How to Gamify an Online Course with Octalysis

It might go without saying, but if you’re an educator, thought leader, expert, consultant, coach, or business owner who wants to make an impact and grow your business, then your number one job is to get your ideas out into the world as effectively as possible.

After all, it’s only once your ideas are out there in other peoples’ hearts and minds that you have a chance to be part of a larger conversation, influence opinions, and start to bring the massive positive change you’re here to make.

Plus when you’re a part of the conversation, your thinking evolves, your ideas improve, and you inspire people you’ve never met to create a movement around your ideas.

The most common ways to get your ideas out there are blogging, books, talks and speeches, podcasts, and social media. 

But lately, I’ve been digging more and more into courses as a way to bring more people into my business and immerse them deeply into the world of gamification and behavioral design.

I’ve found that courses make it possible to train and teach in a deeper way that’s more effective than a book, a talk, or a podcast. Plus you can charge a lot more for courses and coaching programs than you can for books. Depending on the value you deliver, you can charge anywhere from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per unit, coming in while you sleep.

They’re not anywhere near as time-consuming as traditional consulting, because they’re assets that you create once that keep paying you for life.

And even better, courses give me an unparalleled opportunity to ascend the right people upward to my high-ticket gamification and behavior design certification programs and other premium programs in a way I simply can’t do anywhere else.

What I’ve just described is an incredibly leveraged and profitable income stream, but success actually hinges on a little-known factor that most people never think about when they create a course: the number of students who end up completing it.

You see, when most people set about creating a course, they never think about it from the point of view of student completion. In fact, it usually never occurs to most course creators that students would abandon their course.

But the statistics tell a different story. 

In fact, I was shocked to recently learn that the industry average course abandonment rate is actually well above 90% (with some studies even reporting numbers as high as 97%.) In other words, up to 97% of people don’t complete and get results from the courses they buy. 1

There are a lot of reasons why this might happen of course, but in my experience, it mostly comes down to the fact that “traditional” courses, in general, are not particularly gamified and don’t leverage much of the Octalysis framework to keep students engaged. And as a result, they struggle (and ultimately, fail) to keep students motivated, excited, and engaged.

And when this happens inside of a course (or any virtual or online experience for that matter), you set your students up to fail. They simply don’t have enough motivation to stick with it.

When students abandon your course, they miss out on their chance to benefit from your course (and from the massive benefit of your ideas.) And when this happens, they naturally won’t buy from you again, which means you miss out on the valuable chance to bring them into your world, and create a valuable customer for life.

If you have a course, and unless you’re applying what you’ll be learning in this article, then chances are good it’s happening to you, too — perhaps even without you knowing. 

So read on, because I’m going to do a deep dive into the “4 Phases of the Player’s Journey” how they apply to an online course, and how to apply the Octalysis framework to each stage, so you can reduce student abandonment rates by between 10 and 30 times, and increase your repeat sales, because happier customers always buy more.

The 4 Phases of the Player’s Journey

Plus, I’m also going to be introducing you to Marisa Murgatroyd and Murray Gray; the husband and wife team behind Xperiencify, a new software platform that’s bringing gamification and behavioral design to online education and courses in a way that really aligns with my ideas, and they’re doing it in a really cool way that I haven’t seen any other platform do yet. 

(In fact, I was so excited when I saw what they were doing that I joined their company as an advisor, and we collaborated on this article together.)

The 4 Phases of the Player’s Journey and Your Course

To kick us off — let’s talk about something called the 4 Phases of the Player’s Journey and how it applies directly to courses.

Just like I identified in games, online courses also have 4 distinct phases which students must pass through in order to maximize their engagement, minimize their overwhelm and get them into action while at the same time giving them much higher chances of completing the course when compared to regular courses (I’ll talk more about the differences in this article).

Those four phases of the player’s journey are Discovery, Onboarding, Scaffolding, and Endgame.

  • Phase 1 “Discovery” is where you’re getting paying customers in the door. This is where folks first learn about you and your course, when they buy into the “promise” of your course and make the decision to buy, and finally, make a purchase. Most established course creators do a reasonably good job of this.
  • Phase 2 “Onboarding” is the first real experience your students will have of your actual course material. Those first few moments are critical; they’re where you “train” students on how “to win” by making forward progress toward their goals. But it’s also where most courses really start to let students down.
  • Phase 3 “Scaffolding” is the main phase of the student’s experience as they go deeper into your course, get into the flow of taking action, making progress and feeling more and more successful.
  • Phase 4 “Endgame” kicks in once students get toward the end of the course and unconsciously begin to wonder what their next “challenge” will be.

Now let’s dive into each one, and I’ll show you in detail how to maximize results from each stage by applying the Octalysis Gamification Framework.

Octalysis Gamification Framework

Course Phase 1—Discovery

Welcome to Phase 1 of your course: Discovery.

This is the phase where your prospective customers and students find you and make the decision to enter your world. You might know it better as the “marketing” phase, and course makers will typically tap into a select handful of Core Drives to maximize the amount of students who join their courses.

In the Discovery phase, Core Drive 1—Epic Meaning & Calling is the most important.

If someone’s going to join your course, they first need to know how their life will change or be improved as a result of joining. Will they make or save money? Will their health or their relationship improve? Or will some other important aspect of their life be positively impacted? 

