3 Lessons on Behavior Change from Pokémon Go

The standard fitness tracker calls for 10,000 steps, but a 2010 study found that the average American only takes half as many paces per day: 5,117. Of course, that research was conducted well before Niantic launched Pokémon Go.

 Ever since the augmented reality game exploded into our lives more than a month ago — it remains close to the top of the iOS app store, with a related Pokémon radar detector not far behind — it seems like it's all anybody in the industry is talking about. But while many of the conversations are about location data, what about the fitness tracker data? As people try to collect eggs and battle in PokeGyms, they're moving around a lot more.

Looking at data from 35,000 users, the founders of Cardiogram, an Apple Watch app that analyzes heart rate, found a surge in activity during the weekend Pokémon Go launched. On Wednesday, July 6, about 45% of users were getting at least half an hour of exercise per day, a number that's been fairly consistent over the previous few weeks. But that Saturday, July 9, about 50% of users were exercising 30 minutes or more. On Sunday, it rose to 53%.

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Though every Cardiogram user may not necessarily be a Pokémon player, the game is popular enough that it can't be a coincidence. Similarly, Jawbone data shows that people mentioning Pokémon Go in their comments have been walking 62.5% more than usual.

One of Cardiogram's co-founders compared the spike in activity to that first week in January when diet- and exercise-related New Year's resolutions are at the top of mind.

In becoming what might be the stealthiest health-related behavior change app, Niantic didn't seem like they were trying to make people change the way they acted — they just did. How?

1. They made it about the experience, not about the money.

When it comes to changing behavior, every marketer talks about putting the customer first, but in practice, a lot of marketers fail to put their money where their mouths are. There are far too many products and services — created by brands — that prioritize sales over experience. Because those games are typically so branded and obvious, they're rarely fun. In developing Pokémon, Niantic took the opposite approach. It created an enjoyable game first, and then developed ways to generate revenue.

Just because money came second doesn't mean that Niantic wasn't hoping to make any. It has — the game has reportedly been earning about $1.7 million each day just from Apple devices in the U.S. That's not factoring all the other countries where the game is available, such as Japan, where developers discovered another revenue source: sponsored locations. Within weeks of the game's launch, more than 3,000 McDonald's locations throughout the country became PokeGyms.

The point is, Niantic didn't handicap the experience on the quest to make money. The developers created a great experience and then made it financially sustainable, which echoes the trajectory of social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. Creating a great experience, establishing scale, providing utility, and becoming a part of people's lives were the initial priorities. After that, they figured out how to monetize it. Without all those other elements, what they were creating was worthless.

2. They listened to their people.

Pokémon Go may have exploded in popularity seemingly out of nowhere, but Pokémon has been around for 20 years. The game had a history and an enthusiastic fanbase — Pokémon tweeted a picture of three costumed trainers at Pokémon's National Championships a few days before the game went viral and still got 1,600 likes.

If you're a brand marketer, chances are, your fans are out there. But do you know why they love you? Or what you are doing that really excites them? If you're not doing so already, listen to them!

Knowing the answers to these kinds of questions will help guide how you go to market and ensure you don't try to create an experience or product that nobody cares about in the first place. Think about the data you have (or need) that can help you to better understand what makes your loyalists tick (and why they're loyalists in the first place). Are there behavioral patterns of success based on past performance? Attitudinal or emotional in the words they use?

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These data inputs are a critical part of the creative process, as is being open to exploring the unexpected places that the data may take you. Last year, for example, when we at Wunderman Health were helping take GlaxoSmithKline's Flonase Allergy Relief over-the-counter, we had no idea how much our loyalists liked animals. After running an activation in the spring, however, and looking at performance and consumption data on all the content we created, it became obvious. So much so, that we worked with our clients to create another activation in the fall that was only about pets and the results surpassed everything we established in the spring.

Lastly, and especially for a health brand, if you're asking for and collecting this kind of data it's important to be transparent about why you are and what you're planning to do with it. At launch, some Pokémon Go users inadvertently gave the app access to their entire Google accounts. While that has since been rectified, it no doubt raised questions about trust and privacy. Imagine how you would feel if the same thing happened with your health data.

3. They created scarcity and made it competitive.

Creating some kind of reward increases the likelihood that people will change their behavior, but that reward doesn't have to be a tangible thing. It can be as simple as beating your friends. Look at Fitbit, for example, and how by introducing a competitive element (tracking steps), the brand got people excited about something as mundane as walking.

 The “special sauce” of Pokémon Go is scarcity. By limiting the availability of certain Pokémon, it feeds into the human desire to achieve something challenging and also to have something that's rare. All of this results in a more competitive and addictive game, which not only leads to greater bragging rights and social engagement, but more game participation and physical engagement.

Changing behavior is really hard, but Pokémon Go has shown us how effective games — particularly ones that are fun, rooted in insights, and put the customer experience first — can be both a motivator and a tool. What's most impressive is that Niantic wasn't trying to change anyone's physical behavior. At least I don't think so. The developers simply created something that was fun and competitive, and people were motivated to change their behavior, be more active, and, ultimately, a little bit healthier, as a result.

William Martino is managing director at Wunderman Health  in New York.