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Artificial intelligence may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but it’s actually already happening.


The biggest players in the incentive and rewards space are leveraging AI to obtain more targeted insights on users, to personalise their rewards offerings and to inform motivation strategy. The most exciting part? We’ve barely scratched the surface of what AI can achieve.

What is Artificial intelligence?

According to, AI is “an area of computer science that emphasises the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans.” Tesla’s self-driving cars rely heavily on AI, as do Siri and Alexa, the virtual assistants hiding in your phone. AI – like the humans it seeks to mimic – also performs myriad less glamorous tasks: it decides which emails to jettison to spam, which Facebook posts to prioritise in your news feed, and which credit card transactions are potentially fraudulent.

Machine learning builds on the latest research in neuroscience and behavioural economics and “applies it to a system that learns more with each bit of data fed to it, refining its predictions of consumer behaviour and employee preferences over time,” explains Jesse Wolfersberger, head of the Decision Sciences Division at Maritz Motivation Solutions.


How is AI being used in the world of incentives, rewards and recognition?

A recent report by The Incentive Research Foundation asserts that AI’s biggest influence has been “in helping organisations change the dynamic from one-to-many rewards to highly personal, individualised rewards.” Or as Professor Charles Scherbaum phrases it, putting “the right reward in the hands of the right person at the right time.”

Let’s break that down a little.

Until now big organisations have had to make do with broad distinctions like those between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Zooming in a bit, an empathetic HR Manager may have prided himself on knowing his staff, but even this would have been limited to general descriptions like Brian is a Sharks supporter or Tracy’s a sucker for Game of Thrones.

Predictive analytics takes things several levels further. The scary truth is that the algorithms that allow Netflix to predict what shows we’ll want to watch and Amazon to posit which shoes we’ll want to buy, know us better than we know ourselves.

In the world of incentives, rewards and recognition (IRR), similar tools can be used to predict what strings need to be pulled to lure top talent from your competitors; which buttons need to be pressed to engage disgruntled employees; and which carrots need to be dangled to motivate already-energised staff to new horizons of productivity. And, of course, it doesn’t only work in-company. The same logic can be applied to partners, clients and loyalty program members.

It’s the thought that counts
In many cases the reward is material. Knowing that Cedric will be tickled pink by a terrarium full of tarantulas is mighty useful. But in just as many cases the solution won’t cost your company a cent. A simple message of thanks delivered at the right time can work wonders for sagging morale.

Besides, says Melissa van Dyke, president of The IRF, the efficacy of a reward is “a function of who delivers the award, how it’s communicated to them and whether there’s any other professional development that comes along with it. . . .  Depending on the type and size of the award, and who you’re speaking to, that could be 30 to 60 percent of what really drives the person’s experience.”

Walking the talk
In 2018, leading international bank HSBC asked Maritz Motivation Solutions to assist in sending targeted recommendations to 75 000 credit card rewards members using AI technology. The majority of members were sent targeted emails suggesting specific rewards using predictive analytics, but – for the purposes of comparison – a control group was sent randomly-generated recommendations. The recipients of the targeted recommendations:

  • Opened the emails 40 percent more often than the control group
  • Redeemed points in the recommended categories 70 percent of the time
  • Were three to four times more likely to redeem their points than the control group

This quantum leap in motivation strategy couldn’t have come at a better time. As this Harvard Business Review article points out: “According to recent consumer research from Kantar Retail, 71% of consumers now claim that loyalty incentive-programs don’t make them loyal at all.”

Food for thought
There’s no getting around the fact that AI and machine learning require users to divulge a lot of data in order to be effective. Just a few years ago Maritz encountered a lot of consumer resistance to their methodology, but as AI has become better understood (we already share so much with Google, Facebook and the like) they are finding clients – and their employees – to be far more amenable. For AI to be embraced it’s vital to get users to understand the benefits of giving away their personal information. Sharing your online shopping history with your employers might seem off-putting at first, but this will all change when your HR manager shows up with that pair of boots you’ve had your eye on for months!

Another important thing to remember is that while AI can perform a lot of tasks that were traditionally the preserve of Homo Sapiens, there are some things it can’t pull off – yet. AI can tell you that Thabo from Accounts would really appreciate next Thursday afternoon off. But when it comes to sharing the good news with him, you can’t beat the human touch.

Looking ahead
Thus far, most of the focus on AI in the IRR space has been on how it will allow companies to elevate UX beyond all recognition (pun intended). What hasn’t been given as much consideration is that the ever-expanding dataset on both user preference and motivation and employer outcomes and ROI may cause us to question some of the fundamental assumptions that have underpinned IRR for decades. It’s too early to say exactly what these revelations will be, but we predict a fair bit of HR navel gazing in the not-too-distant future.


Up next: How AI is set to transform Incentive Travel

While AI has the potential to transform the entire IRR space, the lowest hanging fruit of all is the brave new world of Incentive Travel. A recent survey conducted by Amadeus showed that 43% of travel companies refer to “targeting and personalisation” as the main priorities in their digital strategy. There are so many ways in which AI can help incentive travel planners to curate spectacular, personalised experiences for their clients, that we’ve decided to dedicate an entire blog to the topic.
Watch this space.

We’d love to discuss how AI can supersize your firm’s engagement, loyalty and motivation. While we may get a machine to make the coffee, we won’t fob you off on a bot. Promise.

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