Engaging Program Owners in the Incentives Marketplace

For more information about the IRF Signature Study: Voice of the Market Part 1: The Use of Non-Cash Rewards & Recognition, please visit HERE.

As discussed in Part 1 of our “Voice of the Market” analysis, owners and managers of non-cash reward and recognition programs are strong advocates for the work they do. They speak confidently and absolutely about what their organizations need, what’s meaningful to their participants, and the overall impact of their programs. Their firms are committed to their investments in non-cash and understand the distinct impacts and applications of non-cash incentives and recognition as compared to cash-based incentives. In Voice of the Market Part 2: Engaging Program Owners in the Incentives Marketplace, we discuss how these stakeholders learn about and engage in the incentives industry.

Respondent Profile

Fifty professionals with responsibility for designing and executing non-cash reward and recognition programs were interviewed on behalf of the Incentive Research Foundation. To qualify, respondents were required to have a significant influence on the design and execution of a rewards program. Three typical profiles emerged:

  1. Executives responsible for the performance or engagement of an audience (employees, sales, channel partners), using non-cash rewards and recognition as part of a range of strategies and initiatives to achieve their objectives. May include travel, merchandise, and gift cards as well as recognition activities and events.
  2. Mid-level managers are responsible for the implementation and execution of programs and initiatives for their business unit – a department, division, location, or region. Responsible for budget and objectives for non-cash reward and recognition for their business unit, independent of or marginally aligned with any corporate programs in place. Usually rely on merchandise and gift cards, which may include some incentive travel packages. Heavy reliance on recognition events and activities.
  3. Meeting or event managers with responsibility for designing and executing an incentive travel program – usually working in conjunction with an executive responsible for establishing the budget and determining the qualifications for earning the trip. The primary focus is incentive travel programs with some merchandise and gift cards incorporated to boost the experience.

The experiences and concerns of these segments are often similar when it comes to their reward programs. Where appropriate, differences will be addressed by segment.

On-the-job Learning

While passionate about their work, incentives, and recognition management is not a career path typically sought deliberately by program owners. It is common for them to recall more happenstance introduction to the field, having been asked to help manage an incentive trip or a recognition program as part of some broader job they’d held in the past. Learning is done on the job; none of the respondents had taken coursework or certification before working on programs. Some are lucky enough to have worked on teams with more experienced colleagues and gratefully absorbed whatever knowledge and experience was available through their coworkers. Others had to learn through trial and error, using experience, internal feedback, and program results to optimize program design and improve administration practices. These professionals are highly motivated to design and execute engaging, successful programs, and from their earliest days working with non-cash reward and recognition are largely self-directed, putting considerable effort into understanding their participants and creating programs that will deliver results.

In fact, it does not often occur to newly minted program owners that there is an entire discipline and marketplace standing ready to support their programs. Incentive program design and management is not included in standard business school curricula and is not a field of practice broadly visible or relevant to most people entering the workforce. It is likely a professional’s first exposure to non-cash rewards and recognition will be in the context of a specific program – either as a participant or an administrator. This means there is no common frame of reference that can easily be used to find resources and potential providers. A person may design and operate reward programs for years before happening across some segment of the industry that serves as a foot in the door to a marketplace that is highly relevant to them. This is especially true on the merchandise and gift card side of the market, where rewards are easily sourced without any need to speak with a supplier.

Incentive travel program managers are more likely to find their way to the supplier/provider network as a function of their work organizing trips. A commonly related scenario involves a meeting planner working with a hotel sales manager who ultimately serves as a mentor of sorts – educating them about the specific considerations of incentive travel and introducing them to a range of suppliers and industry organizations. For those who have benefited from this type of mentoring, this education is both eye-opening and career-changing, as it cements the passion and commitment they have for their work.

Information Sources

As with most topics, the internet is the default “first stop” for professionals looking for information on rewards and recognition. Program owners are always interested in learning new and better ways to design effective and engaging programs. Many who are not yet connected to suppliers or industry associations find little satisfaction, however. Searches frequently return vast amounts of noise, with little payoff. Natural language searches with little industry-specific refinement are unhelpful and frustrating, leaving them as alone as ever in the operation of their programs. For example, those using gift cards for employee rewards may simply use a generic search term like “gift cards” – returning millions of hits with any truly relevant content buried dozens of pages back. Without the terminology used by the industry and in the face of thousands of sources competing for attention, busy program owners have little hope of uncovering a marketplace they don’t even know exists.