The more your marketing materials create an Epic Meaning or Calling by helping them to paint an inspiring and desirable picture of their future, the more attractive your course will become. In other words, the more effectively you tap into the big mission, calling, purpose, or “Big Why” that drives people, the more likely they’ll say “yes”, despite any doubts, fears, and internal resistance they may have.

When done well, it works like magic to motivate people to take action.

Here are a few great examples of how other course creators have used Core Drive 1—Epic Meaning & Calling in their course marketing to maximize the process of discovery:

  • From my own 14-day Gamification course, your calling is to “learn about human-focused design, the 8 Core Drives of human motivation, and how to utilize the power of Gamification to improve your life at work and at home.
  • For Murray & Marisa’s Start With You course, your calling 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!

If you’re looking for one of these outcomes, then odds are that these powerful statements will sound attractive to you, and make you consider joining.

Next, Core Drive 5—Social Influence is typically used to evoke positive feelings (once again) about how your life will change, just like Core Drive 1 did, but this time in a social context.

For example, you can use this to have your student imagine themselves being more successful to friends and family, more popular among peers, or moving upward in their social circles, and then help them to imagine how that outcome will look and feel for them when it happens.

Then there’s Core Drive 6—Scarcity, which is commonly used in the marketing phase to incentivize people to take action on opportunities that are limited in some way, either by availability, space, or time. For example, a course or program may advertise a limited amount of seats, spots, or capacity available. Or they may only offer it only limited times per year.

Finally, Core Drive 8—Loss & Avoidance is the most commonly used Core Drive in online marketing through liberal use of countdown timers at the top of sales pages and order forms giving a deadline to buy, to claim discounted price, and/or to gain access to specific exclusive bonuses. This Core Drive works because we tend to procrastinate making decisions, and then the desire to avoid losing either benefits or opportunities can drive us to take action.

Core Drive 6—Scarcity and Core Drive 8—Avoidance tend to rely on more “Black Hat” methods to induce action (which I’ve written about here.) While these drives are usually very strong in motivating action, they can quickly end up leaving a “bad taste” in our mouths because we can feel like we’ve lost control of our own behaviors.

That’s why you’ll need to balance it with enough “White Hat” Drives in the next three phases to keep students wanting, and feeling good about taking action. 

But unfortunately, most course creators aren’t skilled at using White Hat drives to keep students engaged and making progress, which partly explains the 97% abandonment rate I mentioned at the start — and that’s the reason I wrote this article.

So let’s now talk about Phase 2 and we’ll look at each of the Core Drives in turn, and explain how you can use them.

Course Phase 2—Onboarding

Welcome to Phase 2 of your course experience — Onboarding!

After students join, this phase is their first experience of your actual course. And not coincidentally, this is where traditional courses usually start to let students down.

To explain what I mean, take a moment to think about the last course you took and the experience it created for you.

  1. You were feeling excited, so you paid and immediately ended up at an impersonal “thank you” page that tells you to go and check your email. It’s already feeling hard, and you’re starting to wonder if you made the right decision.
  2. You check your email, and there’s nothing there so you start to wonder if you got scammed. Finally you check your spam box and there they are — a bunch of emails to look at. A welcome email containing a video that you need to log in to see. A login email containing an impossible-to-type password, so you can’t watch the video right away.

    And for many people, the first experience can be confusing and overwhelming, which causes many of them to decide to come back to it later when they have “more time”, which never happens for most people. (This scenario can cause more than 10% of your students to never log in and abandon your course, before they even get started!)

  3. Those who do log in are faced with a bunch of videos to begin watching, which again causes overwhelm, coupled with an insta-desire to come back later when they have more time. (Which again, usually never happens.)

Intermission: If a student makes it this far, usually by this point they’ve almost completely forgotten about Core Drive 1—Epic Meaning & Calling they originally signed on for back in Phase 1—Discovery

Because of that, and by this point, many students are now actively questioning the decision they made, and their brain is now helpfully dishing up all sorts of logical-sounding reasons to eject from the course. (“This is too hard / complicated “… “I don’t have enough time for this”…  “I’m not ready for this”… “This isn’t for me.”)

  1. Statistically, very few students are going to dive right into your course right away; and for those who don’t, this is the last time you’re going to see many of them. In fact, for every extra day that passes, the guiltier they tend to feel about not starting, and the harder it is to ever start.

This is, in fact, a pretty typical course onboarding experience, and it explains why so many people abandon the courses they buy. (Remember, on average, up to 97% of people abandon the courses they buy.) And when this happens to YOUR students, it can destroy any chance that they’ll ever buy from you again, which robs your business of repeat sales that are up to SIXTEEN TIMES more profitable than the initial purchase. 2

But what if you could turn your course into a super-engaging experience simply by tapping into the 8 Core Drives of Octalysis?

It’s actually quite simple to do, so let’s take a closer look at how you can “upgrade” your course using these ideas and what that kind of course could look like, and also how the Xperiencify software can help you automate it all as well.

Important: it’s important to understand that not every phase of your course uses every Core Drive, so we’re going to only spotlight the ones that do!

Core Drive 1—Epic Meaning & Calling

As we saw in the previous phase, Epic Meaning & Calling is a large part of why people buy in the first place. But typically, courses rarely refer back to it after you’re “in”, so it’s easy for students to lose the excitement and motivation they had back at the start.

That’s why video games always give you a mission in the onboarding stage and then show you your progress toward completing it at each step throughout. Here’s the welcome intro sequence from Karateka, an old-school video game from the 80s, which gives you a mission to rescue the princess.

