Feature Article - January/February 2017

Always Be Talking

Ongoing Communication Key to Incentive Program Success

By Joe Bush

Have a Plan

McWilliams is happy to share his general timeline approach to incentive program communications. The order is, design, develop, deliver, revise and repeat.

It's the finishing touches that remind clients that incentive programs are not just designed to boost sales and other performance efforts, but also to retain talent.

"We start with a proven, collaborative design process with the client," he said. "It starts with a formal facilitated alignment and ideation session. What that does is really set the foundation for your communication strategy, and what's really important coming out of that is you establish your goals and you design your goals and you let nothing muddy those waters.

"The development part is developing everything to those goals. Make sure you start with the end in mind. You have preset objectives and you develop campaign tactics and messages that make sense based on your initial objectives. The delivery part is fun. It's a pretty exciting time to be in our business. There's a lot of tools at our disposal, a great convergence of technology and data, a great time to be able to pick the right type of delivery.

"The revise is simple. You go back to the design based on new data and you repeat what you did with improvements."

Understand Your Results

McWilliams said measuring the effect of tactics is crucial to an ideal program but not always easy to do. Post-program surveys are common, but knowledge in real time, when adjustments can be made, is one of the benefits of digital communications. The impact of printed and/or mailed messaging is, of course, difficult to track.

"Sometimes you have to work to get your client to put the right budget toward the right type of measurement," he said. "You can always do clicks, open rates, but tougher to do is to really measure the impact of the communication. Did they achieve the action you want someone to take, whether it's to engage in an incentive program, whether it's to sell, whether it's to collaborate?

"Some of those can be challenging from a communication standpoint because your measurement can sometimes only go as far as the internal data the client has. If you have the data, that's the answer to a lot of questions. If you have the data, you can always adjust on the fly."

Different situations present different challenges for data availability, McWilliams said.

"We see that opportunity a lot more with large conferences that have long lead times before an action takes place, than we do incentives, but you can still do the same things with incentives if you have the data," he said. "It's dependent on the system the client has in place quite often. If we are delivering sales promotions and the lead time on the product is six, 12, 18 months, it's really tough to know if what you did as part of the incentive really impacted the sales cycle and the willingness to purchase.

"If you're going through a channel they might have the data on how something sold and why it sold. Getting that can be a real challenge. If you can figure out the when and why it sold if it's a straight employee incentive and you have data because it's at your client's disposal, fantastic. If you have to get it from one of their partners sometimes that can be more challenging."

Don't Stop Now

Rutledge said communication doesn't stop once there are winners, and doesn't mean only post-program feedback efforts. She uses her company's approach to delivering trip materials as an example. Elaborate boxes containing luggage tags and destination brochures are inside; positive messages are printed on the outside, like "You're a winner!" "Congratulations," and "Open me now!" Once the winners get to the trip destination, there is in-room messaging, like photo props and mirror writing.

It's the finishing touches that remind clients that incentive programs are not just designed to boost sales and other performance efforts, but also to retain talent.

"They really come back on the surveys saying they love those touchpoints, the individual room gifts, they loved the box, that all those details were taken care of from the moment they won to the moment they got home," said Rutledge. "When they feel that they've been taken care of and that they were appreciated, the recognition really showed them why they worked for this company and why they want to continue to work for this company, that's the real ROI, building and keeping that culture.

"Turnover is terrible these days especially with millennials, so the longer you can engage them and keep them rewarded and satisfied and motivated, that's the gold."