When Kevin Cork’s clients hit $1 million in invested assets, he treats them to what he calls a Millionaire’s Night Out. A stretch limo arrives to whisk the clients to dinner at a fancy Calgary restaurant and a cultural event—maybe the theatre, opera or a Calgary Flames hockey game.

“It’s been a huge hit,” says Cork, CFP, president of The Absolute Group in Calgary.

“It costs a good chunk of dough, but it’s the whole idea of celebrating a milestone, [and] inspiring people to move on to bigger and better things. Clients ask me, ‘So, what are we going to do for the $2-million mark?’ ”

Achieving that kind of significant goal is what those in the video-gaming industry might call an epic win, which American game designer Jane McGonigal described in a 2010 TED Talk as “an outcome that is so extraordinarily positive, you had no idea it was even possible until you achieved it.”

Cork, an avid gamer, is experimenting more and more with client motivation strategies inspired by his favourite hobby.

That makes sense: in her speech, McGonigal said humans spend approximately 3 billion hours each week playing online games. If advisors could get clients to approach their financial plans with even a fraction of that interest, the returns could be, well, epic.

Fortunately, the world of finance is full of online game potential: stock market simulators, retirement calculators and rent-or-buy calculators. Websites and apps like mint.com, saveup.com, payoff.com and HabitRPG are great tools for individual investors who want to track net worth and spending, pay down debt, or set goals and establish the habits necessary to achieve them.

But gamification doesn’t mean turning every transaction into a video game.

“You don’t need a princess and a dragon and 3-D video,” says Gabe Zichermann, CEO of Gamification Corporation in New York. Rather, he says, it’s about figuring out what makes video games so compelling and applying those same strategies to client interactions.

Take Cork’s millionaire nights. On the way to that epic win, he’s continually trying to find smaller, but significant, ways to motivate his clients. His firm sends graduation “diplomas” to clients who have finished funding their children’s university educations. Or, if a client becomes mortgage-free, Cork will send a bottle of cheap bubbly to smash against the side of the home. These kinds of flourishes may seem like surface touches, but they get at the heart of what it means to gamify a system: identifying what motivates clients to act.

For most clients, that means focusing on goals, rather than numbers. That’s because cash is actually a weak motivator for most people. “It simply doesn’t produce much excitement over time,” says Zichermann, who encourages advisors to unbundle the dollars and cents from the emotional goals of investing.

For instance, say your client wants to buy a vacation home. Send a quarterly statement saying, “Guess what? You’re 25% of the way toward your goal!” Illustrate the message with an outline of a house, filled in a quarter of the way. Now, you’ve given those formerly dry, dollar figures a context that clients can relate to and get excited about, which makes them more likely to stay accountable—no costly software required.

Gamification can also mean delving deeper. Cork recently showed a long-term client it was possible for him to take a couple years off from a job he didn’t like to follow his passion—studying game design, incidentally. Cork used mind-mapping software and conducted a cost-benefit analysis to show his client that the dream was well within reach. So the client made the move. “Everyone wants to save enough for retirement, pay off the mortgage and put their kids through school,” says Cork. “For me, it’s about establishing a relationship where I can say, ‘Of course you want to do all those things, but what [do] you actually want to do?’ ”

The client recently sent Cork “a long e-mail talking about how this step changed, for the better, how he viewed his life.”

Increase client interest

Cottages, degrees and new careers are exciting. But, Toronto-based insurance strategist Elke Rubach sees gamification as a way to increase engagement with the less-thrilling portions of a financial plan, like critical illness insurance or debt repayment, where “traditionally, your clients sigh and feel obligated to talk to you.”

Again, the key is to focus on how to motivate people to keep some skin in the game of what might be termed “good financial-planning hygiene,” says Zichermann. Rather than focusing on dollars and cents, he suggests that advisors create a checklist that establishes what clients need to accomplish each year to become a savvy investor. The list could include: an annual face-to-face meeting with the advisor, reading and responding to quarterly e-mail updates, having a will and notifying the office of any major financial or family changes. The criteria would vary at the advisor’s discretion, and would evolve as clients’ circumstances change.

Then, reward clients who complete all the tasks. Rewards don’t have to be costly to be effective—they could be as simple as congratulatory phone calls, cards or e-mails. Or, you could bump it up with a printed certificate or a small gift card to their favourite coffee shop. (Ensure any monetary gifts fall within your compliance guidelines.)

From there, says Zichermann, it’s easy to “level up.” Perhaps the name of every savvy investor goes into a quarterly draw for a gift certificate. Or, each 1% incremental increase in invested assets, extra mortgage payment or 10% reduction in debt triggers a donation from the advisor to a charity pool. Advisors could also invite the clients to an exclusive event at the office, like a talk by a financial writer.

“It’s a pat on the back; a way of reminding people they’re doing the right thing,” says Rubach, who sees gamification as a low-risk way to create brand awareness and help educate existing and potential clients. As a bonus, she notes, these types of strategies are low-key, positive ways to stay on clients’ radars, reminding them of the value of working with you. Even if it’s a quarter where the value of a client’s portfolio drops, you can reward the client’s ever-expanding financial literacy.

Not all motivation strategies will work with every client, some of whom may have trouble accepting a less-than-sombre approach to money management. But done right, and for people who are receptive, gamifying your practice can pay off in clients who are happier and more motivated to invest their time and money to achieve their goals. Now, that’s an epic win.

Financial games for clients’ kids

Games and apps can help your clients’ kids learn about money and why they should care. Try creating a family financial games night at your office. Here are a few to get you started.

Rich Kid Smart Kid
The youth initiative of the Rich Dad brand, this site uses games, like Reno’s Debt Dilemma and Ima’s Pay Yourself 1st, to promote financial literacy to “the next generation of future entrepreneurs.”

The Mint
Endorsed by the American Library Association as a “Great Web Site for Kids,” this site helps parents and educators teach children to manage money wisely. Quizzes like “The Truth about Millionaires,” and games like “The Be Your Own Boss Challenge,” help debunk myths and give kids more context about how we get, grow and lose cash.

Financial Soccer
As part of its Practical Money Skills financial education program (www.practicalmoneyskills.ca), Visa Canada capitalized on the international popularity of soccer with the launch of this this fast-paced, multiple-choice question game to test players’ financial management skills as they advance down the field and try to score. Other games include “Peter Pig’s Money Counter,” “Money Metropolis” and “Road Trip to Savings.”

P2K Money
This free app, by Loconuts Inc., incorporates tracking tools for allowance and chores, and wish lists for savings. It also includes motivational features, like the ability to include photos of wished-for items. Available for Apple products.

by Susan Goldberg, a financial journalist based in Thunder Bay, Ont.