Click to watch the video on Vimeo (opens in new tab)

What can we learn from this?

First, make sure you include your course’s Epic Meaning & Calling in your course welcome video and remind students of it in each training inside your course. 

This may seem like overkill, but here’s the thing — we’re all busy. We all have short attention spans. And the moment you allow your student to forget why they’re doing something, why it’s important, and why they need to prioritize doing it NOW is the moment your course goes into the non-essential bucket. And that’s the moment they’ll abandon (while promising themselves they’ll come back to it later.)

Second, I recommend you call back to your Epic Meaning & Calling by adding some clickable goals that come with points where you dangle a promise of their future state. 

In Marisa’s Experience Product Masterclass, they provide not one, but four goals for their students:

  • Goal 1: I Launched My Experience Product ✈️
  • Goal 2: I Made My 1st Sale 🚀
  • Goal 3: I made $2,000 or 3 More Sales 💰
  • Goal 4: I Made a Whole Lot More 💥
The 4 Goals of Marisa’s Experience Product Masterclass course

Why so many goals?

  • With only one goal, if you set it too low and students achieve it fast, they’ll get demotivated, and won’t have any reason to keep going. But when you set it too high, it can feel intimidating, which is demotivating as well!
  • Setting multiple goals allows you to set a range that will inspire everyone, from beginner to advanced, keep them taking action and achieving more and more success.

They’re displayed side-by-side on the course home page, and students see them over and over whenever they come back to the course. Attached to the goals are a good amount of points that can be earned, too, so students are constantly anticipating the moment when they check them off.

Do all of this and you can keep Core Drive 1—Epic Meaning & Calling upfront and center for your student which is going to be a super-important way to keep students wanting to take action, even when it gets hard.

Core Drive 2—Accomplishment

And now we come to Core Drive 2—Accomplishment, and unfortunately, most courses force students to wait until the very end of the course to feel anything remotely resembling accomplishment.

But the reality is that without a constant and regular supply of this emotion, it can get pretty difficult (or impossible) to stay motivated to keep taking action day after day.

The best way to allow students to start feeling a sense of accomplishment is to build in points into your course so that students can earn as they take action, starting from the very first moments of their experience with you.

Just like video games give you easy frequent opportunities to earn points to get players hooked, especially at the start, the most engaging courses should do the same!

Some course platforms now include the ability to offer points for your training content, but Murray & Marisa’s Xperiencify takes it further than other platforms by allowing you to customize your points inside each training, even offering multiple opportunities to earn points in a single training. 

Plus, there’s the ability to embed points literally anywhere you like — not just inside the trainings themselves. One thing they do that I like a lot is the ability to embed points on the course home page before the course content even begins, which allows you to get your students into action with a few quick and easy “wins” right up front, just like video games do.

Getting into action from a standstill is always the hardest thing for students to do, but providing up-front, easy “wins” helps to build momentum and confidence quickly, along with a feeling of accomplishment for their accumulated points.

On top of that, they take it even further by taking a leaf out of the video games’ books by allowing users to create “Celebration” screens that celebrate students’ progress at any predefined point — after they earn their first 10 points for example. 

Or after they complete their first training. Or after their first 2 trainings. Or after completing their first module.

Screen Recording 2021-12-31 at 06.20.42 PM
Example of an Xperiencify Celebration screen

Finally, you can place custom Micro-Leaderboards into your course that will show every student in the top 10 for something. Micro-leaderboards solve the big problem with most leaderboards, and when every student can see their name in the top 10 for something, they’ll take action to keep it there and move up the rankings.

Core Drive 4—Ownership

Another reason allowing students to earn points in your course will increase student engagement and action is Core Drive 4—Ownership.

A little backstory on why: starting in the 1980s, the very first industry to start offering points was the travel industry. Airlines, car rentals, hotels — they all started offering loyalty points to encourage repeat business. And it worked incredibly well to encourage both frequency and loyalty. But here comes the strange part: after earning their points, weirdly, most people began to hoard them — not using them nearly as much as expected.

In fact, according to a 2016 survey, only 15% of people ever redeem the points they earn!

So why is this? The psychology says that earning points is actually satisfying and fun for people, and once they have them, they feel more ownership and want to keep them.

So, the more you build things like points into your course, the more ownership students will feel once they begin earning them, and less they’ll want to abandon.

Core Drive 5—Social Influence & Relatedness

Next, let’s talk about how to use Social Influence & Relatedness in your course.

Most traditional courses are isolating experiences where students go through content alone, without any real connection with their fellow students. Courses built this way miss out on the power of potential to engage students socially, building a community that they’ll never want to leave.

Xperiencify is doing a few innovative things in this area that I love and hope other course platforms pay attention to.

First, there’s the “Warm Welcome”, the easiest way to help make new students feel seen, recognized, and welcomed the instant they join your community. They do this by popping up a small notification to any students who are online to let them know that someone new has entered the course, and actually invites them to “click” to send them a welcome.

“Warm Welcome” 1st notification

Once the student clicks to send a welcome, the new student will see a notification that they’ve been welcomed. And, they’ll be invited to click to send a “thank you” back to the welcomer.

“Warm Welcome” 2nd notification

When they click, the student who sent the Welcome will be notified.

“Warm Welcome” 3rd notification

It takes just a couple seconds for this “back and forth”, and it creates a wonderful moment of connection between the new student and the students who are welcoming them.

