“YOU CAN LAUNCH THE BEST incentive program in the world, but if you don't tell anyone it exists, what good is it?”

So says Brian Galonek, president of All Star Incentive Marketing, Sturbridge, Mass. Ask most incentive professionals, and they'll tell you that a strong promotion and communications campaign is absolutely critical to a program's success.

Yet it's often not a given. For example, a survey of incentive program participants done by Dan Horne, a Providence (R.I.) College marketing professor, found that communication ranked lowest of the seven areas examined (including the type and amount of the award and the frequency of the contest).

“What often happens is that incentive managers set a budget and spend it all on rewards,” Horne says. “But if they don't properly communicate with participants, people forget. They need reminders. You need to keep them jazzed up.”

What Gets Them Jazzed?

To start, it helps to study your audience, says Doug Press, president of Incentive Group Inc., White Plains, N.Y. “You need a demographic profile, and then you need to segment that audience along logical lines.”

Develop a mental picture of the qualifiers, recommends Michelle Smith, vice president of strategic sales for Bravanta Inc., San Francisco. For example, what hours do they work, and what are their work styles?

The launch of the program, particularly one that is short-term, is important for building excitement and buy-in. “It's our first chance to make a critical impression,” Press says. “The participants have to make a judgment as to the importance of the information they have just received.”

“We usually start with a unique and powerful theme,” says Bert Wilke, vice president of marketing for Galactic Marketing, Arlington, Texas. “Then we'll target our communications campaign to keep that theme in front of participants.”

Consistency is also important. “I'm a big believer in letting people know where they stand,” says Ben Levenbaum, president and chief operating office of Xceleration, Atlanta. “It's a huge motivator in driving people.”

For a yearlong incentive campaign, for example, Wilke sends out something every six weeks, either an online note, a printed item, or a promotional “lumpy” mail piece. “I did one once where I packaged a stopwatch inside a coconut,” he recalls. “Our intent was to keep up the momentum for a trip to Maui. It sure aroused some interest.”

Levenbaum recommends that mailings come from a president or other high-ranking executive, because “people respond much better if they get an e-mail from someone they see in that position.”

Online vs. Print

The decision between e-mail and mail campaigns again rests on knowing your audience.Wilke says the insurance industry tends “to do things the old way.” On the other hand, a tech company would demand an electronic campaign.

Galonek has seen a trend in the past four years from 90 percent off-line programs to 90 percent online programs. “That's what the industry wants now,” he says.

But Wilke still feels that there's a place for direct mail. “Mail still has that warm, fuzzy feeling. When you go home, you want to find some mail in your mailbox. That's even true in a business environment.” Another reason for using mail in a program is that it ensures the company is communicating with a participant's spouse, who, he says, will reinforce motivational efforts.

Is it possible to overcommunicate with your participants? It depends.

Even in a short-term incentive, it may be possible to overdo the “rah-rah” messaging, says Levenbaum. “You should only communicate when you have something to say. You can't do it every week, or they'll tune you out.”

But if the message gives the participant information that he wants and needs, the chances are he is not being overburdened, says Press. “I can't imagine you can move someone to the point of modified, incrementally successful behavior without them feeling well-informed about ‘What's in it for me?’”

It's important to remember that communications is the one consistency throughout an incentive campaign, Smith says. “A poster in the lunch room just isn't going to work.”

The Bottom Line

Most experts agree that a promotional plan should cost between 5 percent and 15 percent of an incentive program's total budget.

“If you have a $100,000 program, it's easy to spend $10,000 on communications,” says Brian Galonek, president of All Star Incentive Marketing, Sturbridge, Mass. “But if you have an incentive program that costs $1 million, promotional costs should decrease on a percentage basis, particularly if there is a heavy focus on online communications. That's the beauty of a Web-based program.”

Michelle Smith, vice president of strategic sales, Bravanta Inc., San Francisco, agrees with the 5 percent to 15 percent figure, adding that this is not a hard-and-fast rule “but a guideline.”

Planners also need to judge how much competition there is for a participant's attention, says Doug Press, president of Incentive Group Inc., White Plains, N.Y. There is a difference, for example, between a dealer who receives communications from 40 different manufacturers and a participant in an employee-based incentive, who is likely to read everything he receives.