going to feel overwhelming to others, and they may be more likely to abandon the course because it doesn't feel like success is possible
So what's the solution?
It's actually pretty simple. Just give students not one, but THREE goals at the start of your course: a minimum goal, a target goal, and a stretch goal. This allows you to set a range that will inspire everyone, from beginners to the most advanced. (Yes, I know there are four goals in the pic above, I'll explain that below)
First, let's talk about the Minimum Goal. There are 2 rules of thumb for setting minimum goals.
- It should match the big promise of your course. For our Experience Product Masterclass, our promise was to help students to design & launch an MVP version of their Experience Product in 12 weeks or less. So that was our minimum goal.
- It should be achievable if the average student takes the minimum recommended action in your course.
If you like, you can also think about your minimum goal as the "safety net" goal. A goal that you want everyone to be able to hit no matter who they are.
Here's another example from another course I have called Start With You.
The promise is to: "Discover the Business You're Meant to Build, Not Just the Business You Can Build — One That's Both Personally Fulfilling AND Financially Profitable".
In that course, the minimum goal is "I made my 'Get Started' choice".
Can you see how it's completely aligned with my course promise?
You just need to keep it achievable by anyone who actually takes action.
Here are more examples of great goals to give you some ideas.
- I made my first dollar online
- I reduced the back pain I was feeling by 50%
- I meditated 10 minutes each day
- I cooked one recipe successfully
Now let's talk about Goal #2 — the Target Goal.
You want the Target Goal to be an inspiring goal that most students would have to work hard to achieve. Perhaps it's a goal that won't feel possible to them initially — but it will almost magically become possible once the Minimum Goal has been reached.
Because here's the thing about people: they're capable of much more than they suspect possible and giving them a series of progressively more challenging goals will stair-step them up into more and more action, kind of like having a great coach who helps us stretch and grow far beyond what we ever thought possible.
It's exactly how games transform us from rank beginners into this:
Now let's talk about the third and final goal — the Stretch Goal.
I think of this goal as the "moonshot" goal — something that would really change a person's life if they hit it. In EPM we set the default stretch goal at $2,000.
Because that's the amount they paid to join our course and, in most courses, remember — 97% of students never get results, so this will be a huge outcome for most people.
The stretch goal is usually a goal that seems completely unimaginable for most students at the start of your Course, but then actually turns out to be imaginable and perhaps even achievable once they hit their minimum and target goal.
Now, once you have 'em, what dya do with 'em?
The best place to put them is right on your course home page, so they see it every time they log in.
Most course creators make the huge mistake of trying to sell their information as if it were the most valuable part of what they do.
But today's learners don't want information, they want results.
They want to be able to change their lives in a very specific way — whether that's solving a problem, achieving a goal, or both.
So, you're actually able to make a much more powerful promise in your marketing materials that will attract WAY more customers than the average course.
Over the last couple of years with thousands of students, we've found that
- get crystal clear about the goals of your course, and
- remind students of those goals over and over
... that's when the Harvard University effect happens.
... that's when they become 30 times more likely to get those results from your course
... that's when they become inspired personally, get motivated to take action and keep taking action to change their lives for the better, and become an ambassador for you (which actually helps you sell more courses.)
It just makes sense, right?
Extra pro tip: You can make reaching goals even more desirable by attaching prizes or points to their achievement! (I'll talk about this more in step 12 of this checklist.)
Extra extra pro tip: We decided to add a fourth goal for the highest of high achievers, and make that goal customizable by the student, so they can go as high as they want. We've had people set and achieve some pretty ambitious "Stretch Stretch Goals" during the program. Some have earned as much as $750K during our 12 weeks together!
4. Add a Very Specific Kind of Course Welcome Video
Most course creators make boring welcome videos containing a bunch of logistical information that makes students forget why they bought in the first place and possibly even regret making the purchase LOL.
Instead, why not make a video that inspires students, gets them excited all over again, and chomping at the bit to get started and tell everyone what they're doing?
As we've discovered, most courses don't have a Mission or Goals, which makes them uninspiring for students. Or if they do, they're mentioned one time, on the course sales page, but never again.
The best course creators don't do that. Instead, they repeat them over and over to keep students inspired and taking action.
They use them in the welcome video and inside each online training of their entire course. They're constantly reminding the student WHY they're doing this in the first place. And what's possible for them when they take action.
So, we recommend making your Welcome video with the following ingredients:
- Repeat the course's Mission (the student's Big Why)
- Tell your students the 3 Goals you have for them, encourage them to write down their own version of the goals, and post them to your community and/or publicly claim them
- Mention that you have a few surprises for them in this course, starting immediately below (see below for "pre-actions")
- Repeat the Mission again before ending the video
Here's one of our actual Welcome videos if you'd like to watch it:
5. Add Course "Pre-Actions"
Most courses don't make us feel like "winners". In fact, most are just a "wall" of endless content that overwhelms students and actually drives them away.