Creating community and a feeling of support and camaraderie among your students is one of the most powerful things you can do to increase your students’ success and engagement. With this immediate Warm Welcome, you’ll have them feeling excited and inspired from the very start.

Second, the Facebook Celebration, which builds on the “Warm Welcome” feature just discussed.

Many course creators like to use Facebook to host their student communities, and Xperiencify has implemented a custom-built app that posts a message from you, the course creator, directly into your community Facebook group.

Xperiencify’s Facebook Welcome example

Examples of how to use it:

  • Welcome students to your course
  • Congratulate them for completing something hard
  • For hitting a goal
  • For earning a significant amount of points, or
  • For completing the course

The only limit to what you can do is your own imagination!

Real-world examples:

  • “Amazing news! Congrats to Sally who just hit Goal X. So so proud of what you’ve achieved. Can’t wait to see what’s next for you!!”
  • “Just saw that Mark joined us in Start With You! Pleased you’re with us!”
  • “Wow – we just got word that Sally hit the minimum goal in 60-Second Sales and made her first sale! CONGRATS Sally!”

Congratulating and recognizing students publicly offers three huge benefits for your course and students:

  1. Your student feels amazing because they’ve been recognized by the creator of the course for doing something awesome, they get likes and comments from the community, and they end up taking even more action, which will lead to even more success!
  1. As more and more members have “visible” success in the group, your community will get more and more fired up, and take more action as a result, which feeds the “success cycle”, leading to more success for everyone!
  1. You end up with so many more successful students who become customers for life, along with sweet testimonials that you can use in your sales and marketing! You can add as many variants as you want for a specific post, so your posts look and feel more customized and personalized each time. (Each post can have its own custom and completely different message and image.)

Core Drive 6—Scarcity

In Oren Klaff’s book Pitch Anything, he explains the concept of “prizing”, and how it ties into three fundamental behaviors from our “crocodile brains”:

  • We chase that which moves away from us
  • We want what we cannot have
  • We only place value on things that are difficult to obtain

That’s why a course that has all its content available the first time you log in is a lot less attractive to you than a course with only a single training that’s open, and the rest locked.

When you understand that we want what we cannot have, it makes sense.

Xperiencify is leveraging this Core Drive to create more engagement from students through its pioneering use of its unique “Binge Mode” feature which releases the next piece of content to you immediately you finish the previous. (Think Netflix!)

So that means, as your student finishes the first (and only) training in your course, they might receive a popup announcement that the next training in the course has just been magically unlocked for them (and only them) because they’ve taken action.

Releasing content in this way has been shown to motivate students to watch an average of five times more training material in a single session compared to courses where all the content is immediately available. And that makes sense when you accept that, as Klaff states in his book, we naturally tend to assign more value on things that are difficult to obtain

Core Drive 7—Unpredictability

Unpredictability is something courses usually don’t do well. 

Usually, students log in and see dozens of hours of talking-head video content and they know exactly what to expect. And biologically, when the brain thinks it knows what’s coming, it “tunes out” and goes into a kind of “autopilot” mode to conserve energy.

Here’s an example of a course I bought (with the name removed) that left me completely tuned out and uninterested to the point where I logged out and to date, I’ve never been back.

Example of a course that I bought that I never went back to

When students are in this “autopilot” mode, they’re less able to learn, less able to implement, and less likely to stick with your course when compared with students who are engaged, focused and excited.

That’s why I recommend inserting a good amount of “Easter Eggs” into your course that break the pattern of what your students are expecting.

An “Easter Egg” is a concept from computer games where the game makers would hide unexpected or surprising things in their games for players to find.

One way to do this is to “bake” it directly into your training content by using surprising images, animated GIFs, sound effects and other surprising elements that your student may not be expecting. 

This literally makes the brain stay in a hyper-alert, ultra-engaged mode because it’s on the lookout for the unexpected; for potential threats and dangers. And this is the state you want your students in for as much time as possible.

But what about some ways to do this in the course platform itself?

Xperiencify makes it easy to do this.

Screen Recording 2021-12-31 at 07.25.47 PM
Easter egg example

Core Drive 8—Loss & Avoidance

And now, the final Core Drive in the “Onboarding” phase of your course — Loss & Avoidance.

As we’ve already discussed, Loss & Avoidance kicks in when we feel compelled to take action to avoid losing something that we feel ownership over thanks to an investment of time, effort, money, or other resources.

But it’s something traditional courses struggle with — especially in the onboarding stage when they typically give students too much, too quickly.

One great way to counter this in a course is to give your students a fixed amount of time in which to get through the course. For example, if your course happens live over 12 weeks, you could put a countdown timer at the top of your course home page to let students know that they’re on the clock. 

Here’s an example from Marisa’s Experience Product Masterclass:

Example of using a countdown to trigger Loss & Avoidance in a course

If your course isn’t a cohort-based, live experience, I still recommend giving your students a recommended amount of time in which to finish the course. Even if nothing happens at the end of the countdown, the mere fact that it’s present will unconsciously increase student action-taking.

This technique works like magic to instill urgency into course experiences that typically have none.

Course Phase 3—Scaffolding

Welcome to Phase 3 of the student course experience — Scaffolding!

In the typical course experience, this is where most of the students that are left will drop off — somewhere after the onboarding, but before they make it to the end.

I like to call this period the Work > Work > Work > Work > Give Up phase because that’s how most students experience it.

