Gamification is not new to social media, but it seems to be one of the key terms for 2011 with presentations, reports and analysis making claims about the proportion of brands that will have ‘gamified’ in the next few years.

There is a real danger of confusing this trend with social gaming (Farmville and the like), and of thinking that it’s all about brands making things more fun. The real benefit of gamification is about understanding how users behave, what motivates them, and using techniques that reward them for doing things that ultimately help you achieve your aims.

For every job that must be done, the argument goes, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and ‘snap’, the job’s a game. Games are thought of as fun, they include elements of competition with others and with yourself, and ultimately they result in a winner.

But the real value to brands is often not about using games but about using the techniques that make such games so addictive and successful to achieve other things. Gamification in social media is not about your brand finding the next Farmville, it is about something more complicated that this, but ultimately something that should be more successful.

Understanding what people want to achieve and why they behave as they do has always been critical in marketing. What gamification does is find ways to use game mechanics to help people get where they want to get (and indeed where we want them to get) – rewarding and motivating them along the way. A simple example would be my recent return to running.

I have always failed to keep up with training and ultimately other things have taken over when there is the prospect of a cold winter’s run. This time things are different, and nine months in I am regularly running 25 miles a week. And the main reason is probably gamification.

An app on my phone tracks my run and records this, sending it to my Twitter account so people can see that I’ve been running, for how long and how far. A much smaller set of people are connected to me on the app and these get to see where I actually went and I can compare my runs with them.

I’m also told when the distance covered each week is better (or indeed worse) than previous weeks, when a particular outing is better than before and can race against previous runs I have done on the same route. The upshot is that I am being both rewarded for doing well, pressured into doing better and told what my contacts are doing so I want to run as much as (in reality more than) them.

Gamification is making me want to run more and to run further; and it is making my contacts want to do the same. Nine months and over 400 miles later shows that it is working, for me at least. Not a game in sight and precious little fun.

The app is using gaming techniques (reward, competitions, achievements, progress tracking, challenges and the like) to make me do something. It motivates and rewards me as a way of making me do something, and it is this element of gamification that is most interesting and exciting for brands.

Get the motivation right and you can encourage and reward the behaviours you want, give people more reasons to spend time with your brand and to tell others about it. Support forums have always used a form of gamification to encouraging the most expert respondents to answer more questions – allowing those who always give good answers to receive some kind of reward – often just telling the other forum members how great and useful they are through klout-style systems.

Foursquare is another good example – by just giving me a virtual badge or by showing me where I stand in an arbitrary ranking, I can be encouraged to submit more places and more reviews to help build their database.

By understanding what motivates people, and using this to prompt and push them to do things, marketers can benefit hugely from gamification, as can the brands they work for. It allows them to engage us in meaningful ways, rewarding us for the things that we do that benefit them. It aligns our own motivations with their business aims so that, when it works, both parties win.

But gamification is nothing new. It is not about making things more fun or making them into a game. It is about motivations, reward and aligning ambitions between the business and the people they want to engage. Social media is a perfect vehicle to do this and we can increase participation in social media hugely when we get it right. Let’s just not confuse it with fun.