Occasionally they will happen across a breadcrumb that leads to a grand reveal of industry resources. A few program owners described finding a list of award winners (such as those published by SITE or the Incentive Market Association), which piqued their curiosity. Determined and focused exploration based on those initial clues paid off, leading to troves of information, resources, and providers previously unknown to them.

Networking is a critical and valued source of learning for program owners – if they can establish those first relationships that lead them to others in the industry. People drawn to these programs value personal engagement and relationships, and the opportunity to meet and learn from peers and suppliers is immensely interesting, particularly during the early years of learning about the industry. Conferences and events are compelling not just from a content perspective, but largely from the opportunity to build these networks and relationships. More experienced program owners with large networks find it more difficult to prioritize attendance at industry events (even though the events are conceptually still interesting and relevant to them) but express an interest in returning to preferred events in the future. This is particularly true for those responsible for incentive travel programs, as their travel schedules often preclude attending industry events.

Associations & Organizations

Program owners, even when not connected to the rewards and recognition industry, are active in other associations and organizations relevant to their roles. Functional organizations, such as SHRM or WorldatWork for HR professionals, or AMA for marketers, play an important role in connecting them with peers. For some, industry-specific organizations are valued, particularly for financial services, pharma, and manufacturing professionals.

One aspect of these professional organizations highly valued by respondents is the ability to attend local chapter meetings – network with area colleagues and get personal benefits with only a couple of hours out of the office. These local interactions boost engagement and commitment to the organization and are the most meaningful aspect of membership for these professionals.

Awareness of reward and recognition industry organizations is low, as expected given the low awareness of the industry in general. Program owners quickly become interested in associations and organizations that can offer content that is relevant and meaningful to their work, and excitedly take note of websites and resources they could be leveraging upon discovering their existence.

Topics of Interest

Program owners are consistent in the types of information and interactions they would find compelling from the incentives industry, including:

  • Best practices – What should we be doing with our programs?
  • Benchmarking – What are other companies doing? In our industry? What about the best companies?
  • What’s new and fresh that we should be incorporating into our programs? How do we keep things interesting?
  • What are the industry resources we should be leveraging?
  • Where can I go to network with other program owners?
  • Where can I go to network with execution and destination experts? (travel-specific)

While best practices and benchmarking are of interest to most, those responsible for incentive travel programs have a specific application for research and insights – gaining a “seat at the table” with the executive sponsor of the program for broader discussions of program strategy and rule structure design. Many of these respondents feel that they have more to offer beyond expertise in designing and executing incentive travel programs and would like the opportunity to engage in bigger conversations about performance improvement. Additionally, many of their executive teams are unaware of the expert resources available to help guide incentive design and ultimately improve program results – a gap meeting planners are eager to remedy once they identify available resources.

Of moderate interest are topics such as:

  • What rewards fulfillment suppliers and resources are available to us? (applies to gift cards and merchandise)
  • Is there a better way for us to design/implement our rewards website? Who can help us with that?
  • Are there resources that will help us figure out how to determine requirements for our rewards platform and which providers can help us (without it costing too much)?

Industry Call to Action

It is striking the degree to which program owners, spending enormous sums on rewards, are largely unaware of the resources, expertise, and suppliers available to them in the incentives marketplace. This gap is driven not by a lack of interest, but by a missed opportunity for the industry to connect with front-line reward and recognition owners.

Consistent with the findings presented in Part 1, program owners are interested in learning about the smart, fresh reward and recognition strategies deployed by other companies. They also feel their deep audience and organizational knowledge equip them well to handle the design and execution of their programs. They enjoy the work of managing these initiatives and find it to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of their job. Information and expertise are the initial opportunities for the industry to engage, with potential longer-term opportunities to partner more significantly on execution and fulfillment.

Creative Group is the Research Advocacy Partner for the Incentive Research Foundation and its Signature Study.

Incentive Research Foundation

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