Gamification - where game mechanics are used to engage employees - can have a direct and substantial impact on a company's revenues.

The idea has been around for a while, but it has only recently entered the business market. The technique has many applications, including sales, encouraging customers to participate in online communities, supporting HR and annual reviews.

Gamification borrows video game features such as points, leader boards, achievements and rewards. If used correctly it can motivate employees by keeping them engaged and able to work in a more efficient way.

The good news for SMBs is that you don't need a big budget for gamification, as much of the software is cloud-based. As well as complimenting an enterprise social strategy, it's also easy to implement if you already use Salesforce.com, with many vendors offering gamification in the form of add-ons.

Products

Buying into gamification is easy. All of the vendors have solutions that scale up and down, according to Carter Lusher, Research Fellow and Chief Analyst, Enterprise Applications Ecosystem, at Ovum. "A lot of the early tech works well for SMBs, such as Hoopla which provides leader boards," he says.

Meanwhile, a gamification app, Compete, from LevelEleven on the Salesforce AppExchange features sales contests aimed at motivating staff. This is one of many gamification apps on Salesforce.com, making it easy to try out the technique if you have a licence already.

Gamification can be used to drive behaviour in areas such as sales, says Lusher. "What we are talking about is revenue. The more focused the sales people are, the more revenue from the more deals they close."

SMBs can also use gamification on Salesforce.com to stage sales contests. "You have such flexibility and such ease of use that sales managers can easily set up and launch new competitions at the end of the month or quarter," Lusher says.

Another company, CloudApps, provides an SMB focused tool, SuMo, which comes in separate apps for sales, marketing, sustainability and service. These are embedded as native applications into Salesforce.com and are aimed at encouraging employees to use the service, explains CloudApps CEO Peter Grant.

The apps cost about 10% of the Salesforce.com licensing - which is about $1,500 (£975,000) itself - and you can try before you buy. "For SMBs it's not expensive at all," says Grant.

At work

It may be a fairly new technique, but many SMBs are already using gamification successfully. Grant cites the example of an SMB, Artesian Solutions, which provides social intelligence to sales companies globally.

Using CloudApps gamification, Artesian sales reps are provided with a news desk reporting everything that's happening in their territory. Since adding gamification elements, the firm has reported a 100% increase in adoption of the application.

Gamification can also be used as a reward. Brian Blau, Research Director at Gartner, uses the example of a company that is in the process of setting up 'badges' for employees, naming them as experts in certain areas. If an idea gets implemented, the person responsible gets a badge.

"In sales organisations there's a lot of competition - gamification can put in formal structures," he says.

Lusher cites the example of a company that used gamification to encourage employees to get involved in an online social network. "They showed me a graph of the social network traffic; as soon as gamification was employed there was a huge spike in usage," Lusher says.

Lusher has also seen examples where deal closure "dramatically increased" for firms using gamification.

Integration

SMBs that already use Salesforce.com can go to the app exchange and search for 'gamification'. This will add a tab to the page to provide links to companies including Bunchball, Hoopla, and IActionable.

Gamification also fits nicely with enterprise social. Jive Software, an enterprise social vendor, has partnerships with Badgeville and Bunchball - two big gamification vendors - to compliment its own products.

Meanwhile, gamification is integrated with enterprise social tools including Yammer and Salesforce.com's Chatter to encourage the users to take up the software.

It doesn't take long to take effect; Lusher says SMBs will see big increases immediately if they start with simple gamification functions and use more sophisticated ones as they learn. He suggests putting gamification into one department, such as sales, then expanding its use.

"We suggest SMBs do AB testing - first try it out on 10 sales reps out of 20 - this could be any department."

Blau is more cautious, warning that it is not always easy to put in gamification without help and that an SMB may find it worthwhile to hire an expert if possible.

"It sounds fun and easy but it's difficult to get right," he says. "It's not difficult to hire an expert. This is even more critical as you are altering the behaviour of your employees - if you don't get it right it can backfire on you."

But there is anecdotal evidence that gamification can increase the engagement of staff and, if implemented in areas with direct impact such as sales, provide a boost to revenues.