by Matt Alderton | February 28, 2018
When it comes to energizing salespeople, engaging channel partners, and getting employees excited about the company's goals nothing works better than a well-conceived reward and recognition program. But too often, attention is focused on the goals and the awards for achieving them at the expense of the vital middle stage: marketing the program. Without a strong, ongoing marketing campaign, initial interest will wane and participants will take their eyes off the ball as time goes on.

So argues Mark A. Prine, vice president of national accounts for enterprise engagement company EGR International Inc. and BlackLab Media, its visual design and marketing studio. To shed a light on the importance of incentive marketing, Incentive magazine recently asked him to explain why -- and how -- incentive planners can do a better job advertising and promoting their programs to participants.

Incentive planners devote untold hours to designing successful incentive programs and choosing effective motivational rewards. Why should they invest just as much time and effort in marketing their programs? Isn't the reward enough?
In order for programs to be effective, the same amount of attention must be paid to marketing the program. The goal of these programs is engagement, whether it be direct employees, salespeople specifically, third-party resellers (i.e., the channel), or end-user customers. Increased engagement drives increased profits, retention, improved service, and overall satisfaction in the relationship. They often involve behavior change -- so marketing and communication are absolutely critical in their success. Gone are the days of outdated thinking whereby you offer a big-screen TV and magically everything will be successful. It takes work and strategic thinking to drive a communications campaign that will garner attention and drive true engagement. 

What should be the objective of an incentive marketing campaign? Is it about increasing participation, for instance? Awareness? Engagement?
All those things matter, but engagement is the No. 1 objective. Engagement is an emotional connection to your brand: You need to tell a great story to get your audience there and spark that connection. Once you achieve that you can clearly and measurably impact the success of your program.

What are the costs of failing to market an incentive program effectively?
The costs are high, and this is one of the things most often missed by clients in running their programs: the program will fail. Ultimately, it can drive negative consequences for the business, as you actually de-motivate the audience you were trying to engage. The risks are too great, so it is absolutely critical for a customer to get aligned with a top-flight national engagement agency that can help to establish outcomes and drive performance so that objectives are met and ROI is achieved. 

How do incentive professionals typically market their incentive programs? And is their approach effective?
The typical marketing approach is to put together a website, then send emails promoting merchandise and/or travel and hope it works. The thought is that the rewards are enough and will drive your audience, which is both outdated and simply ineffective. A web portal and emails can be part of the strategy but will always fall short if that's all the marketing that gets done. You need to use video-based learning to tell an impactful story and communicate the company's history, what it's about, its future objectives and how your participant can be a part of that future success. Your audience needs to know how they can contribute and what specifically their role is.

Word of mouth is one of the most effective marketing tools planners have at their disposal. What suggestions do you have for stimulating word of mouth about incentive programs? 
Educate and communicate. The web portal should integrate with training -- including training videos -- that help your audience be successful. Focus specifically on managers, who are the ones who drive performance. They can be the force that makes or breaks the success of your program. If your local managers don't embrace the program and become ambassadors for it, it can't succeed. Certainly, the use of awards has a place here, too. Participants will brag about the trip they earned or the latest tech device they use every day and would likely never have purchased for themselves. But engaging managers effectively is key.

Award presentation/delivery can be a really valuable marketing opportunity. Do you agree? If so, what ideas do you have for unleashing award presentation's marketing potential?
Live presentation of awards and recognition is critical in driving engagement. That's why incentive trips work: Being recognized and rewarded in front of your peers for the hard work and contributions you've made amplifies the recognition tenfold. You can do this online with social walls where a manager can recognize an associate, for example, but choose to make it public within their work group. Peers see and contribute to the recognition with likes and attaboys, thus amplifying recognition. The direct in-person feedback from leadership is critical in driving engagement.

In marketing of all varieties, metrics and measurement are religion. Are they important in incentive marketing, too?
Measurement is the key, plain and simple. And this is another area where incentive programs tend to miss the mark. There are always many factors that come into play when measuring even a basic sales incentive. You have to look at the ROI and filter out those mitigating factors to get the true results. Having very clear goals up front when you set up the program, then ensuring you are able to capture data throughout, enables you to measure the overall success of the program. At EGR/BlackLab Media we are all about measurement. We track and measure everything we do. This enables us to make adjustments and tweaks during the program to help ensure success throughout the programs tenure, not just at the end. It's much more efficient and we don't waste time and money during the program.

What are your suggestions for planners who want to elevate their incentive marketing game? How can planners be more creative with their incentive marketing efforts? 
Engage an agency like EGR/Black Lab Media, which puts a great deal of effort into discovery and ideation -- truly learning what your company is about, what are your business objectives, what are your challenges, and what is the actual goal of your incentive program? We devise a strategy and a plan to implement it around marketing the program. We have a multi-step engagement plan incorporating discovery, ideation, creation, implementation, and other steps. I can't give everything away, but as an example, anthem videos can be quite effective. They truly tell the company's story, where they've been, and where they are going. They set the stage for that emotional connection. There are great tools like augmented reality, too. For example, you can send a poster or even postcards out to your audience; participants can then scan the embedded code, which launches into an augmented reality video that truly captures your audience. It uses a simple app on a smartphone.