Cash is for SAPS

Cash is for SAPS


One of the biggest mistakes that people make when designing engagement with gamification is to assume that cash (or stuff) is the ultimate reward. Time and time again, evidence shows that tangible rewards have serious deficits in an incentive scheme.


Limitations include:

They Can Turn Users Off: If your rewards don’t look good in the first few minutes, you’re liable to lose more users    than if you had never included rewards in the first place.
They Are Expensive: Obviously, physical rewards cost money – even if they’re donated, administration and fulfillment rarely happen for free.
Or They Are Too Cheap: users respond to cheap rewards just like they respond to cheap stuff in the real world: with limited interest. The $5 gift cert or trucker cap isn’t a panacea
It Rarely Motivates Better Than Chance: Unless you are offering large sums of money in a sweepstakes or casino, small dollar rewards tend not to motivate better than virtual items.

So what is the right reward schema? I have a simple approach that I’ve been using with partners that – in most cases – will produce the optimal results. The mnemonic is easy to remember: SAPS.


It’s what customers really want, in that order. And this list is also prioritized by “most sticky” and “cheapest to fulfill”. Some more elaboration on the SAPS idea:

Status is relatively obvious, and well-explained as a reward in my book, Game-Based Marketing.

Access rewards give users the opportunity to interact in a private or special way with your company or service. For example, an access reward might be to give top players the opportunity to earn a dinner with your company’s CEO – or a tour of your offices. Conversely, you might give social shopping “achievers” a 5 minute head start on deals on your website.

Power rewards specifically entitle players to “get one over” on others. This might be in the form of a moderator position (if on a forum or interactive site, say), or to change the way your site/application operates (usually best in a virtual world scenario).

And last/least in the model is stuff. Only once you’ve exhausted all the other options should you consider including stuff in your gamification design. Obviously, if you have amazing giveaways (and lots of cash to back it up), I highly recommend sharing the wealth.

But if you’re like most companies – especially start-ups – and you’re resource constrained, but looking for a way to create engagement, let SAPS be your guide.


Need help with behavioral science and gamification? Get in touch with our boutique consulting agency Dopamine.


  1. It’s really surprising how so many people immediately want to go to “Stuff” – real or virtual. I think people underestimate the value of Status, Access, and Power. All too often people want to jump right in to “stuff” without considering the other options.

    Unless your reward system is heavily backed by real dollars real “stuff” is not an affordable way to do things. Virtual goods may become a bit too much to manage if too many sites start to use them, not to mention they require a much larger investment to create and be able to display in a meaningful way.

  2. […] Gamification uses game play mechanics to applications that are not games and aims to encourage positive behavior through incentives.   One common trait found in games and typical of gamification is the implementation of gradual rewards to the user.  This reward-based model is typically referred to as the SAPS model: […]

  3. I really like this framework on the SAPS model. It really breaks down some complex concepts and is useful outside of gamification too. (works very well in my niche: crowdfunding)

    Thanks Gabe!

    . “If you can’t explain it simply, you probably don’t understand it will enough” –

  4. […] from gamification expert Gabe Zichermann’s “SAPS” model, there are four levels of recognition and rewards you should build into your program, from most […]