Whether it’s with employees, customers, partners or prospects, connectivity is key.
|What’s a WAP Push?||Managing Touchpoints|
|A Broader Opportunity||In This Case, More is More|
Technology is the driving force behind many important changes in the incentive industry. It has put reward catalogs online and made communications with clients and program participants more immediate and more effective. And it has enabled incentive companies to manage, track and deliver rewards more efficiently. But perhaps the most important benefit that technology has brought to incentive companies, clients and participants is the connectivity it offers.
“In general terms, it’s amazing how connected we’re becoming in terms of sharing data and content – how we can walk from the office to the gym and then home for dinner and still be connected to whatever content is important to us while we’re on the move,” says Saro Hartounian, CEO of Harco Incentives.
The importance of that technology – particularly the importance of wireless connectivity – is even evident in the rewards selected by incentive program participants. “You can see this in the high-quality output devices that people are choosing – LCDs and plasma TVs, PDAs, GPS, HD, BluRay, high-end laptops, digital cameras and camcorders,” Hartounian says. “These categories represent up to 70% of all of the rewards that we redeem at Harco.”
Add to that the growing selection of music, movies, books, electronic gift cards and other reward choices that can be easily downloaded, and Hartounian’s point becomes crystal clear. “All of these can be delivered electronically to the consumer or program participant while he’s on the move,” he adds.
The pace of technological change is accelerating, and the industry is doing its best to keep up. How, exactly? “What it means for Harco,” Hartounian says, “is that we’re now running campaigns via text messaging to customers. We have a division that concentrates on mobile marketing and on enabling and engaging a target demographic for our corporate customers.”
Engaging customers or program participants used to be accomplished through direct mail, e-mail, catalogs, or other traditional media. Today, Harco and a handful of other industry players are engaging their target audiences via text messaging – mainly for brand equity and communications campaigns, and for information campaigns within particular programs.
“We can also use text messaging to drive recipients to a particular website,” Hartounian explains. “We send them the URL in text, along with a username and code in what we call a WAP push – which means they can actually access the website from their cell phones. Or they can use their laptops or whatever – all in a wireless, WiFi environment.”
Tracking the results of such a campaign is also easier. “It’s all opt-in to begin with, and if participants use their cell phone to respond to a particular campaign, we know which cell phone is responding, which IMEI number, or which ESN is responding, so we can track and mine all of that data,” Hartounian says. “And as far as a WAP push that results in a home PC or notebook computer access, there’s a unique passcode and user, so we know who’s doing what and where.” Talk about measurability!
Hartounian sees all sorts of potential incentive and promotional uses for this kind of technology. “Let’s say you shop at Neiman Marcus and you sign on to the Neiman Marcus website and agree to be contacted via text message for store specials and proximity alerts. The next time you’re within 500 yards of a Neiman Marcus store for more than 15 minutes – which means you’re not just driving by – they’ll sent an alert to your cell phone. Maybe it will be that day’s specials, information about the store, or a code you can use at point-of-sale for a discount or for additional points on your reloadable store card.”
Right now Hartounian sees this technology being used primarily for consumer incentive programs. “But engagement through cell phones in a non-invasive way is going to become a more important tool for incentive programs of all types,” he adds. “Our goal as incentive marketers will be to find that particular package of services in which technology makes it easier for the end user to interact with us – and not become an additional burden to them.”
The truth is, our customers are just as eagerly looking for new technologies that will help them cut through the clutter and engage consumers and incentive program participants in new ways. “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 yesterday 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.”
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 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.”
In cases like this, a motivational program is often just an add-on element. With one client, for instance, Ace Marketing first lent a hand with an e-commerce site to give the client more control over its regional purchasing habits. Then it helped create an online solution to solve a problem with print and forms management. “Finally, the client asked us to suggest a reward program, and we simply integrated a rewards platform linked to Amazon to the platforms that were already there and integrated it seamlessly,” Trepeta says with a smile.
Another client was looking to create a customer appreciation program that would drive traffic to its website, promote its services and build a marketing database. “They had been marketing through mailers and discount coupons,” Trepeta explains. “So we helped them set up an online rewards program that customers had to sign up for – even before they became paying customers. This helped them to rebrand the company and build a website while rebuilding their customer database. Ultimately, we integrated a rewards program and a communications system into the same platform to keep those customers and potential customers engaged.”
The message is this: The more you can offer in terms of creative solutions, the more likely it is you’ll get the business. “If you don’t have the type of technology solutions that customers are increasingly looking for, then you’re really not going to be able to make it in the incentive marketplace,” Trepeta predicts.
