Feature Article - May/June 2019

Motivation Is In the Cards

Spotlight on the IGCC and the Gift Card Industry

By Brian Summerfield

It's a testament to the popularity of gift cards that pretty much everyone reading this has probably received one. And if you've gotten one lately, it might not even have been an actual card. It could have been a code sent to you via email or text that could be scanned off the screen of your mobile device.

Though they're ubiquitous today, gift cards haven't been around that long. For most of the 20th century, companies only offered gift certificates. These were (and are) paper representations of dollar value that could be redeemed for merchandise and services with a single business or family of businesses. While they're still in use, the downside of gift certificates is that they can fairly easily be lost or damaged.

Gift cards—that is, code-bearing, credit card-like products—didn't really come on to the scene until the 1990s, and they didn't become truly widespread until after the turn of the century. Thanks to smart new packaging and placement by brands like Starbucks and Apple, they caught on quickly as both greeting card fillers and a simple, quick means of recognition and thanks.

They're still used for that, of course, but rapid evolution spurred by advances in mobile, digital and e-commerce technologies has opened up a host of possibilities for the gift card space. In fact, it's even led to a rethinking of that space itself. Today's industry insiders are as likely to call what they're providing "digital currency" or "branded currency" as they are to refer to "gift cards."

"[These technologies] are a bridge for moving these things we call 'gift cards' into a much more permanent place in the payment spectrum," said Martha Weaver, director of merchant relations at Raise.com, an online marketplace that allows consumers with gift cards they can't use (or don't want to) to sell them to people who can (and do).

"At the end of the day, gift cards are just digital codes, and those codes convey currency for specific brands," she added. "We've started moving away from calling these gift cards. That's the term people know. But it's really digital currency, and it can be delivered instantly."

Weaver, who's worked in the industry for almost two decades now, has also been involved with Incentive Gift Card Council (IGCC) for nearly that entire time. The IGCC is a strategic industry group (SIG) within the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) that educates U.S. companies on the best ways to use gift cards as part of corporate incentives, employee recognition and customer loyalty programs.

How does the IGCC serve a diverse collection of members and fulfill its mission of advocating for the use of gift cards for incentive programs? Read on to find out.

The IGCC: What It Is, What It Does

The IGCC currently includes more than 200 members across the United States. The largest segment of membership—though not quite a majority—is merchant partners, but there's also significant representation from distributors, vendors and agencies.

The organization serves all of these groups by being an education, networking and resource center, said Ashley Harris, current president of the IGCC and senior director of strategic partnerships at National Gift Card.

"New programs this year include monthly webinars and member conversations," she said. "Each month the topic varies so that we are providing engaging content across our member types. Further, during our in-person member meetings, we always provide networking opportunities in a variety of settings. Whether members are looking to engage with old connections or find new business opportunities, the vast IGCC member base offers ideal networking opportunities."

Weaver, who's currently serving as the chair of education on the IGCC board, sees these events as particularly valuable for people who are newer to this space. As she points out, few people mindfully attempt to break into this industry at the beginning of their careers. They typically start out doing something else, then come in when related gift card job opportunities arise. For instance, people who work on the brand side often come from a more general marketing background, and many on the vendor side frequently have experience in traditional selling.

"I didn't go to school to become a gift card expert," Weaver said. "I had a major in communications and a minor in English literature. We find ourselves thrown into this role in many cases. So there's a huge amount of education that needs to happen for most of the people who are thrust into these roles and need to learn how to navigate the industry.

"One of the benefits of IGCC is that we're this educational resource for our members. We're there to help support and guide them along. We have a lot of information in our archives, and we also share a lot of information in our in-person meetings and monthly educational sessions to help bring experienced professionals together with people who are new to our industry. We're also working on a more formalized mentoring program to give more direct support to those who are new in the industry."

Educating its own members is only part of what the IGCC does. It's also focused on demonstrating the benefits of gift cards to corporate executives and incentive program directors, and instructing these groups on the most effective ways to acquire and use them.

"The IGCC provides this education in several formats," said Katie Dougherty, current executive vice president of the IGCC and gift card manager for seafood restaurant chain Red Lobster. "This past year we developed a webinar on gift card incentive programs with continuing education credit for human resources professionals. We also collaborate with other SIGs within the IMA. Together we give joint presentations at conferences where we can get our message out, meet new buyers and grow awareness. We are also using social media as a platform to communicate and educate about gift card incentives."