Have you ever watched teenagers play “Call of Duty” for hours on end and wondered what kind of magic keeps these users so deeply engaged? More importantly, have you ever wondered how you might be able to use this magic to engage your customers? It’s not magic. It’s gamification. Companies have been employing this technique for years–decades, even–but over the past few years, digital marketers have started to realize that gamification can take their campaigns to new levels.

“Gamification is the application of game mechanics and psychology to drive a set of specific desired behaviors by the user,” as defined by Nick DiMoro on Overit’s blog. Gabe Zichermann, chair of GSummit-a conference for top gamification experts across industries-and author of The Gamification Revolution, says gamification is nothing new. The military has been “using the best ideas from games” for thousands of years.

On a familiar level, businesses have been using loyalty programs–just a simple form of gamification-for decades. Every time you buy a Subway sandwich and get your card stamped toward a free meal, you’re being gamified. But on the web, these simple tactics are amplified and can become intricate campaigns that create a whole new level of engagement.

According to DiMoro, “Global research company Markets and Markets recent report on gamification predicted the gamification sector will be worth $5.5B by 2018, with an annual growth rate of 67 percent. The same report found that ‘70 percent of large companies will have some application of gamification at work within their organizations’ by 2014.”

“Simply put, gaming mechanics help motivate and incentivize behavior. Digital marketers should be excited that gamification no longer needs to be restricted to a single website or community,” says Dennis Jenders, VP of social marketing services at 7Summits.

“Some of the things companies have been accustomed to doing are showing their age,” says Zichermann. Those old loyalty cards aren’t quite cutting it in the digital age. Marketers are having to step up their game, if you will.

“Gamification’s biggest contribution to the digital marketing landscape is that it lowers the cost of engagement,” says Zichermann. Marketers can create a game for relatively little money and know, almost instantly, whether or not it’s working. The statistics and analytics-driven nature of the form means its success-or lack thereof-is quickly quantifiable. If people aren’t playing, then it isn’t working.

Increasingly, though, gamification is becoming an integral part of any good, multifaceted marketing strategy. Good marketing, Zichermann says, “hinges less and less on giving away free stuff and more on engaging customers in meaningful ways.” To illustrate this, he points to an industry acronym: SAPS (status access power stuff). This describes what your customers want from you-from most engaging to least. Something as simple as a retweet can confer status onto your customers. Offering early views on new products or invitations to members-only events can make your audience feel as though they have a special level of access. You can give them power-or control over others-by allowing valued users the ability to decide when a new product is released or what features will be included. Finally, there is stuff-the tried-and-true (but not very sticky) coupons and giveaways. Gamification is a great way for companies to provide these most-valued benefits to users, says Zichermann.

For many, though, it can be hard to imagine what gamification would actually look like at your company-in part, because it takes so many forms. Take Nike+ for example. Zichermann says that despite being a popular fashion brand, Nike had lost traction with actual runners. Then it introduced Nike+. Long before Fitbit, Nike+ allowed runners to track their runs with a chip in their sneaker and an app on their mobile phone. Now about 16 million people run with Nike+ every day, says Zichermann-and it’s all thanks to a bit of smart gamification. “It connects with consumers in a way that helps facilitate their meaningful growth and achievement,” he adds.

But not every company uses gamification for “meaningful growth and achievement.” Sometimes, it’s just about fun. Zichermann points to TABASCO NATION, a gamified Facebook app that brought people together around spicy food. “People who like spicy food are a tribe,” says Zichermann, and the marketers at TABASCO know that, so they played on “gamified ideas of tribalism and team sports” to create an app that allowed those spicy food lovers to compete against each other. Every drop of sauce that the customers used earned them a virtual point. TABASCO created challenges such as using hot sauce on a cake or taking a bottle to the top of a mountain. It was practically impossible to keep track of, but it didn’t matter because it was all about fun. Zichermann says that TABASCO gained about a million followers through this playful app.

“Our partner, Bunchball, has a gamification product called Nitro,” says 7Summits’ Jenders. “With Nitro, we now have the ability to track and reward a user across multiple digital platforms, including open social networks like Facebook or Twitter, company websites and portals, and dedicated communities. For example, a new employee may complete a training exercise on an intranet, answer a related question on your Facebook brand page for a customer, and help another employee complete a task or training program-and all of these actions can be rewarded, tracked, and measured under a single profile.”

Even with such varied examples of successful gamification, it might be hard for companies to visualize how it can apply to them. “Your problems of customer engagement will not be magically fixed just by throwing a game on top of what you’ve got,” says Zichermann. He adds, “It’s important the organization develops expertise in engagement science.”

Zichermann also advises that companies figure out what their goals and strategies are before finding the right vendor. “You don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” he says, but he also warns marketers against creating a game that looks just like what everyone else is doing. Above all else, you need a strategy that fits your brand and helps you stand out among the competition.