“It’s clear we’re moving into an era of one-to-one marketing,” says Bruce Bolger, President of Selling Communications Inc., which also markets the Solata permission-based communications platform. “With electronic marketing, it’s incredibly efficient to target people individually, and the key will be to touch people in every way they want to be touched and maintaining those connections over time.”
This usually starts with getting their permission, opt-in, and then giving them useful information, opportunities to network with one another and, where appropriate, rewarding them for their loyalty, referrals, level of interest or engagement. “Technology will have to support this new electronic relationship,” Bolger says, “and the payoff is that companies will now be able to manage not only what factors create a relationship, but what factors nurture it, and what the value of that relationship is.”
The Solata platform, for instance, was built on the premise that companies would have to address all of these key points – “and to do it most effectively, it needs be done in an integrated fashion, so we created components or modules that address each of these touchpoints in the new one-to-one relationship,” explains Bolger. “It starts with permission or enrollment, it provides relevant content and links to resources and content that might be outside of the site. It provides networking opportunities through a social networking feature and provides forums for people to discuss topics of common interest – all on an opt-in basis.”
Solata also includes a universal points platform, meaning that companies and resellers can select different reward options from a range of different suppliers and plug them into the system seamlessly. According to Bolger, “You work out a volume discount deal on the items to be featured from one or more of our qualified reward suppliers, so you know what it’s going to cost you, then you can either pay upon points issuance or pay upon redemption, and the system handles all of that.” This feature provides users of the platform with the flexibility to use the reward suppliers they choose. Suppliers, adds Bolger, are chosen based on their experience with fulfilling incentive rewards – “in other words, they have a demonstrated experience in the incentive business.”
Pretty much the only thing Solata doesn’t provide is rewards, and that’s by design. “Our system is built to work with existing rewards platforms from other incentive companies; it lets users define which ones they want to use,” Bolger notes. “It’s a very robust and customizable integrated software platform that can plug into any rewards solution.”
And 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 Bolger. “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.”
Paramax is another technology company that’s bringing integration and connectivity to the incentive industry. In fact, Paramax has been offering a points platform to incentive companies for eight years now.
“Incentive companies would start with the platform and a program that they would typically fulfill themselves, building their own awards catalog and fulfilling the merchandise from a variety of sources,” says Jeff Dalton, President of Paramax. Over time, we improved the platform by developing auto-ordering systems and [application program interfaces] that made it easier to collect and forward pertinent information on program participants and data from other sources.”
Dalton explains: “Our system is what the participant uses and what the company uses to manage the program. It’s the website where the participant goes to enter a sale or to order his award. 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. For us, it was always about wanting to be connected to everybody.”
Paramax’s latest connection is with Amazon.com. “When Amazon.com entered the incentive market, we obviously wanted to connect to them and be able to connect our users to them, so about a year ago we started that integration and now we’re running our first programs using Amazon’s fulfillment engine,” says Dalton.
For its part, Amazon is encouraging industry connectivity by the fact that it doesn’t work directly with brands or end-users. “We work with performance marketing companies that have their own connections with the industry – companies that are looking to motivate employees or consumers or distribution channels to increase business results,” says Hans-Eric Gosch, Senior Business Development Manager for Amazon Merchandise Rewards. Paramax is one of the turnkey service providers that’s helping to integrate and connect those performance marketing companies to Amazon’s 40-plus product categories and millions of product offerings.
That connection offers a number of benefits to incentive end-users and program participants. First of all, clients are connected directly to Amazon’s retail space and won’t face the problems associated with lag-time, stock-outs or product availability that sometimes affect other incentive programs. “The day the new iPod or iPhone is released is the day that Paramax’s clients are going to find that item as a reward option in their catalogs,” says Gosch. “We don’t reserve items for retailing differently than for this platform. Our partners are injecting orders directly into Amazon’s retail ordering platform.”
In addition, says Gosch, “Our partners are getting real-time order confirmations and real-time shipment confirmations. They always know where and how to track all of these reward items, and they always know the real-time pricing and real-time availability through a series of web services. On top of that, average shipping time is 2-6 days, which is a tremendous optimization over what most folks have today in the reward catalog experience.”
The range of reward offering seems to be resonating with program participants. “In the short time we’ve been doing this, it’s pretty amazing when you see the types of rewards that people are getting,” says Dalton. “It’s not the typical digital camera or flat-screen TV. They’re buying shoes, groceries, videos, books – meaningful rewards in the $10 and less price range.”
Gosch advises that clients can take advantage of as much or as little of Amazon’s range of product offerings as they like, customizing their client-branded websites to a target demographic, a specific type of employee, or a particular incentive program theme. “Whatever the reward,” says Dalton, “if we can get that person to come back to the site, stay connected and keep talking to him and pushing more information out to him, that program will be successful.”