Companies spend hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars on incentive awards, yet often fail to get the full motivational impact of their programs. They overlook a critical element: promotion. Incentive companies and their customers focus too much attention on topping the last program with ever more desirable rewards, presuming that attractive destinations or high-end prizes will sell themselves.

But simply spending more won't do it. Promotion is as crucial to getting results as the reward itself.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind Promotion can't end once the program is announced. It begins with a program launch, continues throughout the qualifying period, and culminates with award delivery and program follow-up. By encouraging, inspiring, and enticing rather than simply rewarding, you're more likely to improve performance across the board. An effective program includes:

* A theme

* Inspiring messages

* Creative communication vehicles

* Frequent, scheduled "contacts"

The central theme typically reflects the incentive program objective (e.g., "Billion Dollar Challenge") or the incentive reward (e.g., "Hawaiian Magic"). The theme is usually carried through with a logo that is featured on all program communications, including letterhead, mailers, travel documents, and point standings reports, as well as on promotional items such as clothing and gifts.

Promotion must "touch" your audience at least every two months. You can use print pieces, videos, screen savers, voice response systems, promotional items, and Internet communications to keep your program "top of mind." Frequent contact is especially important when the targets are not captive, such as independent developers or resellers. Companies compete for this audience's "share of mind."

A word on the Internet: Cyber-promotion provides unparalleled timeliness, flexibility, and interactivity at a much lower cost than traditional print communications. And it's powerful. One of the most creative sites I've seen was developed for a hospitality company's food and beverage managers and server staff to increase beverage sales of preferred brands. The site features product information, supplier contacts, frequently asked questions, drink recipes, the latest standings, and on-line training programs. Most important, it allows the company to run the incentive worldwide by simply replicating the communications in six different languages, resulting in a huge cost savings over print promotions. In addition, the company tracks who visits the site, what they view, and how long they stay; it also measures test scores.

Don't Be Cheap Incentive promotion is often under-funded. As a rule of thumb, plan to spend 5 to 15 percent of the total incentive budget on promotion. The actual cost will vary depending on the total budget (big budgets may require a smaller percentage on promotion), number of participants, communications media (Internet promotions are cheaper than print for large audiences), quality of materials, and frequency of communication.

Once you're committed to spending money on incentive creativity, the next question is where to find it? In larger companies, the obvious place to look is the in-house creative or advertising department. For expert help, consider creative houses, full-service incentive companies, and freelance designers. No matter where you find the talent, it is important that the creative staff work closely with the marketing department to ensure the promotion's continuity, as well as its integration with the company's overall goals.