But when you leverage the Core Drives in the way I’ll show you below, you can turn your course into a Work > Reward > Work > Bigger Reward > Work > Even Bigger Reward > Work > Huge Win! experience that students will LOVE and want to engage with.

This is where students will drop into a flow, get into their groove, and start to accumulate as many win states as possible in their journey through your course.

Core Drive 1—Epic Meaning & Calling AND Core Drive 2—Accomplishment

Once into the scaffolding phase of your course, students are taking more and more action. 

But it’s also where they start bumping up against their growth edges, and just like a video game, it’s when things usually start to get harder and more challenging. When we’re growing, changing, and evolving, it’s easy to find ways to self-sabotage. And it’s a big reason why so many people abandon courses mid-way through.

And many experts don’t understand (and underestimate) just how challenging their course curriculum actually is for students. (After all, it’s easy for us, right?!)

That’s why Core Drive 1—Epic Meaning & Calling never goes away. In fact, it gets even more important in this phase, because it aligns with your students’ Big Why. 

When someone’s Big Why is big enough, it can keep them motivated and taking action FAR beyond where many others would have given up. For example, someone who’s just had a heart attack is hundreds of times more likely to complete a course to improve their health than someone who’s just curious. They have a BIG reason why it’s important to them.

By this phase, if you’re leveraging the Core Drives and keeping their Big Why in front of them, students are starting to make enough progress that they’ll begin to visualize the finish line. They start to see it, taste it, feel it, and in some cases even begin to dream about it.

And thanks to their constant progress toward the finish line, their feeling of accomplishment starts to really skyrocket — which is Core Drive 2—Accomplishment. When that happens, it leads to a feeling of unstoppable momentum that can keep them taking action, even when things get hard. Accomplishment always leads to more accomplishment.

Core Drive 3—Accomplishment Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback

In other articles, I’ve mentioned that some of my fondest memories growing up are of when I got to play with Legos. There’s something magical in the process of forming, destroying, and re-building basic building blocks in an infinite amount of combinations, and that’s Core Drive 3—Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback in action.

But it’s usually never used in courses, simply because most courses are pre-recorded, immutable, and unchangeable. There’s no way to affect anything, or have your actions trigger meaningful feedback from the system. Your journey is pre-set, pre-ordained and that can be demotivating to people. 

On the flip side, we’re much more positive about experiences where we have a choice, or can affect a different outcome. When you’re able to be creative, have a choice, and affect how an experience turns out, you’re so much more likely to want to engage.

So, imagine my delight when I saw how much thought the folks from Xperiencify have put into this Core Drive!

One of the most successful techniques in this Core Drive is the “Milestone Unlock”. When people play games, they often set an internal stop time in the form of a milestone: “Let me beat this boss and then I’m done. “I’m close to leveling up, let me level up and I’ll stop.”

Typically, you can’t do the same in courses, since the content is either all dropped at the same time, or dripped over time.

As I mentioned earlier, their “Binge Mode” is where you can unlock or drop a new piece of previously-locked content immediately when the previous piece has been consumed, which keeps students going far beyond the point when they would have stopped.

“Binge Mode” example

This behavior reminds me of the now-famous Netflix feature that automatically starts the next episode without you lifting a finger. And before you know it, you’ve finished an entire series.

Second thing they do well is the “Poison Picker” technique which allows you to “choose your own adventure.” Studies have shown that people like something more when they’re given a choice.

“Poison Picker” example

Creating custom content tracks like this allows your student to feel involved in their own learning journey, and also to follow their passion. The choice itself doesn’t necessarily need to be meaningful, as long as it helps your students feel like they’re empowered to make a choice.

And one last way to embed and benefit from this Core Drive is what I call the “Student Rescue”. No matter how good your course is, and no matter how many Core Drives you leverage to keep students engaged, motivated, and taking action, life is still going to take some of them out of the game. 

“Student Rescue” is how smart course creators use student action-based feedback to design a communication sequence to encourage students to return to the course if they’re detected to be absent for an arbitrary period of time — say a week, 2 weeks, etc…

Language learning app Duolingo uses this technique to bring you back if it detects you may have fallen off the wagon with your language learning routine, and it’s a powerful tool to incentivize and encourage students to jump back in.

Unfortunately it’s still a little challenging to do with courses because most platforms haven’t yet caught on to the importance of behavior-based design to influence student activity — but I was excited to see that Xperiencify has all the tools you need to do it built right in.

Core Drive 4—Ownership

During the Scaffolding phase, students continue to earn points which builds a feeling of ownership, and a growing desire to “collect them all”, just like in Pokemon. And when their feeling of ownership goes deep enough, it becomes a lot harder for students to quit. Nobody likes to walk away from things they’ve “earned” or accumulated through hard work.

But that’s where most points systems stop within educational platforms. There’s nothing more you can do with them and no larger meaning or purpose behind accumulating them.

That’s why the folks at Xperiencify have made it possible for course creators to allow students to spend points to receive prizes, gifts, or benefits, and even to pay them forward to others. For example, what if you could allow students to use points to receive discounts on enrollments in future courses or programs. Or perhaps “donate” points charitably to allow disadvantaged students to receive scholarships?

Focusing students on the bigger picture and ideas of giving back or paying forward can drive increased feelings of ownership which keep them invested in staying and contributing to help build a world they want to see.

