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Internet-Based Incentives: Paperless Performance-Boosters

Online recognition programs let you reward people any time, anywhere in the world, with incentives custom-designed to meet their motivational needs

By Richard Kern

For nearly 100 years, print catalogs and collateral materials have been the preferred foundation for incentive and reward programs. And even as we inch ever closer to that much-talked-about-but-still-elusive “paperless” world, few things grab the attention of incentive program participants more than the inspiring, upscale glossiness of a publication like The Taraci Collection or the mouth-watering, gourmet splendor of the photos gracing the Harry & David catalog.

But even though ink-on-paper publications may not be going the way of the dinosaurs just yet, more and more companies are looking to computer-based incentive and reward programs to inspire workers and recognize their efforts – especially with employee turnover costs rising and recruiting, training and administrative expenses going up along with them. The truth is, web-based programs offer a host of features and benefits that traditional catalog-based programs just can’t match.

“We’re seeing people starting to switch off traditional programs that they’ve been in for some time and begin to look for technology solutions,” says Michael Trepeta, President of Ace Marketing & Promotions. “I had a call recently from a company that was still using kind of an archaic program to reward incentives to employees. It was a basic catalog program where if you’ve been with the company for so many years, you fill out a form, get X amount of points and choose a gift from a catalog. Kind of impersonal and dinosaur-like. A lot of people like that are calling us to help them with the technology to cross over to something more viable, both for rewards and for staying in touch with a target group for whatever reason.”

In addition to costing less than print catalogs and collateral materials, online recognition programs also offer the ability to change motivational messages and rewards easily and inexpensively, keeping them different and exciting, and they provide a way to track the progress of a program, collect data and analyze it. Thanks to such efficiencies, even small companies can now afford a sophisticated recognition program.

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How Online Incentive Recognition Works

Online recognition lets you reward individuals or groups of people anywhere in the world, for numerous reasons, and do it promptly and fairly. Some program suggestions:

  • Achievements that you want recognized should each be assigned a point value based on your goals and your budget. If recruiting is high on your list, for example, give high points to employees who recruit a new hire, and give them bonus points if the person takes the job.
  • Reward service employees for performing a specific task well. Customer service reps, for example, might be recognized for being patient with cranky callers.
  • Reward safety efforts or process improvement suggestions.
  • Recognize anniversaries and promotions.
  • Make it easy for employees to be informed and reminded of the program online. Quick access will avoid lengthy online visits, which waste time for both employer and employee. By simply entering a password, participants should be able to access their personal accounts on the designated website so they can check their balances or order rewards.
  • Promote the program and praise recipients liberally in public. For online programs, this obviously works best on a website, but don’t forget company newsletters and magazines, as well as meetings and corporate events.
  • Offer a variety of reward options. An online program enables you to offer rewards through catalogs (both online and in print, if you so choose), through links to online retailers, or by issuing gift certificates or debit cards that can be used online or at stores.
  • Think ‘Enterprise Engagement.’ In addition to the pure incentive portion of a portal, there’s also the communication aspect to consider. Since incentive programs are really part of overall engagement strategies, technology today makes it possible to take an ordinary incentive program and turn it into a multi-touch communication, learning, recognition and reward strategy that includes: useful content that helps people; links to useful information; the ability to opt-in to receive information based on one's interests; social-networking components that enable people to share information; quizzes, contests, etc.
  • Expand learning opportunities. Use your program to better equip your employees or inform your customers. Remember that communication is an important part of any program – before, during and after.
  • Measure, measure, measure. Computer-based programs give you the ability to track return-on-investment and level of engagement with communications and training efforts.

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Part of a Larger Strategy

While this kind of flexibility is a plus, it also underscores the fact that standalone reward programs are growing less attractive. “We believe that rewards are only one part of a successful engagement and motivation program,” says Bruce Bolger, President of Selling Communications Inc., which also markets the Solata permission-based communications platform and helped develop the Corporate Rewards Exchange. “Getting people engaged through the enrollment process, getting them focused on meaningful objectives, equipping them with useful information, helping them communicate among their peers, communicating relevant and appropriate information, downloads and reward opportunities where they are appropriate – these are all critical components too.”

