By Rick Dandes
The use of social media has increasingly becoming a key component in well-designed recognition and reward programs. After all, organizations—and incentive program designers—are constantly looking for new tools that will offer better program communications and enhance the overall recognition experience for the employee participant.
In fact, according to Janice Barton, senior partner and founder of Performance Plus Marketing, based in Roswell, Ga., social media and networking has become “table stakes in the evolution of communication. Businesses that can effectively communicate internally and externally through a variety of channels will reach a higher level of success than businesses that communicate ineffectively or resist embracing social media altogether,” she said.
“Absolutely, we are seeing social media becoming a part of the incentive/reward program mix,” added Steven Green, founder and president of PollStream Inc., a provider of interactive engagement and community building solutions, with headquarters in Toronto, Canada. “We are also seeing a change in the wording that companies are using to describe their programs, moving away from incentive/rewards programs, and toward recognition programs. Once companies embrace social media within their organization, they quickly realize the currency that has the greatest value to knowledge workers is the desire for recognition, the kind of recognition that allows an employee to build a personal legacy within the organization.”
Social recognition, Green said, brings to light the contributions and milestones of employee and transmits the story instantaneously across the corporate intranet.
It’s all about the story. Recognition becomes a cultural asset, infusing the social intranet with tales of success and achievement.
Not all organizations, however, are completely sold on the value of social media, although most companies have adopted electronic tools to keep their diverse, multi-located employees connected.
Like it or not, the buzz about social media is inescapable.
“I am in the social media camp and strongly believe that social recognition is already here within informal social networks like Facebook,” Green continued. “The jump to the enterprise has already happened. I don’t know of any large organization not implementing or investigating some aspect of social media, and the small and mid-sized organization will surely follow along soon after.”
Green added that for the most part, small and medium-sized businesses are still relying on traditional incentive programs. “Large organizations are better equipped to be current with social trends and research and have dedicated teams that can focus on the investigation and trialing of social recognition programs,” he added.
The Recognition Factor
More progressive companies might realize that social media must be a part of their reward-recognition program, but that doesn’t mean top executives necessarily feel comfortable with the concept, said Mike Ryan, senior vice president, market intelligence, Madison Performance Group, based in New York City.
“Social media is part of the discussion we always have with clients,” Ryan said, “but there are privacy and security issues that have some managers legitimately concerned. Frankly, I haven’t seen many organizations go outside of the firewall yet. What I have seen are organizations using social media components inside the firewall, specifically, companies that have a large number of virtual workers, geographically dispersed, who might be working on the same projects, and need to have a connection to reinforce the commonality that they share.”
When you think about one of the main obstacles of virtual workforces, Ryan said, it’s geographic distances. The workforce today is more dispersed and mobile than ever, and people are increasingly turning to technology to help them collaborate with colleagues and customers many miles away. In some cases you don’t get to know the person that you are working with on an intimate basis, and social networking can help overcome some of the challenges that you have working as a team.
“What I’ve seen some companies do is integrate the mechanisms of social media to reinforce and actually kick-start some of those relationships,” Ryan said. “People literally get to know each other better, and as a result develop a closer level of affinity and trust with one another.”
Social media is also being used to recognize and reward performance.
Companies are integrating the peer-to-peer nomination process into a social media type style, and also use it as a way to reinforce and recognize what someone may have done across your peer group to help solve a problem. The social media tool takes that recognition, which sometimes occurs between a manager and an employee, and allows others to chime in on it and even add to the solution of a problem they all may have been working on. The social give and take between employees not only expands the storytelling, but also the distribution of best practices, and it does so in an environment where people feel connected to the conversation.
Reward and incentive programs are about people, Barton explained. And similarly, social media is a very people-oriented channel. “So,” she said, “It makes sense that the two can be combined to drive competition, share best practices, foster instant access and gratification, and personalize incentive programs for each demographic or participant.”
The dynamic nature of social media also allows program changes to be instantly communicated to team members.
Barton named some other tools that are being used effectively in promotional/incentive programs:
- Contests: A way of getting the competitive juices flowing and healthy competition among your teams.
- Podcasts: To share best practices and product updates.
- Texting: Contest reminders and sales results.
- Twitter: Quick messages about awards mall specials and holiday reminders.
- Blogs: Managers share thoughts, articles and news.
- iPod Touch: Preloaded with information the sales force can demo “on the fly.”
- Micro sites: Instant access to regional or district goals, compare rankings among colleagues.
- Online and Second Life Games: Used for continuing education and training.
- Online Chat:Instant access for program questions.
Using Social Media in Incentives and Rewards
“The most effective way for an organization to use social media in incentive and reward programs starts with first knowing the audience,” Barton said. “Companies from nearly all industries are seeking to harness the power of online human interconnectedness to win new customers, gain market share and increase brand awareness.”
But different audience segments and demographics may use these tools in different ways, making it essential that an organization understand its demographic composition and not try to force-fit sales people or channel representatives to a standard platform, she explained.
