by Alex Palmer | September 17, 2018
One of the greatest advantages of gift cards as incentive rewards is their flexibility -- they appeal to a huge variety of interests and preferences and can be tailored to a number of different types of programs. A $5 card to a coffee shop makes an ideal spot reward, while a $200 Visa card makes for a substantial sales incentive that the recipient can use at any number of retailers. In many cases, incentive planners are limited in their use of gift cards only by their imaginations.

With this in mind, Incentive reached out to Marina Hodges, board chair of the Retail Gift Card Association, to discuss how gift cards can most effectively be used in programs and as rewards for individuals -- whatever their preferences. 

How would you say preferences among gift card recipients have shifted in recent years? Are they looking for different values, different brands or different ways they can be presented?

People still love gift cards -- we know that for sure. Every year a number of research companies publish studies that show gift cards to be the top choice of both givers (retailers, employers and so forth) and recipients. And while the top reasons for giving and wanting closed-loop gift cards have remained the same (choice and convenience), there have been shifts in the types of choices and conveniences offered. Many of these preferences have evolved as a result of new technologies that are available and an increasing consumer desire for personalization. 

Here are some notable shifts we are seeing:

People want convenience when giving and redeeming gift cards. We see digital gift card (egift) sales expanding rapidly as givers look for a fast and convenient way to give (bye bye, snail mail!) and egift usage rising as shoppers redeem them. eGifts can arrive in minutes, can be loaded into a mobile wallet or app, and be used to shop immediately. The holidays are hectic, and last-minute giving is an important, easy option. 

• With the growth in digital cards, there's a growing popularity in providing interactive egift experiences -- digital cards that arrive with animation, video and sound effects. These allow the giver to personalize the experience and connect with the recipient in a fun way.

• Givers love value, so brands that offer special deals and added incentives are getting their attention. Many brands offer bonuses for purchasing certain gift card denominations (such as a free $20 gift card for buying $100 worth of gift cards), additional rewards points, or bonus items that are uniquely attractive (e.g., a free song download).

• People aren't overlooking the physical gift card space. Packaging options are expanding beyond free (but sometimes boring) white envelopes. Attractive boxes, bundled greeting and gift card options and personalization are becoming standard offerings in many gift card programs. And, of course, retailers' presentation of the cards is important too. Merchandising gift cards with seasonally themed products (gift cards next to chocolates on Valentine's Day, for example) helps consumers put together their own gift experience for the recipient -- with an added personal touch. 

What are some effective ways for incentive program managers to ensure recipients have a high level of choice in the cards they receive and that they get the types of cards and they are presented in such a way that is most motivating to them?

Gift cards are most often the top choice of customers redeeming their rewards points; they're also a top choice for program managers looking to incentivize peoples' behavior. It's important to keep in mind the most effective ways to keep incentive programs fresh, relevant and motivating -- here are some tips:

Don't limit your portfolio to only a limited number of popular brands. Gift cards are a connection to the retailers they represent and your recipients interact with a wide variety of retailers every day. Sometimes recipients are looking for a casual interaction at their favorite coffee shop or restaurant; other times they are looking to spruce up their home for the holidays with home goods or a DIY project. Be ready with numerous options that cover a variety of needs and use cases. 

Offer physical and digital options.

Review your portfolio often. New card programs come online all the time and often new programs offer special deals or incentives to get their programs launched. Additionally, these programs often have new tech capabilities that your recipients will find engaging.   

Don't limit your program by choosing to offer only gift cards for brands that give you very high discounts for selecting their product. Offering a limited assortment of cards with the sole purpose of boosting your margins or meeting certain incentive thresholds can limit your portfolio -- leaving your recipients with fewer choices than they'd prefer and causing you to miss out on building relationships with other popular brands. 

Ensure your gift card selection fits high-end rewards (i.e. an airline gift card for $100) as well as for when people have a lower amount of points to redeem (i.e. a gift shop to a quick serve restaurant or coffee shop).