When debit cards debuted in the 1990s, they were just another form of cash. Winners could “spend” their award anywhere that accepted credit cards. Before long, closed-ended debit cards were replacing traditional gift certificates in retail chains.

Today's debit cards take it to the next level.

“Now, instead of sending a bunch of $25 cards to employees, you can use Web-based tools to automatically transfer money into an individual or group account,” says Anil Aggarwal, CEO, Clarity Incentive Systems Inc., New York City. “There's a lot more flexibility and real-time capability.”

With many award programs, participants can view up-to-date account balance information, join a marketplace where they can earn money when they shop online, send money to anyone enrolled in the program (as a gift, for example), and more. Plus, companies can design debit cards with their logo or message.