CEO of Rallyware.

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Direct selling has a long history—one that spans societies, contents and time periods. From countryside “peddlers” in the Middle Ages, to the “circuit” salesmen of early American life, to the door-to-door sellers of the 20th century, direct selling has played a vital role in economies and middle-class livelihoods.

Today, the gig economy is a massive economic force, one with a world-historical opportunity to reshape the way we work. The gig economy, which involves the provision of services by independent contractors on an ad-hoc basis, comprises around 60 million people in the U.S. alone. According to Ultimate Gig: Flexibility, Freedom, Rewards, a study of the gig economy by John T. Fleming and Lauren Lawley Head, up to 40% of Americans participate in the gig economy.

While the gig economy is a force to be reckoned with today, in this column, I’m going to try a thought experiment: What do the largest gig platforms have to learn from direct selling? What can this more traditional form of independent contracting teach a multi-vertical disruptor of the way we work and interact?

Gig Gamification

Another important aspect of direct selling today is gamification. According to an eLearning Industry article from 2020, gamification refers to “using game elements in non-game settings to create learning experiences that motivate and engage.”

At Rallyware, we do a lot of research and development around gamification. We believe it’s the future of engagement for distributed workforces, like direct selling reps and gig economy contractors, and we build it into much of what we produce. This makes workforce participation into a game-like experience—like winning a level in a video game or scoring a goal in a sport.

Direct selling companies have, overall, embraced gamification at a high rate. If you Google-search “direct selling gamification,” you’ll find a good deal of industry trade association articles advocating for gamification. If you search “gig work gamification,” the same won’t be the case. While there are other reasons for this discrepancy, we can partly attribute it to the fact that direct selling often relies on person-to-person persuasion, network marketing and collective selling experiences (think of cookware demonstrations, group makeup presentations, etc.). Such activities are inherently game-like. They require risk, skill, persuasion.

Yet gig work companies can benefit from an embrace of gamification as well. Whether we’re talking about rideshare drivers or freelance programmers, gamification helps add a growth narrative to gig workers’ careers. Eighty-nine percent of employees would feel more engaged with their work with gamification in place, and that surely goes for contractors and freelancers as well—perhaps even more so, because such workers sometimes lack the overarching mission that direct employment can provide.

Our research revealed that, among smart notifications sent by gamified apps, those notifications alerting users to a new badge—a pivotal form of recognition and visualized progress—had an open rate of up to 88%. Gamification works. It’s just a question of how it is implemented, which will change on a case-by-case basis.

Gig work companies and employers of freelancers should consider embedding gamification into gigs. It can be something simple, like adding badges and awards that gig workers can show to their friends and family, as well as visualizing progress toward their individual goals. Or it can be more complex, like a VR or AR element. No matter the specifics, gig platforms and gig work providers should take this lesson from direct selling: gamification matters.

Social Engagement

Lastly, sociality and community are huge aspects of direct selling. Direct selling can be a highly social experience. I’ll let one consultant speak for herself. Here’s an example from Ultimate Gig, about how Vicki P fell into the direct selling industry: “[A] friend in direct sales asked me to hold an event for her company around my kitchen table. I watched the faces of my friends and family light up from the joy of using the product and begin the process of placing an order. I thought, ‘Hey these are my family and friends. I could do this, too!’”

Vicki adds that her first encounter with direct selling was 16 years ago. Today, with advances in technology—social media, smartphones and soon the metaverse—the opportunities for social and communal engagement around direct selling have multiplied tenfold. According to the Direct Selling Association’s 2020 fact sheet, the highest percentage of sales for that year was in wellness, with 37%—a product area that lends itself to social media testimonials.

There’s a vast opportunity here for the gig economy, which has yet to capitalize on community in the same way that direct selling does by its very nature. What if gig platforms started including social media-like platforms on their apps? What if large companies created message boards for freelancers?

As market research consultancy MDB Insight remarks, in a criticism of the industry, “There are limited examples of countries/communities partnering with gig economy companies.” Imaginative leaders will be able to think of ways to forge relationships with communities, and the potential gig talent that lies within them, while remaining compliant with regulations.

Folks want to make and nurture new communal bonds, especially after two years of Covid-19 looming over their lives. Gig companies can help them do that. In fact, they not only can but should do so if they want to retain gig workers long-term.

Think of Vicki in the Ultimate Gig example above. Vicki has been in direct selling for half a decade and counting. She continues, after the quote I cited above, “From a little part-time business […] it has grown into a full-time, passionate devotion to making a difference in the lives of so many women, helping them find purpose and discover their God-given gifts while continuing to develop my own independent business.”

If gig companies and platforms want the longevity of direct selling, they should take note.


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