We call them Action -> Action -> Action -> Action -> Give Up kinds of experiences.
But what if your course could be more like a game, where even the smallest steps are rewarded in some way, triggering the release of dopamine, which leaves students feeling more accomplished, happier, and more motivated to want to continue?
In other words — Action -> Reward -> Action -> Reward -> Action -> Reward experiences?
When you can do this, our experience shows that students will automatically be 10-30 times more likely to make it to the end of the course.
Games are expert at this. Do you think they start you at the hardest level so you feel like a loser? Heck no, they give you the easiest "wins" possible, so you feel like a winner. Here's level 1 of Dance Dance Revolution that I showed earlier:
You want to do something similar in your course and get students into a virtual Action > Reward cycle that can give them momentum.
You can do this by giving students easy ways to take action and earn points right from moment one of your course, so they feel like "winners" right from the start.
Here are some "easy win" ideas for a course:
- Join Our Facebook Community (1 point, with a "cha-ching!" sound effect)
- Grab a Notepad to Record Your Ahas! (1 point)
- Introduce Yourself on This Post (1 point)
- Bookmark This Membership Site (1 point)
- Add Our Email Address to Your Allow List (1 point)
- Post a Selfie Showing Your Goals (2 points)
And by the time they get to the actual content of the course, they already have points, they're feeling great and they're ready for more.
6. Add a Course Welcome Celebration
We're now at the stage where every single person who buys your course has probably bought other courses in the past. So, they know what to expect.
And that's the problem.
When the brain thinks it knows what to expect, it gives itself permission to "turn off", which is dangerous for you and your course. (Students who are in that mode don't take action, don't learn well, abandon courses quickly and request refunds.)
That's why creating "pattern interrupts" for them in your course to interrupt their expectations is critical — and it's why we added video-game style Celebrations to our courses.
When new students join our courses, the first thing they see is an animation with music and text, welcoming them to the course. This opens their minds to the idea that they don't actually know what's coming next, and that this experience will be different.
And when you can do that successfully, it's much easier to create a new future for them.
7. Allow Students to Welcome Each Other!
Feeling seen, recognized, and acknowledged is a key part of your student’s experience in your course and gives an immediate sense of community.
Here's how we do it in our courses:
- When your student joins, all students who are logged in will immediately receive a pop-up notification, letting them know that a new student has just joined, and inviting them to “click” to send them a welcome.
- When someone clicks, the newly-joined student will see this:
- If the new student wishes, they can click on the popup to send a thank you back to Marie
While a small gesture, it makes all the difference when it comes to creating engaging course environments where students don't feel isolated, and a powerful feeling of community that they'll want to come back to over and over.
8. Award Points for Taking Action
In apps & games, every little thing you do — every button press, every action, every powerup, every enemy you defeat — is rewarded & celebrated in some way, with points, wins, celebrations, and more.
And when you have lots of them, you always feel like you're making progress, and achieving something.
Like you're moving forward.
These kinds of "constant wins" are unique to video games and this is why the more you play, the more you get addicted.
With such an effective experience to model, it's mind-blowing that most courses don't model this approach of quick and easy wins with quick rewards, ramping up into more challenging wins and bigger rewards as the player progresses.
In fact, they do the opposite: they ask you to do ALL of the hard work of the course before you get your first reward at the end — which is the final result of the course that you paid for.
(Remember the "Action -> Action -> Action -> Action -> Give Up" effect I mentioned earlier?)
That's why each & every piece of training content needs to come with a few "wins" attached. Here are some ideas.
- Win #1: The first win should recap the training to refresh our student's memory. They check it off, they get the points, the sound effect, the visuals. And they feel satisfied that they've made more progress. You can call this win anything you want that makes sense. Name ideas could be: "Recap", "The Bottom Line", "Brass Tacks", "Overview". And we have the checkbox labeled "Watched It!" that's worth 1 point.
- Win #2: Next, give your student a relatively small implementation action to take that's based on what they just learned. We usually call this win "Your Next Step", and give it 2 points. We do that because we want to reward action with more points than simply watching.
Feel free to give up to 4 wins per training if you want to get your student ethically addicted to taking action.
Aside: You might not have created actions for your training, so I highly recommend you take a few moments to pull out the action items for each one. The more "wins" you can give students, the more likely they'll keep taking that action!
9. Add "Variable Reward" Moments
Do you know the secret of Las Vegas?
Back in the early days, they discovered that while winning was of course the reason people gambled, it wasn't actually the most addictive part of the whole experience.
No, it was actually something called Variable Rewards.
In simple terms, Variable Rewards is when the same actions can give different results. Like putting your money on red twice in a row. You have no idea whether your life is about to change for the better or the worse.
