The Internet is the future. The Internet will change your business. Get on board or get left behind. Yada, yada, yada. Yes, the Internet is full of promise. But how can you benefit from it now? Better incentive programs, for one thing. Each of the four major components of any incentive program--promotion, program administration, award selection, and award fulfillment--can benefit from the flexibility and immediacy of the Web.

Promotion. The key to an incentive is to promote forcefully and frequently, at the launch and throughout the campaign. The Internet is the ideal tool for dispensing announcements, updates, special promotions, and motivational messages. Most print promotions seek to "touch" an audience four to six times during the qualifying period. The Internet provides almost limitless opportunities for inexpensive communication--daily updates are possible. As a campaign progresses, the message can be changed to reflect new priorities, such as a short-term product push.

Recently, my company designed a Web site for Diebold, a Canton, Ohio-based ATM technology supplier, to promote its "Spirit of the Seasons" travel incentive program. We included information about the program, rules, past winners, and the destination (Hawaii), as well as pictures and links. The next step for Diebold will be to make participant standings available on line.

Program Administration. Managing, tracking, and reporting the data generated by an incentive program is expensive under traditional systems, requiring staff to answer participants' inquiries about the program, their earnings and redemptions, or their overall ranking. Using the Internet, participants can enroll, read rules, check standings, or send e-mail inquiries. And, by eliminating the production and mailing of brochures, award catalogues, and statements, companies can save tens of thousands of dollars.

Web-based administration software makes it easy to enroll employees in multiple programs and to track point earnings and redemptions. We developed our system using Lotus Notes and Lotus Domino database software. Once a system is in use, it is easy to piggy-back safety, wellness, or other company programs, onto the promotion, administration, and fulfillment mechanisms already in place.

Award Selection. Printed award catalogues are designed to appeal to a broad audience. Electronic catalogues, on the other hand, can be easily and inexpensively custom-designed to include anything from individual travel rewards to company stock to training programs to general merchandise.

Award Fulfillment. In traditional catalogue programs, a qualifier selects an award from the catalogue and completes a form, which is faxed or mailed to the fulfillment center. In electronic programs, winners "purchase" awards with their points by shopping online. Participants can even choose to view only those awards for which they qualify. And point balances are updated automatically.

Get Engaged The level of interactivity possible with a Web-based program isn't even considered for paper-based incentives. Consider these ideas:

* Ask questions related to the incentive program or products being sold and award bonus points for correct answers.

* Encourage participants to share "success stories." For example, tales of challenging sales can be sent in via e-mail and posted on the site.

* Provide links that build anticipation of the trip.

True engagement results in higher motivation and commitment. The good news is that you don't have to create the administration software on your own. Many incentive houses have made the investment for you. The technology is available today, it's relatively inexpensive, and it works.