Members of the incentive industry rightly spend much time parsing the motivational benefits of different types of rewards. But no matter how perfect a trip, piece of merchandise, or gift card may be for the recipient, if it's presented in an ineffective, impersonal way, it's unlikely to create the sort of long-term loyalty and engagement it should. However small or large, certain fundamentals can make the difference between a powerful award someone will cherish for years and something they will forget about by next week.
The Incentive Research Foundation offered insight into these questions last year when it released the results of a study it had conducted, examining the responses to different types of presentations, from a "Big Show" in front of the entire company to a private award accompanied by a note from the CEO. Examining biometric responses (such as pupil dilation) as well as stated preferences, of several dozen subjects, it found that a "Little Show" in which recipients are awarded in front of their work group and in which the award is presented by their immediate manager, proved most potent for individuals.
But scoring last, both in unconscious and conscious reactions, was the "Private" presentation.
"This supports the large body of research that suggests at least some form of public recognition is important to all reward earners," note the study's authors. "It adds new evidence that smaller (and perhaps more meaningful) presentations may be more effective than big, company-wide events for most people."
The need for the presentation to be "meaningful," as IRF puts it, is key to what makes or breaks its impact, no matter the size of the audience, according to Mike May, president and owner of Brightspot Incentives.
"You don't want to be just shipping a box from Amazon or Best Buy, or dropping a gift card in a plain No. 10 envelope with little explanation," says May. "We need to celebrate the person and the accomplishment if we fulfill that award."
He explains that it's not just the prize, but how it makes the recipient feel. The administrator of the incentive program must ask, "Did they feel genuinely appreciated by senior management?" Because when they do, it strengthens their loyalty to the organization, not to mention their performance.
Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communications for HALO Recognition, emphasizes that in presenting an award, it's not just telling the recipient thanks for their hard work (though that's important, too), but clearly tying that hard work back to the organization and the results that work generated. Find ways to add personal touches to the presentation, sharing details about the winner such as hobbies or funny stories about them, in addition to their formal accomplishments. Maybe they recently trained for a marathon or like to go sailing on the weekends. Incorporate that into the presentation.
One of the best ways to get this personal element into the presentation, according to Scott Siewert, president of Fab at Incentives, is to have a spouse or family members attend or even take part in the presentation.
"At an awards banquet, if you have your significant other with you, having them observe you winning and earning your award, they would love to hear what the boss has to say about you," says Siewert. "That spouse will go home and talk about it and promote good will about the company."
As the IRF findings show, there is also greater impact when workmates take part in the festivities.
"People shouldn't be afraid to invite others, whether it be senior leaders or co-workers," says Himelstein. "Invite them to say a few words. The presence of senior leadership adds a lot."
The advantages of a public presentation go beyond boosting the engagement of the recipient him- or herself. As Himelstein puts it, "it's great to praise someone and to recognize them, but when you share the specific achievement and some anecdotes and explain how the recipient's actions made a big difference," it will inspire those watching to follow in their path, getting even more of a motivational return on the award.
For service awards celebrating the number of years someone has been with the company, Himelstein advises "showing the winner's path and highlighting their successes and achievements along the way makes for a really impactful presentation." This gives new employees a better appreciation of the colleague and what they have accomplished, helping boost the award's significance. It also gives those in the audience a model they can follow themselves — someone who has done good things for the organization that may be an inspiration for others.
Presentation preferences can vary depending on the individual, their role, or even their age. While "Little Show" scored strongest across the board, IRF found that Millennials had a greater preference for "Peer-to-Peer" presentations, while non-salespeople and men had a greater preference for "Big Show."
In some cases, the "Private" approach may be more appropriate, or logistically the best way to go (for example, if the recipient is working in another country). But even then, when delivering a merchandise or gift card award, finding a way to make it specific to the winner is key.
"For instance, if you just got a brand-new Yeti cooler, wouldn't it be nice to have that cooler delivered in a box that has some sort of recognition or markings on it related to the program?" says Siewert. "Then, when you open it, wouldn't it be nice to have a letter from the president of the company say, 'Thanks so much for working extra hard this last quarter'?"
The same is true of an electronic gift card — include a signed message from the president that says, "I applaud you for what you did — go have a nice dinner on us."