Feature Article - May/June 2016

Spread the Word

Smart Communication Strategies for Recognition & Reward Programs

By Joe Bush


Don't underestimate the value and power of constant, friendly and clear communication in recognition and reward programs—you can't win a game you didn't know was scheduled.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the sourcing and creativity involved with the rewards themselves, but the methods and strategy involved in driving awareness and excitement of incentive programs are crucial to employees' participation in and happiness with the reward and recognition experience.

There is recent research to back this up. In 2015, the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) revealed results of a study of the total award experience using responses from 452 members of the Incentive Marketing Association, which commissioned the report.

Debunking a myth that the award itself was the most important aspect of the entire award experience, the study showed that 12 percent of respondents claimed that type of communications was a preference driver in a large award scenario, while 16 percent said it was a preference driver in a small award example.

When the type of award presentation—defined in the study by whether the award is presented in public or private, and by who is presenting the award—is considered as a piece of a program's communication plan, those numbers rose to 21 percent and 25 percent, respectively. The results were consistent regardless of age, income, gender or role.

IRF President Melissa Van Dyke said the findings were not surprising as much as empowering to those who already emphasize communications.

"It's vitally important to how the reward itself is received," Van Dyke said. "That was very reinforcing to us because you can have a fantastic piece of merchandise, a wonderful product, but if the program and the award itself are not communicated correctly and in a manner that resonates with the recipient, the reward itself is going to lose value."

Van Dyke said people enjoy recognition, with or without prizes, so communication of incentive programs serves many functions and shouldn't stop once the award is earned. Who notifies the winner is important, as is whether that notification is private or public, or both.

Does public awareness occur in front of a gathering of colleagues, on a company-wide e-mail, at the dedicated incentive program website or all of the above? In the past decade, social media notice is a consideration as well. Successful programs give employees what they need to know, often, and understand that post-award communications are as crucial as the launch and motivational messaging.

Van Dyke said that while it's easy for incentive program administrators to be concerned with the wealth of technological ways to stay in touch, they must never forget the power of human touch.

Don't underestimate the value and power of constant, friendly and clear communication in recognition and reward programs.

"We really stress not losing the value of interpersonal communications, the one-on-one, that manager or that teammate saying, 'I see what you did, here's why it's important, and thank you,'" she said. "It's not possible when we're at the home office or different parts of the world, and that's when technology is fantastic, but if we're sitting right next to each other, we're in the same locale and we work the same shift, you really can't replace that one-on-one communication."

The attention paid to incentive program operations is necessary, given the investment companies make in them. In an incentive program end-user survey in early 2015, the Incentive Federation found that while most companies spend less than $50,000 on incentive programs, that number is skewed by the large amount of smaller companies.

When broken down by company revenue, 45 percent of firms with between $1 million and $10 million spend $50,000 or less, while 24 percent lay out $100,000 or more. Those numbers shift as the revenue rises; 76 percent of companies with a least $1 billion in revenue spend at least $100,000 on rewards and recognition.

It raises a chicken-or-egg question, but if the IRF survey (and past studies showing correlation between more frequent communication and employee participation) reflects how programs should be run, spend on communications has to be significant. It follows that the concentration on the best practices for those communications will follow.