And therein lies another opportunity for tech-savvy marketers – the fact that technology can help improve a company’s internal connectivity as a whole, not just in terms of rewards and recognition. “Some companies look to us to integrate their incentive technology into other platforms,” says Michael Trepeta. “So we don’t typically go after a client to recommend a straightforward incentive program – it’s more of an overall communications program. We do everything from branding and creating merchandise to developing websites, e-commerce sites, reward and recognition programs, and using integrated marketing with all of that to look at how they communicate with employees, with channel partners and with customers.”

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Affordable Options are Growing

Although a number of companies offer online and computer-based incentive and reward programs, a couple of recent developments illustrate where the industry may be headed.

Built with collective input from incentive companies, fulfillment firms, incentive representatives and end-users, the Corporate Rewards Exchange is designed to enhance the current field rather than “disintemediate” any of the traditional players.

This new online tool helps organizations improve the effectiveness and lower the costs of their corporate gift programs by enabling qualified companies to buy gifts directly from the leading brands and their authorized incentive fulfillment companies. CRE also gives incentive users access to local expert assistance for the implementation of their engagement and reward programs without the necessity of a big budget. Participating incentive fulfillment companies include the nation’s most recognized names in rewards supply and fulfillment,

“What we saw was that there are a lot of portals, or exchanges in the market that ease the transactions of buying and selling – providing a centralized store if you will,” says Bruce Bolger. “But there wasn’t one for the incentive market. We’re not talking about onesy, twosey type purchases – we’re talking about someone who may need to buy fifty or a hundred of some brand name award item. If you look at it, it’s really a site that can be accessed from two perspectives. From the first perspective it’s for a company that wants to buy merchandise for a gift or meetings program, and from the second perspective it’s for an incentive company looking for ways to increase their capability and value to their clients. Essentially, everyone wins.”

Another tech tool available from Engagement Technology LLC (which also markets CRE) is the Universal Rewards Platform (URP), which is designed to enable incentive and marketing companies to have their own completely customized catalogs with near real-time access to inventory and a completed automated redemption and tracking process, etc.

In addition to Engagement Technology, NJ-based Paramax is bringing integration and connectivity to the incentive industry. The company has been offering a points platform to incentive companies for nearly a decade, but its latest connection with Amazon.com has upped the ante. “When Amazon.com entered the incentive market, we obviously wanted to connect to them and be able to connect our users to them,” says Dalton. “So a little over a year ago we started that integration, and now we’re running programs using Amazon’s fulfillment engine.” says Paramax President Jeff Dalton.

The Paramax system allows the participant and the company to essentially manage the program. “It’s the website where the participant goes to enter a sale or to order his award,” explains Dalton. “If it’s a recognition program, he might send a nomination to somebody, or he might go to take a quiz or a survey related to the program. Think of it as the portal that manages the points, the participants, the prizes and the rules of the program – it’s where the content is, and the awards catalog kind of hangs off the side of it. So the software really runs any type of program you can imagine, from employee service and recognition programs to consumer loyalty programs to channel programs to traditional sales incentive programs.”

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Weight Your Choices

In choosing an online recognition company, consider such factors as:

  • Costs. Estimate what costs might be involved in designing your site, service fees, prices of the awards chosen, shipping, and administering the program. Then compare that with what it would cost to do the job in-house, taking into account your own time and the number of people that would be required.
  • Amount of research and monitoring required from your human resources department to set up and maintain the program.
  • Demands likely to be placed on your information technology (IT) department to facilitate the program.
  • Attractiveness of the website. How well it works. Is it easy to access; do accounts and awards come up promptly?
  • Does your online recognition vendor offer a broad selection of the kind of awards your employees want?
  • Professionalism. Does the supplier help with the program theme, rules, and messages? Does it handle the administration, online ordering, and point balances?
  • Special features. Does the supplier have any special advantage over the competition in terms of creativity or functionality?
  • Fulfillment time. Does the supplier ship awards within a few days of order or a few months? Some firms now offer two-day fulfillment.
  • Experience. Has the supplier performed for businesses of your size and type? (It pays to check references.) Does the company have people who know the sales-tax rates and rules of every state and can guide you on other tax issues? Is it capable of awarding and deducting employees’ points automatically?

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Redefining Rewards & Recognition

“Technology will continue to innovate, and access to data and opportunities to reach people in new and prolific ways will transform how we market programs and reward individuals and teams,” says Michelle Smith, Vice President, Business Development for O.C. Tanner. “Rewards and recognition will be redefined because of all of the new options available for communications, award selection and marketing. But as is always the case with new technologies, it will be up to us to use these new developments in a responsible and productive fashion.”

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Summer 2009

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