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Premium Incentive Products Magazine - Products and Ideas That Inspire Performance
Always Be Talking
Ongoing Communication Key to Incentive Program Success

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.

Know Your Audience

Every communication plan has to begin with understanding the audience. One of the findings of a 2015 Incentive Research Foundation/Incentive Marketing Association study was that catering to each employee's unique wants and needs is paramount.

From the IRF website:

"Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the study shows how important it is for organizations to truly understand the individuals they would like to recognize and reward. Out of 452 respondents, 99 percent had a unique set of preferences—different from every other person in the study. This is, again, a strong indicator that just as we are unique individuals in our consumer shopping and lifestyle habits, so also are we unique in our preferences for reward and recognition.

"Businesses should continue to expand efforts to help managers understand employee's interests, likes and dislikes. It can start as simply as asking employees' favorite activities, movies, hobbies and music. Using these personal interests to personalize a reward makes the impact and expense all the more worthwhile."

This is a common-sense priority and always should have been, but with the rise of digital media and its use by different generations, not to mention the profile characteristics of today's working-age generations, it is not as easy as old/young and man/woman.

Simply put, younger employees read messages via certain media and ignore that sent by others, as do older employees. Millennials demand flexibility in how they work—from home, a coffee shop, the office—as well as customized experiences. Incentive program communications must adjust to those who love direct mail and those who toss it without a glance, those that read every e-mail and those that only read texts. Those that prefer mobile communications, and those that do not.

More than half of all e-mails that are opened are opened on a mobile device today. It's a change in the workforce that a change in communications has to address.

Mike McWilliams, senior director of strategy and marketing at Aimia, said he has experienced the generational shift in preferences in his own back yard. Aimia's Minneapolis office underwent renovations within the past two years, and it was already centrally located and adjacent to the Minnesota Twins home Target Field. Aimia started a work-from-home policy about the same time, and despite the beauty and convenience of the office, 88 percent of the employees took advantage of the policy.

"The biggest change in the business to me in the past decade is nobody sits at their desk," McWilliams said. "More than half of all e-mails that are opened are opened on a mobile device today. It's a change in the workforce that a change in communications has to address.

"We've got to find ways to connect with them on a consistent basis. We might have people sitting in a coffee shop, they might be at their kitchen table, but they also might be collaborating in the stands of a Minnesota Twins game. How do we best reach them? We have to do a lot of research. We have to understand with workforces how they access information. We might build apps because they're mobile, but we might be able to take advantage of a system that's already in place where they already get their company information.

"You have to really be able to address any of those situations. It's an opportunity and a challenge. There are so many tools at our disposal but there's also so many more choices to make from a communication strategy standpoint."

Stay On Purpose

McWilliams said there's a caveat to having so many arrows in the quiver: You don't have to use them just because you can. McWilliams is a strong believer in never forgetting the foundational tenets of communication programs.

"On one hand, you can really leverage a full toolkit of mobile, social and traditional medias to reach the audiences that matter most," he said. "On the other hand, you can easily get caught up in the shiny things and get off purpose pretty quickly, so that's why whether it was a decade ago or five years ago or today, one of the constants is design to your goals and let nothing muddy the waters. Not all ideas are always right for your campaign."

Rutledge said one example of that is a company whose employees were mainly older men. That generation prefers direct mail communications, so incentive programs for that company favors print delivery. Millennials are partial to new media, and for that media messages must be shorter.

Rutledge had a 15-year career in the creative side of advertising before her four years at USMotivation, and said the importance of succinct and punchy content in her previous career is crucial in the new one. She said it's especially effective with smaller budgets, when every exposure counts. Digital contact is most budget-friendly.

"We try to make sure the messaging is as clear and concise as we can and get them excited to open it with the lead sentence or what does that title or what does that subject line say to get them engaged?" said Rutledge.

Susan Adams, senior director of engagement for Next Level Performance, a Dittman company, gives an example of how one client, with a mix of generations, went about an incentive travel program with e-postcards, a website for progress toward goals and event details, and a unique visual aid.

"To drive interest in the program, we also created an eye-catching calendar of the destination, allowing participants to envision themselves there, and to imagine what the trip will be like on a day-to-day basis as they go about their work," Adams said. "This anticipation extends the travel experience and is an important component of motivation. When the reward seems within their grasp, program participants will strive to not let the opportunity slip away."

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."

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