Feature Article - January/February 2017

Always Be Talking

Ongoing Communication Key to Incentive Program Success

By Joe Bush

You can never communicate too much. That may be the most important rule in incentive program strategy.

Gayle Rutledge, creative services manager for USMotivation, found this out first-hand the hard way a couple years ago. Working on an incentive trip program for a pharmaceutical company to Cabo San Lucas, Rutledge needed to balance fear of the Zika virus with driving enthusiastic participation in the pursuit of the reward.

Too late, the company backed out of the trip, and the process for USMotivation's customer service department to compensate approximately 700 winners a trip worth $7,500 was months-long.

"We basically became a personal travel agency for this particular company because it wanted their winners to still be rewarded, but if they didn't want to go to Mexico to be able to go to Arizona or Vancouver or Ireland," Rutledge said. "It was a big strain on the company to make sure everybody was happy."

As successful companies do, USMotivation learned from the experience.

"We'd been communicating to them that there was a Zika virus, but we weren't trying to overcommunicate it because we didn't want to put that fear out there," she said. "At the end of the day, it hurt us. We should have overcommunicated that there were precautions in place. If we had communicated differently to that audience and even to the client behind the scenes, having more transparency on some of those calls, we might have been able to avoid this.

"People would rather know more information than be left in the dark, so when they don't know anything they start to panic and that's when rumors spread and information comes out that is definitely not true."

Use Your Tools

That may seem like a lesson particular to a crisis or unique set of circumstances, but it applies to normal incentive program communications. If there was only print available to communicate with employees, program administration could cite budget as reason to limit messaging. But in the digital age, programs can also use e-mail, texts, websites and social media to not only lower print costs, but also deliver where a varied audience spends its time.

This multi-tool availability takes care of the other possible issue with too much communication: the white noise of all the other messages employees get. Yes, you can send too many e-mails, or texts, or direct mailings, but if a program manager mixes all those right—by generation, by gender, by medium—there's no such thing as overcommunication.

You can never communicate too much. That may be the most important rule in incentive program strategy.

"Communicate so often that there's always communication out there on the program," Rutledge said. "You can't just engage early and build excitement for three months. That doesn't work for a 12-month program. And you can't engage early and drop off for six months and then pick it back up. People want to know what is going on.

"Engage early, build excitement and be consistent. That's when you build a successful program."

No one doubts the importance of the communication aspect of an incentive program, whether rewards are based on points and website catalogs or recognition or vacation destinations, but there is an art and science to the tactics and strategy of that communication. The use of timing, target demographics and mix of media combine to reach the goals of awareness, excitement, motivation and information.