Design is not just an esoteric concept but a necessary step to ensure an effective incentive program. It’s more than just a program logo or brand, the graphic design elements that contribute to the program “look and feel.” Design is a way of making sure that business strategy and incentive programs are aligned. It’s a process that every incentive program owner, from small companies to multinationals, needs to integrate into their strategic business planning.

It’s important that the use of incentives address two important issues:

  • What are the business goals you are trying to achieve?
  • How do you build program experiences that deliver participant engagement towards those goals?

Program design recognizes there are two constituencies who need to have a “win” in the incentive program: the company, and the people we have lumped together as “participants.” The benefit needs to be mutual and it needs to be reciprocal. The company’s “win” is fairly easy to define as business goals, but don’t ignore the softer business benefits of true engagement – loyalty, retention, attractive culture. And the program needs to look beyond an aggregate “participant” universe to understand people as people. The usual incentive model, participant rewards for improved performance, is still important but it’s no longer enough.

Address a Specific Business Challenge
The company needs to ensure the incentive is getting them a positive return on their investment, and not just paying rewards to people for the performance they were going to give anyway. Design can help to structure a program so that it generates incremental growth and pays for itself. The program needs to deliver measurable short-term financial benefits that address a business challenge.

To deliver the financial benefits, programs can’t just focus on the numbers. The behaviors that lead to higher levels of performance, the “steps to the sale” that recur in higher performance. As an example, a leading insurance company has identified that conducting a personal insurance review with policyholders is one of the contributors to agent success; they have embedded this behavior as a metric in their Agent recognition initiatives. But to reap longer-term financial benefits means going beyond behaviors and outcomes to focus on the participant experience.

Design a Memorable Experience
The people in the program need to feel rewarded for their program activity. But if you want to keep them engaged after the program ends, a company needs to build more than just a series of transactions. It’s important to see programs as an opportunity to build relationships and to form the vital brand connections that truly lead to sustained engagement and performance gains.

Let’s go back to one of the foundations of motivation: Maslow’s pyramid. Maslow reminds us that programs are about people. The goal of an incentive program is to motivate, engage and inspire people to be their best selves, to provide a sense of belonging and self-esteem, and perhaps to encourage people to reach for the pinnacle of self-actualization. The rewards element will satisfy their needs for comfort and safety. But if the program helps people build relationships, knowledge, professional skills and personal satisfaction, then they are going to stay loyal to your brand even in tougher times, or when competitors have appealing offers of their own. Hence, it’s important that a program journey be more than just a rewards journey. That’s where design comes in.

Design begins with walking in the shoes of the people you are designing for. Empathy and understanding are the first steps to creating a meaningful program experience for your people. Think of participant experience as the program “journey” to a destination that includes rewards. The key to engaging more people is not to just throw more rewards on the table but requires making the program journey itself more interesting and personally enriching.

Creating the program journey does not mean winding up some technology and letting a program run with online communications and automated, pre-scripted reporting. In a recent Forbes article on experience design, the author notes that too much reliance on automated systems and processes has the perverse effect of “getting further away from customers and the human experience.” Creating a program experience requires deploying new tools and thinking about your “participant” not just as an economic agent who needs to sell or buy more widgets, but as a person with unique aspirations, strengths and fears.

Elements of a program journey that lead to better participant experience might include:

  • Identify behaviors that contribute to success and to brand-building, and develop competency in those behaviors through training and communications
  • Create opportunities for your audience to connect with one another and share stories that can help them be successful
  • Think not just about how to help them make more money for your company, but rather how to support their growth both personally and professionally

Ironically, one of the first steps in creating a compelling participant experience may be to discard the word “participant” altogether. Participant tends to group the program audience into a homogeneous mass, while what is required is a personalized plan that takes into account each person’s aspirations, strengths and weaknesses. Consumer loyalty programs are ahead of the curve in their understanding of multiple unique personas and that consumers want relationships with a brand, not just points and stuff for buying more.

Channel loyalty and sales incentives need to adopt the same mindset and create opportunities for personalized experiences throughout the entire program. Design, “walking in the shoes of your people,” is the first step to building more engaging, end-to-end and personal “participant” experiences.