On top of that, badges are a great way to reward students who reach certain key points in your course, take certain actions, or achieve specific milestones. Once earned, they attach to a student’s profile, and name, and are displayed whenever the student participates socially within the platform.

Like points, badges can stimulate an “ownership” mindset, motivating students (once again) to want to “collect them all”. Long-time students typically earn more (and rarer) badges than newer students, which increases their perceived status, while at the same time motivating the newer students to want to earn them too.

Core Drive 5—Social Influence & Relatedness

There’s an old saying that people pay for content, but stay for community. However, as we’ve already seen, most courses are isolating experiences where students never have the opportunity to connect with others in any meaningful way.

This is where Core Drive 5—Social Influence & Relatedness gives you the opportunity to create something different for your students.

We’ve already seen it start to happen thanks to the rise in popularity of “cohort-based” courses where groups of students start on the same date and work through the same content at the same pace while supporting each other. It’s critical to understand that relationships made through this kind of shared experience can easily become even more valued than the course content itself. When you understand and see the value in this, implementing this core drive becomes a no-brainer.

Cohort communities are a powerful way to build social influence and relatedness for students and can happen anywhere you wish. For example, on a Facebook group, within your learning management or course platform, or a standalone community hub or forum platform.

And you can take it up even a few levels more with Xperiencify.

As mentioned in the previous section, badges are a great way to reward students who reach certain key points in your course and can build a feeling of “ownership” in students, but they’re also a great form of social proof for each student to show their status within the community. Your long-term students will typically have more badges than newer students, increasing their perceived status, while at the same time motivating the newer students to want to earn them too.

The Xperiencify team are also working on a few other cool things that you’re going to want to check out.

First, their upcoming “Watch Party” feature, which is where you get to “premiere” new training content LIVE at a certain date and time by hosting a Game of Thrones-style watch party. Imagine students gathering together virtually to experience (and react to) your new content together. It’s a powerful way to create a fun “event” that people want to be a part of, together, that makes your course completely different to every other course out there. 

Plus, they’re also working on Popup Chatrooms — temporary rooms that pop up on demand, and then disappear just as quickly, allowing serendipitous conversations, spur-of-the-moment connections, and surprise encounters that would never have happened otherwise. Studies show that we connect more quickly and more deeply with other people in moments like this.

These are the kinds of experiences that deepen the community and strengthen social connections between students so they’d never want to leave.

Core Drive 7—Unpredictability

This is a big one because most courses are anything but unpredictable. 

Video after video with the same intro music. The same style of teaching. Whether it’s slides or a talking head — predictability is a major reason students will switch off, tune out, forget everything that you just said and maybe even close your tab and never return.

But there is a solution to turn even the driest, technical, or “boring” subject into an experience that students will love, and love to come back to over and over.

Take project management for example. Nobody could ever tell you it’s “exciting.” Yet, the Asana project management software is famous for its “Easter Egg”; having a unicorn jump across your screen from time to time randomly when you complete a task. It’s so fun and unexpectedly satisfying that you’re constantly on the lookout for it — hoping it happens.

Screen Recording 2022-01-01 at 03.05.19 PM
Asana’s famous flying unicorn easter egg

What if you could do the same inside your course?

When Murray from Xperiencify showed me how he creates his training content, I honestly found it awesome. Every 20-30 seconds, he throws in an unexpected visual and/or sound effect (from a site like which supports what’s being talked about. 

When you don’t know what’s coming next as you go through training content, the brain never gives itself permission to switch off and tune out, like it does with most courses, which literally empowers them to stick with your content.

When you do this, it’s a huge win for both you and them. And it’s remarkably easy to do these days using simple video editing tools and sites like and to find your animated GIFs and snippets.

To demonstrate this in the best way possible Murray has very generously offered to allow us to embed the entire first 20-minute training from his mind-bogglingly fresh Course Profit Accelerator. (Psst! At the end of this article you’ll have a chance to get this mini-course for FREE to experience everything we’re talking about in this article!)

Watch a few seconds of it to get the idea, but it’s so cool that you’ll probably end up watching the whole thing; it’s a literal masterclass in how to be unpredictable inside of your training content so that students actually pay attention!

Course Profit Accelerator training 1: “The Most Addictive Thing in the World”

Click to watch at Vimeo (opens in new tab)

While this is an incredibly powerful technique, there’s even more you can do to amplify this.

First, Easter Eggs!

Inside of their courses, Murray and Marisa added a bunch of celebration screens that pop up seemingly randomly. In fact, they often set up celebrations just to tell someone that they’re awesome, and they’re doing great!

When you have celebrations like this that pop up seemingly out of the blue, it taps into Core Drive 7—Unpredictability in a huge way. It’s surprising and can create huge positive emotions that will keep students coming back for more. 

Here are some great Easter Egg celebrations from Course Profit Accelerator I love… (opens in new tab) (opens in new tab)

And Murray tells me that they noticed an interesting phenomenon — once they introduced the feature, they noticed students in their Facebook group gathering to compare notes about where they’d found the “Easter Eggs”. 

Behavioral psychology says that you’re always going to have those students who want to “collect” them all because it’s fun and challenging. Those are the kinds of students you want more of!

What if there was an action that came with a randomly different amount of points? And a randomly different sound effect, like this: (opens in new tab)

Just do this a few times in your course and guess what? Students get really engaged and start actively watching out for the next one. And when your students are that engaged, they get into a flow, start learning at the top of their ability, take huge action, and most importantly, have a huge amount of fun too.

