The word gamification is loaded with hype-y, buzzword-y annoyingness. A few years ago, every company added gaming elements to their offerings in the same way every company today must inform us of their deft use of the cloud.

But the hype and bandwagon-jumping doesn’t necessarily equate to a fad. Bunchball uses gaming elements to improve employee performance in a measurable way.

Today, the company made its Nitro gamification product for Salesforce totally free. The paid version also exists in a more robust form. Nitro for Salesforce was named the best Salesforce app of 2011 at App Quest. Whether its related to noise in the sales market or simple business model trends, I’ve seen an increasing number of enterprise companies adopt a freemium model in recent months.

You could argue that the way Bunchball and its competitors gamify someone’s day-to-day work is patronizing. Do adults really need little missions, trophies, and points to motivate them to do the job they’re being paid for? I’d hope not. But it’s hard to argue that Bunchball’s tools are ineffective, especially when you look at the company’s adoption rates: Bunchball has more than 150 paying customers, including Adobe, Cisco, and VMWare, for a total of 125 million users who’ve made 16 billion actions. It plans to triple its bookings over last year, says Bunchball CEO Jim Scullion.

Maybe we don’t need games to be effective, motivated workers, but they certainly help, it turns out. Bunchball’s integration with a large automobile company led to a 400 percent increase in employees learning and mastering the software they were using to do their jobs. Managers can’t force their employees to become experts on powerful software from the likes of Salesforce, Jive, or Rocketfuel, but Bunchball can put the right elements in place to encourage it.

The company recently partnered with Jive (which the screenshots below illustrate) to bring deep integration of its gamification tools to Jive’s social enterprise platform. That’s a lot of Silicon Valley talk; I’m failing to find a better way to describe this stuff.

Bunchball’s strategy is to partner with more and more SaaS companies. The SaaS companies like it because, if users don’t understand and fully exploit their tools, they’re less likely to keep subscribing. The entire goal of Bunchball’s Nitro product is to drive human behaviors to do that.

Bunchball, founded in 2005, says it invented gamification in 2007, when the company launched Nitro. The company has raised $12.7 million from Adobe Ventures, Granite Ventures, Triangle Peak Partners, and Correlation Ventures. Bunchball has 55 employees but plans to hit 100 by the end of the year.

Beyond its push into enterprise gamification, Bunchball will look into consumer-facing gamification related to costumer loyalty plans for businesses like media outlets or phone carriers, Scullion says.