Outside the Box: Creating a Communications Plan | SalesAndMarketing.com
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Outside the Box: Creating a Communications Plan

In a previous column, I shared the story of a prospect who had lamented his underachieving employee sales incentive program. It turned out he hadn't promoted the program once during its six-month run. He just expected his sales team to remember the incentives were out there and to get selling.

Incentive and loyalty programs can be winners or losers based upon the quality of the communications campaign and the frequency, creativity, and diversity of the touches. It is critical sales managers devote energy and financial resources to making communications a relevant building block in the incentive development process.

An incentive/loyalty communications plan needs to be viewed as an advertising campaign—an ongoing effort to build program awareness, create emotional responses, maintain mindshare, build relationships, and deliver calls-to-action.

Sales managers need to work closely with corporate communications to determine if (and how) the campaign will dovetail with existing communication strategy and branding, be run as a "one-off," or be part of an ongoing incentive communication strategy that will link programs from year to year for maximum impact.

Because salespeople are bombarded daily with on-air and online messaging, the campaign must be engaging—which can mean fun, serious, striking, or even nutty—depending on the audience, products sold, and message. To cut through the participants' information clutter, all communications tools must be "world class" in quality, execution, materials, and content.

With the growth of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, sales managers need to include these tools in the campaign due to the benefits they offer for interactivity and instant communications.

Let's look at the key steps in a communication campaign:

1. Analyze the target channel and audience. Employee salespeople, independent representatives, VARS, dealers, contractors, and distributor sales representatives are at varying degrees of proximity to the sponsoring company (with employee salespeople being the closest and DSRs the furthest).

This means the tone of communications may be familiar, with salespeople closer to home and gradually more arms-length as a program audience moves further down the channel.

Demographics may play a part in the message, as heavy male or heavy female audiences (say, in beauty versus janitorial/sanitation markets) provide an opportunity to craft a message that will be best received by the target audience.

Also, the average age of the audience can be considered if it leans significantly towards one age group. Boomers and Millenials, for example, are strikingly different in the way they use and assimilate media. If there is no significant sex or age skewing, it is best to steer a neutral course.

Set the budget. Rules of thumb in the incentive business suggest 5 to 10 percent of program budget be devoted to communications.

Create the campaign brand and message. Based upon analysis of the channel audience and demographics, your incentive agency or communications department will create the theme that will best drive the message. A key factor in a successful campaign is to emotionally engage the audience, either through the message or by highlighting the rewards to be earned.

We typically present 7 to 10 possible branding themes to a sales and marketing team to get the broadest consensus…and it's uncanny the way our clients will zoom in on the right idea. After the theme is chosen, let the copywriters develop and broaden the message.

Use multiple media. A successful campaign will use a variety and mix of media to get participants' attention. The specific choices will be driven to a great degree by the nature of the channel.

Traditional media. Though static, traditional media engage participants in a visual and tactile way. Included here are printed pieces such as postcards, sales tips, brochures, and flyers. Also proven successful are inexpensive promotional products which may be included to reinforce the program theme.

Electronic media. Provide a good deal of "bang for the buck." Include Flash videos with words, voiceovers, or clips of managers' talking; HTML emails; and voicemail blasts which may include generic or celebrity sound-alike voices.

Interactive media. These can be effective and "sticky" ways of engaging a sales audience, because they require participants to go online and engage in activities that reinforce the campaign messaging. Examples include online games such as bingo, races, or spin/win, in addition to personal URLs (PURLs).

A PURL is a Web tool that allows participants to receive a personalized message—such as a postcard or an HTML e-mail—pushing the participants to a Website that is also personalized and interactive. A PURL hits home with program messaging and also quickly gathers participant information that may be helpful in future promotions.

Social media. Twitter, Facebook, and blogs are, as William Whitmoyer of TMK Marketing points out, social networking tools that provide a dialogue where information can flow out from company, but also in from the sales channel.

Social networking provides sales management with many more avenues to communicate with sales channels, and in turn, members of the sales channels may now communicate more easily with sales management and each other. Done well, social networking allows sales management to multiply the effectiveness of the incentive communications campaign.

Develop the campaign. A typical incentive campaign has five components, each with a specific call to action:

1. Prelaunch teasers. We will usually start prelaunch messages about a month before actual launch communications. Prelaunch teasers can be handled inexpensively with e-mail blasts, sales Intranet postings, and quick Flash videos. The call-to-action is to pay attention to the program launch materials and get excited about the program to come.

2. Launch communications. These are absolutely critical to grabbing the sales audience's attention, and so typically include a multimedia approach. This means mixing e-communications—such as e-blasts, social media, and flash videos—with printed materials. It also means any type of personal touches that may be built into the launch effort should be included.

For example, a program may be kicked off for employee salespeople, VARs, or dealers through meetings with national or regional sales managers. Distributor sales programs can be launched with face-to-face meetings hosted by salespeople or by distributor managers who have been "trained" by salespeople. The call-to-action is to engage immediately in the program to achieve sales success and reap great personal rewards.

3. Ongoing touches. Now that the audience's attention has been grabbed, it needs to be held with a mix of touches. If the life of the program is short, say 3 to 4 months, participants need to be touched 2 to 3 times per month. If the program is mid-term, 6 to 8 months and 1 to 2 touches per month are appropriate. If the program is annual, target several touches a month, early and late, with monthly communications in between.

Even if an incentive process allows participants to roll points from year to year, it is critical to maintain monthly touches and change up the theme or sub-theme on an annual basis to keep things interesting. The calls-to-action are typically entreaties to keep on pushing…and reminders of the great awards that await top sales performers.

4. Program conclusion. A program needs to be closed out professionally and every participant needs to be contacted, regardless of his or her level of success. A personal message of congratulations or thanks for participating is appropriate. Rather than an e-mail, we suggest a letter written and hand-signed by a top-level manager.

Social media may be used to share outstanding performance with the rest of the sales channel. The call-to-action is to appreciate the relationship that is being built between the sponsoring company and the sales performer.

5.Post-program recognition. Recognition is the memory anchor that locks in appreciation and spurs future performance. So if your channel allows for recognition of top performers, it is critical sales managers take advantage of that opportunity with a local recognition ceremony, or at least the delivery of a recognition award with a personal note of thanks. The call-to-action is to engage in the next promotion and shoot for even higher sales next year.

The story here is sales managers must take the communications piece of their incentive and loyalty program just as seriously as the rules and rewards deliverables to give their program the best chance for sales success. Challenge your incentive provider to push the envelope with multiple media, social media and new strategies. In this of all years, your communications campaign may make or break your incentive program.

SMM columnist David Chittock is president of Incentra.