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Smart Communication Strategies for Recognition & Reward Programs

Don't underestimate the value and power of constant, friendly and clear communication in recognition and reward programs—you can't win a game you didn't know was scheduled.

It's easy to get wrapped up in the sourcing and creativity involved with the rewards themselves, but the methods and strategy involved in driving awareness and excitement of incentive programs are crucial to employees' participation in and happiness with the reward and recognition experience.

There is recent research to back this up. In 2015, the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) revealed results of a study of the total award experience using responses from 452 members of the Incentive Marketing Association, which commissioned the report.

Debunking a myth that the award itself was the most important aspect of the entire award experience, the study showed that 12 percent of respondents claimed that type of communications was a preference driver in a large award scenario, while 16 percent said it was a preference driver in a small award example.

When the type of award presentation—defined in the study by whether the award is presented in public or private, and by who is presenting the award—is considered as a piece of a program's communication plan, those numbers rose to 21 percent and 25 percent, respectively. The results were consistent regardless of age, income, gender or role.

IRF President Melissa Van Dyke said the findings were not surprising as much as empowering to those who already emphasize communications.

"It's vitally important to how the reward itself is received," Van Dyke said. "That was very reinforcing to us because you can have a fantastic piece of merchandise, a wonderful product, but if the program and the award itself are not communicated correctly and in a manner that resonates with the recipient, the reward itself is going to lose value."

Van Dyke said people enjoy recognition, with or without prizes, so communication of incentive programs serves many functions and shouldn't stop once the award is earned. Who notifies the winner is important, as is whether that notification is private or public, or both.

Does public awareness occur in front of a gathering of colleagues, on a company-wide e-mail, at the dedicated incentive program website or all of the above? In the past decade, social media notice is a consideration as well. Successful programs give employees what they need to know, often, and understand that post-award communications are as crucial as the launch and motivational messaging.

Van Dyke said that while it's easy for incentive program administrators to be concerned with the wealth of technological ways to stay in touch, they must never forget the power of human touch.

Don't underestimate the value and power of constant, friendly and clear communication in recognition and reward programs.

"We really stress not losing the value of interpersonal communications, the one-on-one, that manager or that teammate saying, 'I see what you did, here's why it's important, and thank you,'" she said. "It's not possible when we're at the home office or different parts of the world, and that's when technology is fantastic, but if we're sitting right next to each other, we're in the same locale and we work the same shift, you really can't replace that one-on-one communication."

The attention paid to incentive program operations is necessary, given the investment companies make in them. In an incentive program end-user survey in early 2015, the Incentive Federation found that while most companies spend less than $50,000 on incentive programs, that number is skewed by the large amount of smaller companies.

When broken down by company revenue, 45 percent of firms with between $1 million and $10 million spend $50,000 or less, while 24 percent lay out $100,000 or more. Those numbers shift as the revenue rises; 76 percent of companies with a least $1 billion in revenue spend at least $100,000 on rewards and recognition.

It raises a chicken-or-egg question, but if the IRF survey (and past studies showing correlation between more frequent communication and employee participation) reflects how programs should be run, spend on communications has to be significant. It follows that the concentration on the best practices for those communications will follow.

Communication in Practice

Those are fine theories, but how is communication handled in real life? Kelly Honrobia is a channel account manager at Fujitsu Network Communications in Dallas; she's responsible for managing reseller partners and making sure they are always thinking about Fujitsu when they are talking to their customers.

Honrobia lives what the research reveals. When asked how important communication is to her incentive programming, she said, "It's essential in making the incentive successful."

Honrobia explained that for her missions—sales incentives focused on gaining mindshare with reseller partners—e-mail is the most effective tool. A series of e-mails leads up to a launch, she said, followed by additional e-mails once the launch begins, and a direct-mail piece that includes a small giveaway.

She said she is sure to curry favor from upper management. "Engaging executives and making sure they are bought into the program is important," Honrobia said. "When they forward the general e-mails that go out to the audience and add their own messages and endorsement, it is very powerful."

Demographic research shows differences in recognition and reward preferences among generations; for instance, millennials enjoy public award announcements and technology as merchandise. Honrobia said that also extends to use of communication channels.

"You have to know your audience and use communication channels that they pay attention to and respond to, like e-mail, social media, videos, direct mail," she said. "If you have a very large audience of many different demographics, you will need to utilize more channels to communicate."

She said she uses as a planning tool a calendar showing what messages will go out on what dates using which channels. "However, I think you also need to be flexible and ready to add or change the way you communicate," she said. "Track your e-mail open rates. If people are not opening the e-mails, start sending direct mail or post information on internal web portals, send out fun giveaways that help serve as reminders, get time on team meeting agendas to promote the incentive, make it a contest and highlight the top three to five people who are earning the most rewards and create a video of them endorsing the program."

Clearly creativity is involved in Honrobia's strategies. She also is a big fan of patience and persistence in the case of low initial participation. She says the most recent incentive she ran started off a bit slow and then picked up when her team increased the communications.

The program sought to change partners' behaviors so they would learn more about Fujitsu and position Fujitsu solutions when talking to their customers and rewarded sales reps for activities such as attending training, registering deals and inviting customers to visit Fujitsu labs.

"Initially some of the reps got involved, but we needed more people to participate," she said. "We started sending personalized e-mails to each rep every two to three days reminding them of the incentive and giving them real examples of where they could be earning their rewards."