Core Drive 8—Loss & Avoidance

We saw in the previous “Onboarding” phase that countdowns work like magic to instill urgency into an experience that typically has none — even in situations where nothing really “goes away” or disappears when the countdown hits zero.

With that said, you can easily take it to the next level by actually taking something away when the countdown runs out.

For example, many games have time-sensitive opportunities that only pop up every now and again that you need to claim quickly or lose them forever. Applied to courses, what if content could be “lost” (or not earned) based on the student taking action within a certain timeframe (or not)?

In Murray & Marisa’s case, they have a course they both charge for and give away for free, but there’s a twist. They offer BOTH options to their customers at the same time, but the FREE option comes with a condition that you need to get through it within a certain amount of time, or you’ll automatically lose access to the content.

As you’d expect, 95% of people choose the free “use it or lose it” option, but because they’re on notice that they’ll lose the content if they don’t take action, in general, they take a LOT more action to protect the thing they got for free — classic loss and avoidance behavior.

That’s why this Core Drive is so effective.

Course Phase 4—Endgame

The “Endgame” phase is when players believe they’ve done everything there is to do at least once and are starting to feel like there are no longer unexplored “win states.” The best games usually keep players interested through this stage by adding expansion packs, new bosses, more characters or settings. 

But for the most part, they’re the same theme, just with a different location, difficulty, or with new enemies to fight.

In the context of a course, this correlates to them arriving near the end of the course, which can be a pretty disappointing part of most courses but there’s actually quite a lot you can do in this phase to keep students engaged.

Let’s dive in and take a look…

Core Drive 1—Epic Meaning & Calling

After having delivered huge value and solved a big problem for students, the most effective (and profitable) courses will use the Endgame phase to point out a new and bigger problem that students possibly now have, and are willing to pay in order to have solved — a new Epic Meaning & Calling that will inspire them to keep going.

Here’s a very simple example: a course that successfully teaches someone how to make more money will create a new problem for the student by the end. Namely: what should they do with all their extra money?

So while their first Epic Meaning & Calling was to become financially independent, to provide for their family and live in financial security — the new Epic Meaning & Calling given to them may be to create a legacy, pass wealth to future generations or help others.

So, with this thought in mind, what new and bigger Epic Meaning & Calling will their success in your course create for your student that they’d be willing to pay to create in their lives?

This is analogous to the game “expansion” pack or new levels that continue to provide students with what they need to stay inspired, engaged, and taking action. After all, life is a never-ending journey of evolution and solving bigger and bigger problems in our lives.

So what does this look like for you?

Well — what if near the end of your course, you could automatically make your students an offer for your next course — their natural next step in their journey with you? A simple example could be:

  • Congratulations for completing XYZ, and if you’re like most people, success in this area of life naturally leads to a desire to create success in the ABC area, too. With that in mind, I wanted to offer you an easy way to take your natural next step — at a steep discount as well, to make the decision easy for you. Just enroll in my ABC course within 5 days and I’m going to discount enrollment by X%.”

An offer like this, paired with a countdown (Core Drive 8—Loss & Avoidance) has been proven to drive new enrollments by 5-10x compared to not making the offer at all. And with Xperiencify, you can send this as an email, SMS or voicemail, or even as a popup inside your course!

And it’s all thanks to giving students their next Epic Meaning & Calling at the right time to keep them in your world!

Core Drive 2—Accomplishment

Naturally, the easiest and most traditional way to allow students to feel accomplishment at the end of your course is to issue them a certificate of completion.

But what are some other ways we can create that feeling among students? Naturally, the folks at Xperiencify have some ideas for how to do that.

First, they make it simple to send automatic congratulation emails, SMS, and voicemail messages at the end of your course. Imagine the feeling you could generate among students when you’re able to celebrate that end of the course moment with them.

And what if you paired this with the “discount offer to continue with us” we just talked about in Core Drive 1? Students who are feeling accomplished are so much more likely to want to invest again to continue that feeling, especially if you’re the one who’s already helped them feel that way when most courses never did.

Core Drive 4—Ownership

If you’ve gamified your course using the principles outlined so far in this article, by this time your student will have earned all (or nearly all) of the points available. And as we’ve already discussed, once earned, humans have a slightly irrational tendency to want to hoard them.

This is simply because we value accumulating points and feel a growing sense of ownership the more we have.

However, in the “Endgame” phase, there are two strategies you can leverage which increase the value of those points even further.

First, you have the option to make your points “universe” wide — across ALL your courses, so students have the opportunity to keep accumulating more of them, the more courses and programs they take with you.

The possibility that points can continue to be earned, perhaps even for years, is going to be an attractive idea to many people who always want to be in the high score hall of fame, like one of those old-school video game leaderboards.

Old School Top 10 Video Game Leaderboard

I always used to feel envious of those kids who were good enough (and rich enough!) to get themselves to the number 1 position. In fact, I used to dream of seeing my initials up there, and that drove me to work hard at getting better at the game.

Murray and Marisa must have had much the same childhood because they offer something similar: an optional ability to have a universe-wide leaderboard to show the all-time top scoring students across all your courses and programs.

These kinds of leaderboards aren’t suitable in ALL situations, as I’ve written about before, but it’s a fun idea nonetheless!

And now, the second strategy you can use to increase the feeling of ownership in the Endgame phase is to allow your students to bring any badges they’ve earned in their first course, across to the second course, the third, and so forth.

