by Alex Palmer | January 30, 2018
Since launching in 2011, The Gift Card Network (GCN) has proven a valuable resource for members of the incentive gift card industry, providing its members with a wealth of research, marketing support, and a platform through which they can collaborate and share insights. While its membership of gift card merchants and vendors has grown, along with its offerings, the organization has also worked to stay a step ahead of the shifts in this fast-changing industry. That means meeting the evolving needs of its members at a time of major technological advancements and consolidation. This year is poised to be busy one for the GCN, which is looking to refocus its offerings, with a new format for its events and offerings ranging from a promotional assistance to a new podcast. 

Incentive spoke with GCN Founder Matt Davies about these changes, and why the need for innovative thinking in this sector is more important than ever. 

What are some of GCN's goals for 2018?

We're taking a much more focused look at our membership. In the past we've had more discussion around finding out what other people are trying to accomplish and matching what they are trying to do. This year, we are going to be much more about developing media and exposure for people and then really focusing on three core groups: People who want to sell stuff and buy stuff; people who want to educate people or be educated; and people who want to inspire or be inspired.

How will that translate into the products and events that GCN offers its members?

We are going to be simplifying some of our benefits for people joining. We are going to be doing a podcast called Gift Card Game Changers, on the history of gift cards. We will be speaking to people who changed the gift card space in some significant way and interviewing them about the process-such as starting a program or sales channel. It will be on iTunes and everywhere else. 

We are going to be launching an app, so people can access our content anywhere, and we're building in ways to benefit our paid subscribers. 

Our Gift Card 101 is moving from a single event to multiple ones at our partnered events. We're relaunching Catalyst as a single-day event where we bring people to talk about challenges and bring in veterans of the gift card space to help them find solutions. It should be a year of significant change for us. 

We are going to be supporting the Flourish event again this year, doing Gift Card 101 at their event. We've adapted our Gift Card 101 to be a smaller event. Originally it was, "let's pack the house," but we've realized a small, intimate setting is much more satisfying for that type of education. So we're trying to hone that down and provide the "professors" with a smaller group of people with very focused learning around ways in which you can make a gift card program successful. It's going to be a little more high-level and we are going to be creating other content that can help them develop past that and partnering with event partners to bring content of different sorts and more advanced learning. This is based on member feedback, which said, "I don't want to go to another event, I'd rather you tack it on to an event I'm already going to." 

That will hopefully get more people into the Gift Card 101s throughout the year, but in a smaller setting.

What inspired these shifts and new offerings?

The purpose of it is really to speak to our core competency. In the past, people have come to us and said, "can you help us do these things? We can't get this from a trade association." But as we've been challenging those teams and the associations have become much more open and more interested in providing benefits to their members, it's not necessary for us to duplicate what they are doing, so we want to focus on offering more depth and less breadth. 

The Incentive Gift Card Council and Retail Gift Card Association are really coming into their own as trade associations, so one of the things we are looking forward to is providing a megaphone for those voices. This market is ripe for marketing of a different type. When we started six years ago, it was all cold calls, now we have different venues, printed and digital magazines focused on the gift card space. It's time to educate people on what kind of marketing they can do and how we can help them do that. That's one of our main focuses this year -- maximizing people's potential in marketing to the space and maximizing the audience for the space. It's time -- we're past cold calling, we need to make sure people are aware of it through more convenient means.

Our goal is to double our distribution list by the end of the year and to really try to find a new type of audience member whom we can speak to in a different way, bringing more literal benefits to members.

How do you think what you're doing at GCN speaks to where the industry is heading as a whole? Is the gift card sector broadening to new audiences?

I think what's happening in this space is that we're moving away from these 20-person conversations in a back room and moving toward getting 500 people in a room and making it happen. The major distributors -- the Blackhawks and InComms -- have created a destination and a built-in audience. They have business partners that have a vested interest in their success. They've fostered those relationships and created avenues for them to converse, but what is lacking is that third-party approach where it doesn't matter who is hosting the events, it's who is in the room. 

We continue to find value in being that unaffiliated third party that can bring value to the merchants who are trying to figure out what to do next. We don't try to sell these products, and by the nature of our consulting business we need to be neutral in terms of the services provided so that we can do what's right for our clients. There is benefit there -- as this continues to grow and as we get more powerful, more consolidated businesses that are just buying each other up and everyone is becoming more vertically integrated. 

It's a mad scramble right now for those partners not to just gain market share, but also to identify what the next 10 years will look like as far as how to build new distribution opportunities. Who is opening the next big idea for gift card distribution and what does that look like? That's everybody's question. It's not enough to say "we are opening up in this many locations," it's about how we revolutionize the business together.

Explain how you hope to help those looking to inspire or be inspired.

Anybody who is looking to revolutionize something needs to have access to incredible amounts of ideas in order to understand what the next step might look like. What we're looking to do is help inspire and allow people to develop products, with help, that can take all our different channels to the next level. When you talk about incentives and trying to get someone else to do something, there are so many different aspects to that and so many opportunities. If you look at the realty channel, for example, any time you have a one-on-one contact with somebody and want to influence them in some way, from a sales or marketing perspective, adding gift cards as an incentive is such an insignificant investment that has a significant impact. 

It's hard to not just explore those opportunities but to inspire other people to explore them and to help encourage growth in the space that benefits everybody.