Feature Article - January/February 2017

Always Be Talking

Ongoing Communication Key to Incentive Program Success

By Joe Bush

Know Your Audience

Every communication plan has to begin with understanding the audience. One of the findings of a 2015 Incentive Research Foundation/Incentive Marketing Association study was that catering to each employee's unique wants and needs is paramount.

From the IRF website:

"Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the study shows how important it is for organizations to truly understand the individuals they would like to recognize and reward. Out of 452 respondents, 99 percent had a unique set of preferences—different from every other person in the study. This is, again, a strong indicator that just as we are unique individuals in our consumer shopping and lifestyle habits, so also are we unique in our preferences for reward and recognition.

"Businesses should continue to expand efforts to help managers understand employee's interests, likes and dislikes. It can start as simply as asking employees' favorite activities, movies, hobbies and music. Using these personal interests to personalize a reward makes the impact and expense all the more worthwhile."

This is a common-sense priority and always should have been, but with the rise of digital media and its use by different generations, not to mention the profile characteristics of today's working-age generations, it is not as easy as old/young and man/woman.

Simply put, younger employees read messages via certain media and ignore that sent by others, as do older employees. Millennials demand flexibility in how they work—from home, a coffee shop, the office—as well as customized experiences. Incentive program communications must adjust to those who love direct mail and those who toss it without a glance, those that read every e-mail and those that only read texts. Those that prefer mobile communications, and those that do not.

More than half of all e-mails that are opened are opened on a mobile device today. It's a change in the workforce that a change in communications has to address.

Mike McWilliams, senior director of strategy and marketing at Aimia, said he has experienced the generational shift in preferences in his own back yard. Aimia's Minneapolis office underwent renovations within the past two years, and it was already centrally located and adjacent to the Minnesota Twins home Target Field. Aimia started a work-from-home policy about the same time, and despite the beauty and convenience of the office, 88 percent of the employees took advantage of the policy.

"The biggest change in the business to me in the past decade is nobody sits at their desk," McWilliams said. "More than half of all e-mails that are opened are opened on a mobile device today. It's a change in the workforce that a change in communications has to address.

"We've got to find ways to connect with them on a consistent basis. We might have people sitting in a coffee shop, they might be at their kitchen table, but they also might be collaborating in the stands of a Minnesota Twins game. How do we best reach them? We have to do a lot of research. We have to understand with workforces how they access information. We might build apps because they're mobile, but we might be able to take advantage of a system that's already in place where they already get their company information.

"You have to really be able to address any of those situations. It's an opportunity and a challenge. There are so many tools at our disposal but there's also so many more choices to make from a communication strategy standpoint."

Stay On Purpose

McWilliams said there's a caveat to having so many arrows in the quiver: You don't have to use them just because you can. McWilliams is a strong believer in never forgetting the foundational tenets of communication programs.

"On one hand, you can really leverage a full toolkit of mobile, social and traditional medias to reach the audiences that matter most," he said. "On the other hand, you can easily get caught up in the shiny things and get off purpose pretty quickly, so that's why whether it was a decade ago or five years ago or today, one of the constants is design to your goals and let nothing muddy the waters. Not all ideas are always right for your campaign."

Rutledge said one example of that is a company whose employees were mainly older men. That generation prefers direct mail communications, so incentive programs for that company favors print delivery. Millennials are partial to new media, and for that media messages must be shorter.

Rutledge had a 15-year career in the creative side of advertising before her four years at USMotivation, and said the importance of succinct and punchy content in her previous career is crucial in the new one. She said it's especially effective with smaller budgets, when every exposure counts. Digital contact is most budget-friendly.

"We try to make sure the messaging is as clear and concise as we can and get them excited to open it with the lead sentence or what does that title or what does that subject line say to get them engaged?" said Rutledge.

Susan Adams, senior director of engagement for Next Level Performance, a Dittman company, gives an example of how one client, with a mix of generations, went about an incentive travel program with e-postcards, a website for progress toward goals and event details, and a unique visual aid.

"To drive interest in the program, we also created an eye-catching calendar of the destination, allowing participants to envision themselves there, and to imagine what the trip will be like on a day-to-day basis as they go about their work," Adams said. "This anticipation extends the travel experience and is an important component of motivation. When the reward seems within their grasp, program participants will strive to not let the opportunity slip away."