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Communications Key to Maximizing Incentive Results

Clear, creative, continuous. That formula guarantees enthusiasm for any program. And the Internet makes it easier than ever to make communications count.


What if a sales manager threw an incentive program and no one showed up? Ludicrous, right? Any manager worth his or her salt knows enough to come up with a splashy kickoff announcement. But how about sending participants product information and regular updates on how they're doing? Or tips on how to reach the next level?

It may seem obvious that communication is an important element in incentive programs—from beginning to end. But it is often overlooked. And given the cost-effectiveness of online programs developed for the incentives industry, budget constraints are no longer an excuse for underfunding communications.

Communication Is Key

Frequent communications with participants is absolutely key to an incentive program's success, though there are still many companies that seem not to have gotten that message. Often the communications element is found to be one of the weakest links of sales and other types of incentive programs.

Online and Off-Line Delivery

Opinions vary on what should be communicated to incentive participants, the best way to get the word out, and how often people should be contacted. Naturally, email and dedicated Web sites are easy, inexpensive, and effective means of disseminating news and information. But many experts still recommend a blend of online and off-line communications.

In fact, with the ease of communicating online, some companies have erred on the side of going paperless, and have devalued the importance of print communications. Most experts advise a mixture of all of the media available, because people learn, respond, and communicate in different ways. The Internet is simply another medium, another tool that can enrich the program, but it needs to be integrated into an overall effective communications package.

The Kickoff

With or without the Internet, the most basic communication piece of any incentive program comes at the launch. A commonly used method for kicking off what is one of incentive travel's biggest destinations, for example, is to stick that poster of Hawaii up in the sales office. But the same logic applies to the kickoff of any kind of incentive program. The goal is to get people thinking about the incentive from the get-go.

If the budget allows, you might stage a thematic meeting or a gala kickoff event. Besides the usual enticing promo pieces, give people something to take with them, say, a Hawaiian lei, a bottle of beach sand, or even a pineapple. The concept is simple, but it works, especially when something is sent to the participant's home simultaneously.

In online programs, the touted launch on a branded Web site featuring music, exciting graphics, and streaming video is sure to get everybody's eyes on the prizes.

Follow Up with the Rules

Whether provided at the kickoff or as an immediate follow-up, a program's rules are an essential piece of the communications process. Spelling them out should reinforce the program's theme and further arouse participants' expectations and interest.

The rules should also communicate the program's overall objectives, point structure, and other information to let everyone know exactly what's going on, and what they need to accomplish.

Some incentive companies and consultants will also complete an impact analysis that solicits input not only from participants, but from other departments that will be affected by increased sales, such as manufacturing and accounting. Special communications are sent to people in these departments. They might not have a chance to win the trip or cruise, but it's important to let them know what the program will do for the company. When you ask people for buy-in ahead of time and communicate with the entire audience, the groundswell that comes up is often tremendous.

Keeping Up the Interest

The launch is critical, but ongoing communication with participants is equally important. Bulletins might include a scorecard or a leader board showing how individuals or teams are doing. Or they could feature success stories, selling tips on how to reach goals, or maybe just another mouth-watering photo of Hawaii. Regular communications keep the enthusiasm high, and that's what drives people to give you the result or the behavior you're looking to get out of a program.

Frequency is paramount, but be careful not to overload people or bore them with repetitive material. Inject creativity so that your communications stand out from the clutter of stuff bombarding their lives. Creative variety in stating the need for competitive urgency is the key.

Others prefer to design six-month programs. Some agencies send out weekly e-mails with participants' standings. Every three weeks throughout the campaign, they send teasers to users' homes to keep the awareness up.

Going to the Net

The Internet presents a host of possibilities for enlivening communications in incentive programs. Many managers put more emphasis on email, but some programs also offer the option of posting customized messages on the bulletin board area of a program's proprietary Web site. It's a good idea to keep refreshing the messages—once a week in 90-day or 120-day programs, once a month in year-long programs—so that people keep coming back. Some programs allow managers to update and send messages automatically.

The Internet's ability to foster two-way communications between managers and participants is another plus. For example, a question on how to navigate the site could be answered quickly by email. Or a sales manager might put together an instant survey to gauge reaction on an aspect of the program, post it on the home page, and immediately gain valuable feedback.

End with a Flourish

The final step in the communications process occurs when an incentive program concludes. Notify participants that the program has ended, and announce the winners. Analyze whether or not the objectives were met, and if they were not, suggest what could be done to meet them in the future.

This communication is extremely important. The company will want to congratulate those who won the awards and recognize their accomplishments. The end of the program also presents an opportunity to measure individuals' performance. Ask: "What did they do to get where they got? What were the best practices they used? Can we use those in the next program?" And for those who didn't quite reach the winner's circle, let them know how they can get to that level next time.

The Cost of Communications

Talk may be cheap, but communication is not free, so be sure to budget appropriately.

It takes regular communications, both print and online, to keep enthusiasm high, provide people with the information on how they can win, offer product details and selling tips, and then tell them what they've won.

To pay for it all, plan to spend about 15 percent of your program's total budget on communications. That's advice that many incentive companies and consultants will offer. Companies that don't follow it are likely to be disappointed with their results, and they will spend a ton of money to find that out.

Case Histories

A leading online career network had been running a sales incentive program using Excel spreadsheets that were emailed to the company's sales force. The spreadsheets were cumbersome to maintain, and they were out of date almost as soon as they arrived. Besides the complaints from salespeople, the company had to endure an excess inventory of rewards, which it bought in bulk.

The company turned to SalesDriver, an online sales incentive provider that is part of Carlson Marketing, to develop an automated program. The result was a branded, Web-based incentive program complete with the company's mascots and logos. It allowed the sales manager to update his sales force in real time on the site, rather than by emailing spreadsheets. The manager could also send email updates through the program to sustain excitement. The program was so successful that the company has repeated it several times.

Saab Cars USA worked with USMotivation to design a yearlong incentive campaign that combined four distinct programs, each aimed at a specific sector in Saab's dealership-based customer care and service network. To capture participants' interest and create easy-to-follow programs, several communications objectives were established. They included reaching various audiences on a regular basis, delivering monthly updates, emphasizing the importance of selling genuine Saab parts, and differentiating the four programs from each other.

After developing a theme and consistent graphics, mailers to participants introduced the campaign and focused on the winning possibilities. A monthly series of follow-up postcards kept them excited and energized throughout the campaign. Additionally, parts managers and service managers at dealerships were sent a selection of keepsake communications each month (such as a 3-D postcard, a calendar, or an atlas) urging them to exceed their objectives and enticing them with the grand prize of a trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Owners and managers of independent repair shops also received a series of innovative mailings.

As a result of the campaign, nearly 1,500 parts and service employees participated and won awards. Associates in dealerships were educated on the benefits of using genuine Saab replacement parts and accessories, and they were motivated to pass that information on to their customers. What's more, the campaign paid off financially: Sales increased by l5.5 times the cost of the incentive program.

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