Turned out that this was the most addictive part of it all. The not knowing what's going to happen next. Not knowing what's just around the corner. The sheer.... variable-ness of it all that pushed our reward buttons the MOST.
And since that discovery, rates of addiction in gamblers have just kept growing, as the game masters have honed their craft over time.
Fast forward to the late 1990s. Silicon Valley, on the hunt for fresh ideas to increase screen time in their apps, steals this idea of variable rewards and applies it to their brand spanking new social media apps, and other games, over time making them more and more addictive.
But it's never been applied to online education or online learning. (At least, not until we did it.)
Imagine giving students things like:
- Random extra (or more than expected) points
- Random new sound effect
- A random, not-seen-before animation or celebration
- A surprise gift, prize, badge, or award of some kind
- A congrats GIF on the page at the right moment
- An unexpected text message or voice mail
The more you build in random-seeming moments AKA "easter eggs" inside your course, the more students will love the experience, the more action they'll take, the more ethically addictive your course will be and the more they'll tell others about the learning experience.
10. Add "Private Recognition" Moments
The Hawthorne effect essentially says that we do better when other people are watching us, and it's the same for your students. When they feel like you're watching their progress and that their success matters to you, they try harder and do better.
So, go ahead and choose a few key moments in your course where you'd like to reach out privately to your student to congratulate and recognize them for the action they're taking.
For example, the moment they complete the very first training of your course. Why not send an email congratulating them. Or drop a text message onto their phone. Or DM them.
11. Add a "Student Rescue" Campaign
No matter how much of this you implement, the sad fact is that you're still going to have at least some students who disengage and slip away at some point.
You're never gonna save them all, and it's your job as the course creator to be prepared for this — because it will happen — and be ready to offer them a helping hand at just the right moment.
Perhaps it's happened to you?
Think back to the last course you bought.
There was likely a moment in time in there — in between you buying it and abandoning it — when you completely intended to go back. To restart. To get back into action. But... you didn't. And the more time went by, the more you emotionally disconnected from the course and from getting the results you wanted.
And what usually happens at this point in the typical course experience? That's right — nothing. Nada. Silence. Crickets.
That's where our student rescue campaign comes in — the Experience Engine allows you to detect those students who are in danger of dropping out and rescue them automatically before it's too late.
In fact, the course creator literally has NO idea you're feeling this way. And they have no idea you've exited until — perhaps — much later. If ever.
All they know is that students are coming in the front door, and then disappearing at some point, never to buy again and never to refer anyone.
But what if, in that moment, before you left, the course creator reached out to you with 3 simple words:
Is everything OK?....
A few years ago, we sent a short email with the "Is everything OK?" subject line to one of our students when we detected that she was in danger of abandoning our course. It was written by us but sent automatically when our system showed that she hadn't logged in for over 2 weeks.
And that personal (yet automated) outreach actually inspired her to not just come back and re-engage with our course, but do so in an even more powerful and committed way.
In fact, she ended up making a quarter of a million dollars by the end of her time in our course thanks to us. And that's not even the best part. After the program ended, she came back and enrolled in our year-long Momentum business coaching program that starts at $15,000. And then she enrolled again. And again. All in this student who was about to drop out has now invested $56,576 with us.
But money aside — here's what happened in Jennifer's own words:
"My biggest aha! moment was when I received a personal email with an incentive to get caught up. I got back on track because someone cared that I was falling behind. This is where the dozens of my other courses would have ended for me. Thank you so much for the nudge to keep going."
When they feel like you're paying attention, that you care, that their experience matters to you, and they're not just numbers to you — that's when students feel empowered to keep going, to keep taking action, and get to the end of your course.
Since then we've automated the entire process — and the Xperiencify platform itself reaches out on our behalf to save students who are in danger which saves us hundreds of thousands each year in refunds and missing repeat sales.
NOTE: You can run this campaign manually too if you can get access to your student activity logs to determine who's in danger of abandoning, and then reach out.
12. Add Graduation & Mission Accomplished prizes
We always offer "Graduation" and "Mission Accomplished" prizes to our students to incentivize them to finish our courses and to reward them when they do!
Using this gamification strategy, we've collected 1,963 success stories in just a few years for Experience Product Masterclass with these gamification techniques.
- "Graduation" is when they simply complete 80% or more of the content of the course. When that happens, a button appears inside our course platform that they can click to claim their Graduation prize, and super important: we ask them to submit their story in order to claim it.
- "Mission Accomplished" is when they achieve the minimum goal of the course, which is simply to launch their 1st Experience Product. When they check off the goal, a button appears allowing them to click and claim their prize — which is a lifetime license to call their new course an "Experience Product", which is trademarked by us.
So that's it!
I hope these 12 gamification steps have helped you to better understand some of the easy ways you can add gamification elements to your online course in a way that will maximize learner engagement, motivation, and completion!