The purpose of every wellness program is to engage participants in healthy activities that are motivating and rewarding in themselves. The goal: participants want to continue the activity because it makes them feel better in the moment while improving their health and quality of life, long term. That’s why HES campaigns are designed to work without the need for incentives.
But there’s no denying smart incentives can drive interest and add to the fun, thereby boosting registration and increasing success. With that in mind, we outline some of our clients’ most effective incentive strategies over the years — and point out a few approaches you may want to avoid.
Ideas for Every Program Phase
In an ideal world, you’d have an unlimited incentive budget. But you don’t, so keep in mind these strategies work well (sometimes better) when awarded randomly up to a predetermined amount, rather than giving to everyone who meets the criteria.
Registration incentives may attract some just looking for the carrot, with no (initial) intention of real participation. Reduce the risk by keeping the value small and branding it with the program name/logo. For example, if you’re promoting Colorful Choices, a nice branded shopping tote, which can be purchased in quantity for less than $2 each, accomplishes 3 things:
- Advertising the program when participants take it back to their work area for others to see
- A reminder of the program goal when they use it while shopping for produce
- Subtle accountability to participate — I’ve got this thing, now I better follow through.
If your budget doesn’t allow everyone to receive a signup incentive, consider offering it to the first 50, 100, or whatever number you can afford. If you have multiple locations/departments, you may want to give it to the first people to register from each.
Another effective technique is to tie signup incentive eligibility to a deadline earlier than the close of registration. If you have a 3-week registration window, limit the incentive to the first 2 weeks, as an example. This gives a sense of urgency and amps up signup momentum.
Similar to a signup incentive, a small reward for everyone who joins a team can increase registrations by 20% or more. And we consistently see greater success when participants are on a team and/or use the buddy feature. Keep the same budget and timing considerations in mind as described above.
Each HES campaign has a buddy feature (called Friends, Sole Mates, Produce Pals, or other applicable terms) where participants can invite a colleague to join them. As with team participation, these participants achieve the program goal at a higher rate than those who go it alone. Set the recruitment threshold for the reward at 2-4 friends. More than 4 feels too daunting and doesn’t improve engagement or completion rates. Again, the same criteria for budget and timing apply.
To reinforce consistency and add a little excitement throughout the program, award incentives randomly each week for individuals and/or teams who achieve the threshold for points, steps, miles, or whatever measure they’re tracking. Remove previous winners from the pool and increase the number of prizes each week so people know the longer they stick with the program the greater their chance of winning a prize.
Use a built-in leaderboard to award the top 3, 5, or 10 teams. If you have multiple locations/departments, consider team awards by category. The closer to home the prizes are awarded the greater the pull.
This may be the most important place to acknowledge achievement, particularly if the bar was set at a challenging height for most. The more personalized you can make the recognition the greater its impact. Consider an awards ceremony where each achiever receives a certificate and a pat on the back. If that isn’t practical, enlist your wellness champions to hold brief local gatherings. Whenever practical, capture the moment in photos to share in program wrapups, newsletters, annual reports, and other communication materials.
Types of Incentives
Genuine recognition is more valued than stuff, so don’t feel a need to spend heavily for participants to feel good about their accomplishment. Aim to recognize achievers as soon as possible once the program ends.
A few will get tossed, but many will be displayed proudly at workstations for months or even years. When possible, specify their contribution — such as being team leader — with a special line, symbol, or sticker. Encourage group photos with certificates that can be shared on the organization’s HR or other site.
Mugs, paper weights, bobble heads, squeeze balls, water bottles, and similar goods are affordable signup incentives; the more useful, the greater visibility they have. Set up a table in high-traffic areas and watch signups soar. Include a handful of promo cards along with the trinket and ask registrants to pass them out to folks in their work area.
T-shirts and other wearables
Wellness managers tire of T-shirts before participants do, so don’t rule out this tried and true incentive item. Mix it up with sweatshirts, vests, hoodies, packable rain jackets, flip flops, gym bags, backpacks, hydration packs, caps, socks, gloves/mittens, headbands, and visors — all are appreciated. Brand with the program logo for an ongoing reminder of the achievement.
Quality merchandise works in some situations if it’s not overused in other areas. If everyone already has one, it will lose luster for your purpose. Come up with something unique that’s tied to your wellness program.
We hesitate to include these because they’re sometimes distributed in an impersonal way with little connection to the program. While still appreciated, there’s little staying power with gift cards or cash — people forget how they got it, unlike a branded item’s ongoing reminder which can reinforce the desired health behavior. That being said, electronic gift cards can be issued immediately upon achieving the goal and are convenient for multi-location employers, saving time and eliminating storage or distribution headaches. (Check with your finance department for any income tax implications for recipients.)
Donating to charity as recognition has received a lot of play. In our experience it can work well once but is hard to replicate for subsequent programs. Try to tie the donation to the program goal — a physical activity campaign fits well with donating to a local school for playground equipment, as an example.
This is a high-value perk in most organizations, but it may be difficult to pull off depending on work flexibility. It will require approval from HR and buy-in from supervisors, which could take months of planning. Gather informal data to see if this would be a welcome, practical benefit.
Credit toward annual wellness plan
If your organization has an ongoing wellness incentive plan, achieving an HES campaign goal can count toward the reward. Try not to make this the sole way to recognize participants, however. Aim for genuine, visible acknowledgment as close to the conclusion of the campaign as possible.
Uh-Oh (What could possibly go wrong?)
Premium discounts, HSA/HRA contributions
Linking wellness achievements with health insurance premium discounts or contributions to savings or reimbursement accounts is fraught with peril. Many will appreciate the intention and understand the connection, but others can view it as holding their benefits hostage. In our experience this invites dishonesty and can lead to resentment. We always advise clients to keep healthcare benefits separate from wellness program participation.
Trips to Paris (and other too-rich schemes)
True story. An HES client once awarded the top team an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris despite our very clear warning this was not a good idea. As you would expect, the result was accusations of cheating all around and disappointment for 1000+ participants who didn’t win the trip (but 4 people were very happy). This is, obviously, a huge outlier. But any reward that’s too rich risks cheating and hard feelings — and is sure to decrease future program participation.
Anything that makes participation involuntary
Your employees have enough on their plates, with jobs plus responsibilities at home and in the community. Don’t make participation in your wellness program another thing they have to do. Everything about how you build, market, and implement your offerings should convey this is another great benefit of working for your organization — participate because you want to.
What works for you?
Have an incentive strategy that’s worked well? Let your HES account manager know so we can share it with your wellness colleagues in a future blog posting. Here’s our incentive: Anything we post will be rewarded with some fun HES swag!
Chief collaborator, nudger, tinkerer; leads the most inventive team creating well-being and sustainable living programs. Reach out if you’d like to talk about employee well-being, emotional fitness, or eco-friendly living.