Feature Article - March/April 2019

Power Up Your Program

Make Your Incentive Program More Memorable

By Rick Dandes


The most effective and lasting incentive programs are designed to achieve attainable organizational objectives in a manner that is impactful, memorable and relevant to participants.

The first thing that companies need to be aware of in the planning and program design stage, said Mike Ryan, senior vice president of client strategies for Madison Performance of New York City, is the expectation of participants. We live in a world that is highly personalized. Whenever people go on their phones or go on their computers or interact with one entity or another, the information is rarely broad-based. So, when you are putting together an incentive, it is important that you personalize the goals as much as possible.

Many organizations practice "SMART" objective setting, Ryan continued, "which I think is important—where SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. But I also think that in focusing on those goals, companies would be wise to make sure that they don't overlook the what, the why and the where of objectives: What is it exactly you are asking the participant to do? Why is what you are asking important to the organization and to the participant's success right now? How can my manager and my organization be involved on a macro level, and where do those goals need to be addressed? Are there specific clients that we are targeting? Are there specific marketplaces or products? The more personalized, the more nuanced goals can be, the more effective they are going to be."

Eric Thiegs, chief revenue officer, National Gift Card, Crystal Lake, Ill., agrees. An incentive program, he said, "will garner the biggest impact when the reward resonates with the person receiving it. You see this happening all over the consumer marketplace right now—bespoke services and products tailored specifically to the individual. The same goes for receiving a reward or incentive."

To get the behavior you want from the end user, Thiegs added, the carrot, or incentive, needs to motivate that person. "Universal rewards, like a Visa prepaid card, which were once considered the easiest and most impactful incentive option in the market, are now being challenged by creative offerings from other incentive options such as niche gift cards that speak to the end user's passions—for example, a Blue Apron gift card for the home cook enthusiast, or an exclusive travel getaway for a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Impact begins when you turn someone's head—when the reward speaks to a participant's interests, hobbies or aspirational needs, Thiegs contends. Cultivate an incentive offering that starts to address this, and sprinkle in some surprise and delight touch points through incentives that are low in cost but high in perceived value, and your rewards program will be more impactful than you can imagine. "This is the part of my job I love the most," he said. "Consulting with incentive program buyers and managers on how to get the biggest impact out of their programs for their audience."

The most effective and lasting incentive programs are designed to achieve attainable organizational objectives in a manner that is impactful, memorable and relevant to participants.

Consider your audience. Organizations have top performers, average performers, and people who are struggling. It is important that, at a minimum, you think of your goals as objectives that are relevant to each one of those groups. This would more effectively move the needle throughout your entire organization.

Sure, today it's more about considering your audience, which blends into your participant experience, agreed Mike Donnelly, president, Hinda Incentives, Chicago. Especially with the prevalence and use of e-mail, and the ability to go one-on-one with program participants, he said, you want to try to get a more personal touch. When you look at most reward catalogs, it is no longer one-size-fits-all, although you do see a few programs like that. The fact that you can personalize programs plays into how you make your reward have impact.

"Mike is right on target with personalization," explained Hinda Incentives Marketing Director Ric Neeley. "We now have the ability to really customize programs and personalize rewards. But the other thing that I tend to see that makes a real impact with incentives is looping in and engaging managers, and having them recognizing people before their peers. Look at some of the demographic profiles that have been researched recently, especially studies of millennials and gen Zs. They want to be recognized for their efforts. So, if you are engaging their managers and showing managers how to more fully engage their people by recognizing them in front of their peers, you can make a bigger impact across the entire organization. It doesn't make any difference whether it is a sales incentive program, if it is an employee engagement program, or a wellness program. You want to recognize those people in front of others, and say exactly what they did to be recognized. That makes a huge impact with a program."

Think about life stage awards. Try to align the reward opportunities with the different life stages that people are in, so that they are getting a memorable award they are going to use regularly. The idea is to connect the reward right back to your program consistently.