The most popular social media outlets include Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, MySpace, Friendster, Twitter, texting, SMS, e-blasts, podcasts, webcasts, YouTube, blogs, Web mails and micro sites.
Michelle Smith, vice president of Business Development for O. C. Tanner, an international business consulting and marketing group with world headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, has her own ideas about the most common uses of social media in recognition and incentive programs.
“Companies,” she said, “can alert participants about new program awards or developments through Facebook or Twitter alerts, providing almost instantaneous opportunities for keeping participants updated and engaged.”
Another powerful use is to announce awards, the achievement of career milestones, or other participant successes through social media outlets to maximize the reach of the announcement and give people’s friends the opportunity to hear the news in real time. In turn, friends can then offer their congratulations to the individual or team, extending the celebration and further reinforcing the achievement.
Accomplishments and incentive program successes, Smith said, can be posted on individuals’ LinkedIn, Facebook, or MySpace profiles, becoming lasting impressions that offer another recognition touch point for the program participant. “Long-term recall of an incentive program achievement or award has always been a goal for program planners because the good feelings evoked by that memory extends the life of the award and serves as an incentive in future programs,” she explained.
Meanwhile, it is very important to have a clear goal or a set of few goals for a social network to effectively create tangible outcomes, experts say.
A clear goal provides focus and aligns individuals in a workforce to conduct activities in line with a desired outcome. Also, it creates a natural filter for the network participants and attracts more relevant individuals.
Social media serves not only as a platform for communication, collaboration and community, but also for cumulative learning, for increasing the knowledge base within the workforce.
“Social media applications,” Ryan said, “allows for the relevant free flow of information, where people are actually seeing information in a more actionable, more relevant manner. I do think that is where the return on social media is right now.”
Green said he sees yet another benefit of public, peer-to-peer recognition within a social media framework: “Increased retention and discretionary effort,” he said. “Employees feel valued when they receive public validation from their peers. They see that their efforts at work make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. If you believe that your efforts matter, then you will be less likely to leave and more likely to put greater effort into your job each day.”
Ongoing peer-to-peer recognition removes the bottleneck often experienced when already busy managers are the required starting point for recognition, Green explained. “This need for continual validation is especially true of Generation Yers that grew up with the Internet, and whose personal life is intertwined with active social networks. Over time, recognition builds an employee’s personal legacy of contribution to the company. Recognition they can bank on.
Is It All Hype?
Trends for commercial and business applications like search engine optimization and social media optimization, the growing popularity of mobile media applications, social gaming and pioneering moves by Google, Apple and Microsoft are catalyzing the continuing rise of social media in all programs, not just rewards and incentives, Barton explained.
“There is much debate about the increasing role and pervasiveness of mobile applications,” she continued. “Mobile apps are great and becoming essential for communicating with workers who are hard to reach, in the field, and working on multiple Web and electronic platforms. The ways people embrace and use these apps are fostering an evolution in mobile social media platforms and this trend is increasingly spotted in new reward and incentive programming.”
Some studies project that by 2014, social networking will replace e-mail as the primary form of communication for up to 20 percent of business users. Recent research by World at Work and Towers Watson found that 23 percent of companies surveyed were adding recognition programs so that people would be recognized for their contributions and top performers would feel valued. Not surprisingly, C-suite, sales, marketing and human resource executives are turning to social platforms to enable people across departments and even countries to recognize, share best practices and highlight company values. Think of it as a digital water cooler where best practices or successes can be captured quickly, shared online and discussed, while still timely.
The reality is simply this: Social media is here to stay.
The generation coming into the workforce communicates through social media. It’s a part of their life, and they will be doing business this way. Because of that, organizations will seek to create a working environment that positions their firm as a big part of somebody’s life.
“I think the social media platform is going to be a very strong pull to help employees develop and maintain relationships,” Ryan said.
In the end, the C-suite is buying into social media because they see it operating effectively behind the firewall. Executives may not totally understand the dynamics of social media, but they are open to the process because it is no longer simply an idea. It’s the way their employees live and when organizations can take the way people live and apply it to the work environment they are more likely to create a positive connection between work style and lifestyle.
Smith may have summed it up best when she said, “Social media and incentive programs work well together because social media is a relationship builder. What an organization is fundamentally trying to accomplish with a recognition or incentive program is to motivate participants to modify or alter their behavior for the benefit of the organization.”
In turn for this new behavior, the organization offers an incentive that the participant will feel is a fair trade for efforts extended. At the heart of this “fair trade,” and what makes it effective, is the trust between the two parties, and that’s a relationship. Social media is all about building and enhancing relationships, which can only benefit the incentive program experience.
“The future of social media in incentive and recognition programs is bright and very promising,” Smith said. “It’s likely that very soon we won’t be able to imagine how we ever successfully crafted incentive programs without social media applications.”