After about two weeks, participation rose 78 percent, she said.

"I'll just say, 'Don't give up on the incentive if it doesn't seem successful at the start,'" Honrobia said. "Just change the way you're promoting it until you see the results you're looking for."

Communication Basics & Beyond

Honrobia has a list of do's and don'ts that she would share if she were training a newcomer to incentive programming:

"Do: over communicate; make sure your communications are consistent until the very end of the incentive; use many different communication channels; get executive buy-in and have them help communicate; make your communications fun—incentives are meant to inspire; keep track of as many statistics as possible so you can also accurately communicate the results of your incentive back to the stakeholders.

"Don't: expect your incentive to take off from the very beginning, because incentives usually take a while to take hold; give up; taper your communications, which is hard because it's easy as program managers to lose steam, especially if our audience is not as excited as we are."

Honrobia said social media has changed programming in a couple ways, for programmers and for employees. Feedback via social media has made it easier to adjust a program and its communications throughout the process, as well as enable the employee audience to promote the program to its peers.

She mentioned technology as another boon for programmers. Hootsuite, for example, allows people to manage all social media and to disseminate messages from one place or one platform, so that using social media to promote incentives is easier, more consistent and faster.

Honrobia also sees the economic benefits of using third party vendors to run incentive programs with software.

"Incentive companies have pre-made, easily customizable web programs that can essentially be turned on," she says. "Of course, you still pay for the intellectual property, but, overall, the cost to develop an incentive has decreased due to not having to create it from scratch. The incentive companies truly are the experts and they have built communications into their systems."

The Right Tools

These companies use software that can send automated messages such as personalized monthly statements of activity on individual reward accounts, automated periodic reminders that the program is available, and confirmations that let participants know a reward had been applied.

Leslee Vivian is communications director for just such a company, Carlton Group Ltd., which offers software as a service (SaaS) for companies looking to farm out their incentive and recognition programs. She said the communications aspect of its cloud-based performance enhancement software product, named Power To Motivate (PTM), is essential.

"If they don't know about it, they can't participate," she said of incentive programs.

The software brands every message and media, beginning with a welcome e-mail at the launch of each program. That message posts as a web news article on a dedicated website to which members log in to see all program-related communications. Points totals are e-mailed to members, doubling as program reminders. The software's messaging makes suggestions for redemption based on points balance or past redemptions.

If a company is running programs for different divisions, the software can multi-task, Vivian said, running simultaneous programs with unique branding that target different groups such as call center employees and field reps. P™ can also handle recognition programs like years of service, for example.

Vivian said P™ leverages its technological genetics to make program participation fun. "We're really looking to engage the members in communication, keep them excited and interested in the program," she said. "We introduce elements of gamification, there's games to play, there's leaderboards, there's tracking. They see where they are, and how they compare to other members of their team.

"Because they can see multiple ways to earn points there's always a motivation to keep selling or keep achieving goals that have been set for you so you can earn more points and redeem for a huge variety of rewards."

Mike May is president of incentive program consultants SpearOne. He believes in the power of electronic communications and social media but says non-virtual communication, like one-on-one recognition, should never be minimized. Inside his own company, for example, employees give each other handwritten notes with $10 Starbucks gift cards for small appreciations.

Define goals; lay out a timeline; keep push communications succinct; have themes for premium products; and make communications at least 10 percent of a program's overall budget.

"I walk around and see in the cubicles where they've saved the cards that say, 'Thank you for working late on that special project for a client of mine last week,' 'Thank you for the great idea,' or 'Thank you for extra special customer service,'" May said. "Those notes stay around longer than the couple of iced lattes they got."

Similarly, May said reminding employees of an incentive program with desktop items still works in a world of text messages, Facebook notifications, Tweets and e-mail blasts.

"The premium (desktop) items are sadly sometimes squeezed out of the program, but yet they're the most effective because a kickoff announcement that gets printed and mailed is really just going to last for that day," May said. "People aren't going to keep it around. If they did keep it around they're going to file it away in a drawer and never open it again, whereas if you do a promotional product, hopefully that's going to stay on top of their desk if it's a desk item or a keychain, something that ties into the theme of the program that they'll use in their personal life. It's around and is a constant reminder. I'm a huge believer in the tangible."

May is not exactly old school, but he does say there is a danger of relying too much on technology-based messages.

"There's a place for them, we do tons of it, but they're less effective because most people when they're reading their e-mails sit there with their index finger on the delete key clicking as fast as a teenager plays video games," he said. "There's an over-rotation toward electronics. There's an underfunding of print communications and I would say there's even too little of the premium promotion relative to the effectiveness.

"We recommend strongly that (electronic communication) be a parallel tactic, that it not be exclusive. To do it well, electronic communication, it needs to be graphical and if you make the investment in graphic design for e-mails the incremental cost of printing and distributing that item as a flyer is not that much money, but yet so many people don't."

Investing in graphic design talent and technology is one item on May's list of best practices. Others include: define goals; lay out a timeline; keep push communications succinct; have themes for premium products; and make communications at least 10 percent of a program's overall budget.

The money goes to the mouthpieces.

"The communication is so important to ensure the incentive promotion is not the best-kept secret that the company has," May said. "What you hate is when somebody earns a reward, you announce to them that they got the reward and their response is, 'Oh, I didn't even know there was a contest.' You want to avoid your contests being the best-kept secret."



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