Imagine a course environment where more “senior” students have more badges and achievements next to their names. It’s an inspiring sight, especially for the newbies, who want to rise in the ranks to join the more knowledgeable and privileged class of students.

Plus you might take it to an even higher level by moving badges into the real world. Imagine hosting students at a seminar or conference and giving them custom-made ribbons on their name tag which correspond to the badges they’ve earned in your virtual course environment. 

Real-world badges work and can be seamlessly moved on and offline

Talk about locking in a feeling of ownership in folks, so they’ll never want to leave.

Core Drive 5—Social Influence & Relatedness

As I mentioned before, people come for your content but stay for the community, and if you’ve leveraged Core Drive 5—Social Influence & Relatedness triggers up until this point, your students will have made many new connections and friends they’ll want to stay in communication with. So it makes sense that when you give them a way to continue moving to the next step in their educational journey, many will want to do exactly that!

Core Drive 7—Unpredictability

The finish line of your course is the moment your students have been imagining for quite a while. They’ve anticipated the checkered flag. And they’ve anticipated a wonderful feeling of success, satisfaction and triumph for having achieved something huge.

But in reality, the end of most courses are disappointing, just kind of petering out. You finish the last training, and …. nothing. No congratulations. No message or acknowledgment of any kind. Nothing — just a message saying that there’s nothing more to watch.

This is a huge missed opportunity to celebrate with your students and give them the finish line experience they most want, and perhaps even to surprise them with something they weren’t expecting.

Xperiencify naturally makes it simple to create some cool surprises for students.

  • First, you could trigger a few messages of congratulations which arrive either by popup within the app, by email, SMS, or even voicemail. Or all of the above. It’s up to you!
  • Second, you might want to play a Congratulations Celebration, out of the blue, once the last points have been earned in the course.
  • Third, you can trigger a surprise gift announcement within the app if you wish — based on a certain amount of points earned, or the completion of the course.

Here’s the deal — anything you can do to make your course ending feel like a wonderful “finish line”moment that your students were silently hoping for, the more devoted they’ll become to you and your business.

Core Drive 8—Loss & Avoidance

Remember in Core Drive 1—Epic Meaning & Calling when I suggested that you should give your student a new Meaning or Calling in the form of an upgrade to your next course that solves a new, bigger problem in their life?

In this final Core Drive 8—Loss & Avoidance, you can take that idea to the next level simply by adding a deadline to your offer. As we’ve discussed, when you give people a reason to buy, they’re SO much more likely to do it.

It’s also a great moment to remind your students that they should keep going to avoid “losing” their spot on your all-time leaderboard if they continue with you, along with the chance to continue earning more badges.

The desire to avoid losing some imagined future can be a powerful driver of the kind of behavior you want more of, and the better you do at painting the kind of future that your students actually want, the more powerful this Core Drive can be!


The most important points I’d like to leave you with are these.

First, in general, online courses have a shockingly high student abandonment rate.

And it’s mostly because they don’t incorporate many of the gamification and behavioral design lessons of the Octalysis framework. And as a result, the typical course experience doesn’t engage or motivate students enough — so up to 97% of all students will end up abandoning the courses they buy.

And when this happens to a student of yours, they will never buy from you again. And that robs your business of sales that are up to 16 times more profitable than the initial sale.

And the ripple effect of that for your business is enormous:

  • Your marketing is expensive because you’re always working with one-time-only customers
  • Your profits stay low because you’re constantly missing out on repeat sales from existing customers
  • You end up exhausted, overworked, and wondering what you’re doing wrong

But when you up-level your course with the ideas presented in this article, everything can change.

  • Dramatically more students end up completing your courses, because happier customers naturally buy more
  • So they’re so much more likely to buy from you again, and become customers for life 
  • And those sales have been proven to be up to 16 times more profitable than your one-time-only customer sales

In this article, I’ve shared many ideas with you.

Some don’t depend on technology and can be implemented regardless of how you deliver your course. Some do require a little technology, and happily more and more course platforms are starting to implement gamification and behavioral design concepts into their offerings.

Plus I also shared with you how the exciting, new Xperiencify software platform is leading the way with innovative new features never seen before in courses — many ideas I first wrote about in my book Actionable Gamification.

Don’t forget though that this isn’t about turning what you do or teach into a game — it’s much more about learning the important lessons games have to teach us when it comes to engagement and making them work for you, your students and your business.

So — if you already have a course, then this is your roadmap to upleveling it, and turning it into a student success “machine” that generates a steady stream of happy, repeat customers — all ready and waiting to buy from you again and again.

And if you’re considering creating a course soon, then this is your roadmap to the behavioral design best practices to avoid the mistakes that most course creators make, and to instead “supercharge” what you’re about to create, make your courses more engaging and more profitable right from the start.

Coupse Profit Accelerator

Finally, as promised, if you’d like to check out Murray’s Course Profit Accelerator — a literal masterclass in how to apply all of these ideas & concepts to YOUR course — then he’s making you an offer that shouldn’t surprise you.

You can get it here for the full retail price of $97, or you can get it for FREE on a “use it or lose it” basis if you use the “USELOSE” coupon code.

If you use the coupon, you’ll have 12 days to complete this 3-hour mini-course and you’ll get to keep it for life. But if you don’t, you’ll automatically lose access. I suggest going with the free version, and then pay cllose attention to how it changes your behavior once you get access. 😀

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