THE HISTORY OF online incentive program management is not a long one. In the mid-1990s, pioneers began hammering together Web sites where participants could read contest rules, view their qualification progress, search online merchandise catalogs, or click links to the resorts and destinations hosting an incentive travel reward. In the past few years, online registration has quickly become commonplace, and some sites have broken ground with customized e-communications, interactive Web site elements, and new sales data management tools. While most insurance companies have limited online support for the marketing and management of incentive programs, these developments nevertheless add a motivational edge as well as the efficiencies of automation.
Michael Hadlow, president of USMotivation, the Atlanta-based incentive house, says, “Every single program that we have sold to a client in the last year and a half has been online. Completely online. That doesn't mean we're not sending communications out [in the mail], but it means that all the information for the participant is online.” For those planning sales and distributor incentives, old concerns over Web access have practically vanished, he says.
Among the promises of e-incentives is being able communicate to the field with more robust and frequent communications — online newsletters, polling, and customized e-mails. Do the top 20 percent of producers need to get the same motivational messages as the bottom 20 percent? Is the same message appropriate for all parts of the country?
Roni Swift, director of meetings and travel for AmerUs Life Insurance Group in Des Moines, Iowa, is beginning to ask those kinds of questions now that her first-generation online incentive system is in place. The company has an agent “extranet” to communicate company business, and a portion is dedicated to incentives. Agents can check their qualification status, read the incentive program guidelines, and get information on the trip and the destination. When agents log on, they identify themselves with their unique agent code. Those who have qualified for the incentive trip automatically see online registration information; those who have not qualified, do not. The Web site and registration system, built in-house by the AmerUs IT department, connects with the Microsoft Access databases that the meeting department uses on the back end to manage programs.
While other departments at AmerUs have used the agent codes to disseminate information to specific states or locations, the incentive team hasn't pushed information out in this way. But that may be the next step. “We haven't yet tapped into the marketing potential,” says Swift, “but as we go forward, we'll be looking for opportunities.”
Hadlow imagines a time, perhaps not long in the future, when customization can be applied to not only to the motivational messages that a company sends, but also the rewards it offers. “If you look at traditional incentive programs, everything is one-size-fits-all. Everyone got the same mailings, irrespective of what they might respond to or not respond to. Everyone was offered the same selection of awards and incentive travel programs. But what the research shows is that people are motivated as individuals. Eventually where I think this is going is to one-to-one communications.… When you log on, the awards selection that you see could be based on your individual profile.”
A good incentive Web site can free up planners' time (frequently asked questions are addressed online), cut down mailing and printing costs, give producers 24/7 access to their standings and reward options, and, of course, with online registration, avoid rekeying of registration data. Many observers, however, see data management as the real promise of moving incentive management to the Web.
In the past, incentive managers who wanted to stop mailing paper status reports in favor posting online standings had to load monthly sales data into the online system manually. Now, sales systems can be integrated with the Web. Besides simply saving time, “the more significant implication,” says Hadlow, “is that programs are being designed that never would have been run before because of the complexity of administering the program.
Consider an insurer that wants to motivate agents to sell at certain times of the year or to push one product over another. In the past it might have been too complex to manage a system that gave incrementally higher points for, say, June and July sales or added a spur-of-the-moment bonus program for agents in the Southeast servicing clients after a hurricane. Not any more.
Among the challenges for an incentive Web site is to keep producers coming back, and to develop elements that keep an incentive program and its rewards at the top of producers' minds. Interactivity is key, say the experts.
Swift, for one, wants to push the AmerUs incentive site in that direction. One of her hopes is to add a streaming video of the reward destination. “Traditionally we've mailed out a video to promote the destination. However, the video goes only to the top 5 percent of our producers because of the cost involved,” Swift says, noting that an online version would allow every agent — and their families — to see the video and feel its motivational pull.
To add interactivity, a “wish list” is a popular feature on the Web sites created by Hinda Incentives, which specializes in programs with merchandise rewards. Incentive participants can tag prizes from an online catalog, and when they are close to having enough points, an e-mail arrives urging them on, explains Michael Arkes, president of the Chicago-based incentive house. “We're coming out with a new feature,” adds Arkes, “which allows us to e-mail participants when we've added new reward merchandise to the site.”
Eugene De Villiers, managing director for The Extra Mile Company in Auckland, New Zealand, has earned top awards from the Society of Incentive Travel Executives for his creative Internet programs. His company has used a variety of games to keep producers clicking on an incentive site. In one case, participants have the ability to gamble points in an online roulette game. In another, the reward program is turned into a flight mission to a distant galaxy. Objectives and achievements are reported as a flight log, with a supporting Web site design.
With the evolution of the Web and of broadband access, De Villiers believes that Internet tools are critical to incentive success. “The Web becomes the communication tool, it becomes the management tool, it becomes the reward tool, and also the management report. The Web has become a holistic management tool for incentives and recognition programs.”
Hadlow agrees, posing a challenge to incentive organizers: “What can we do with this technology that we never thought of before? How do we take advantage of the features that are only available on the Internet: its timeliness, the ability to do things in real time, the flexibility to change a program on the fly. How can we use it respond to economic and business situations?
“This stuff has evolved so fast,” continues Hadlow, “that I don't think we've exploited what's possible even with today's technology.” Never mind the advances we can expect around the corner.
Safeco Champions Online
Safeco Insurance in Seattle has promoted its Conference of Champions incentive program online for about four years, featuring contest rules and incentive trip information on its independent agents' Web site. At this point the site is basic html information pages and links, with one short streaming video clip that highlights the reward destination. But innovations are coming.
Ken Pickle, manager of incentives and conferences, says his division is working on adding online agent status reports to replace monthly campaign mailings, posting a photo gallery of past incentive trips, and possibly archiving streaming videos of certain sessions as a cost-efficient replacement for videotapes sent out in past years. And while those improvements to his incentive site are still under consideration, one major development will roll out this spring: “We're in the process of going to online registration,” says Pickle. At its most basic level, this means 1,300 incentive travel qualifier registration forms will not need to be manually re-keyed into a computer.