by Leo Jakobson | December 01, 2015

Getting to Individual Preferences
Factoring all of that information about the personal preferences of each of the 452 people who participated in this study was a complex and monumental task, with each participant asked more than 80 in-depth questions.

First, each person was asked to choose his or her preferred award for a large incentive in each of three categories: merchandise, gift cards, and travel or experiential rewards. This was repeated for a small incentive, except that travel/experiential awards were replaced with perks such as free lunch or a reserved parking spot for a week.

The award-choice questions went into a great deal of detail, but did not provide a dollar amount for any award, instead instructing participants to assume all awards were of the same value. For example, in the large incentive category there were 10 categories of gift cards to choose from, such as "a gift card from an online retailer (e.g., Amazon)" and "a gift card for apparel/clothing items (e.g., Gucci, Chanel, Brooks Brothers)."

Merchandise had a dozen choices, such as "camera/camera equipment (e.g., Canon, Nikon)" and "home décor items (e.g., Vera Wang, Waterford)."

Travel rewards had five choices, including a "three- to four-night resort getaway for two, including airfare" and a "four-day, three-night trip for you and a guest, with top performing peers, hosted by executives."

After that, the questions turned to whom each participant would most like to be recognized by -- for example, their peers or team, a direct manager, or company executives. Next, came questions about how each person would prefer to have that award communicated, such as being recognized one-on-one by a manager, in front of a large audience, or on the company's intranet. Finally, the questions asked what type of professional development opportunities would most excite them -- like being paired with a mentor, given more challenging work or a special project, or the opportunity to attend a conference or seminar.

Putting It All Together
Part two of the research involved pairing each participant's preferred award and an equivalent cash award with what had been learned about each participant's individual preferences in these three categories:

1) Who delivers the recognition

2) How the recognition is communicated

3) The professional development opportunities that accompany the award

For example, a participant receiving a large incentive award who prefers to be recognized by a company executive who is using the company intranet to deliver the news of the award, along with a networking event that will provide a professional development opportunity, would be asked to rank his or her award preference from the following choices: travel award (the resort getaway), merchandise award (camera), gift card (apparel), or cash.

Once the top reward choice was determined for each person, the questions started varying the three presentation characteristics -- the recognizer, the communication, and the professional development opportunity -- to find out how important each of those was to each respondent. Factoring that all together, you get each individual's preferred total award experience.

Taking all of those 452 responses together, the "Participant Study" found that for small incentives, nearly "40 percent of an individual's preferred total award experience was determined by the award presentation," Van Dyke says. "That was striking to us -- 40 percent being presentation and only 60 percent being reward."

The Biggest Motivator? Opportunity
The importance of professional development opportunities was one of the major surprises of the entire study, Van Dyke says. "It was almost one-third of the preferred total award experience," for large rewards. Those results, she adds, were "pretty consistent, across the board, for men and women, for younger workers and older workers, and for people with lower incomes and higher incomes."


Richard L. Low
Citizen Watch Company and IMA

What all of this amounts to, Van Dyke says, is the demolition of a second widely accepted myth of the incentive industry: that a company should -- or even can -- try to find the "right" non-cash award to motivate all of its employees.

"Of the 452 respondents, 448 had unique scenarios for their preferred total award experience," Van Dyke says.

In fact, Low says, for him one of the key outcomes of the Participant Study was that it "solidified the idea that there is a definite place in any company's [incentive] program for cash, merchandise, gift cards and travel awards."

From an IMA perspective, "recognizing that each incentive [award type] has a place is critical," Low says. "Some people will always prefer cash, but an overwhelming majority prefers merchandise, gift cards, and travel over cash. A properly designed incentive program will find the right award mix." IMA members' role, he adds, is to help clients find it.