Not just bells and whistles

Paul Nolan

Technology enhances gift cards while leaving critical benefits unchanged

In some respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same in the world of gift cards that are used for employee recognition and consumer loyalty programs. That is to say, in the past several years, gift card providers have embraced technology that allows for important advancements in what they can provide and how they can provide it, yet many of the important benefits that gift cards introduced to incentive programs decades ago remain important features that gift card purveyors still tout today.

The great thing about gift cards used for incentive or recognition purposes is the vast selection of merchants and merchandise they provide to recipients. That part hasn’t changed since gift cards were introduced to the incentive world, suppliers say.

Speedy delivery

The game changer has been the capability to deliver virtual rewards instantly via emails or texts. “Having a desk drawer of a whole bunch of merchant cards was an issue,” says Rick Buer, CEO of GCIncentives, (, a leading e-commerce provider of innovative reward solutions and gift products for both the corporate and consumer markets. “The ability to get it to people in real time is huge. Here’s a way you can email someone immediately upon their completion of a task so they not only get a reward, but they get a reinforcing message.”

“The key thing that technology is driving is real time rewarding,” says Susan Gray, director of reward partner operations at Hallmark Business Connections, the business-relationships unit of the Hallmark Cards brand. “People want it now, they want to click and they want to be able to redeem quickly.”

“The world has changed, especially for millennials. The faster you can deliver a reward, the more valuable that reward becomes,” adds Dennis Borst, president and chief operating officer of Patriot Marketing Group (PMG), a full-service promotion, incentives and corporate branding company that provides gift card-based programs to acquire customers, retain customers, motivate employees, drive performance and increase revenues.

Borst, who has been in the incentive gift card business for nearly three decades, says 2016 marked the first year his company sold more virtual gift cards than physical ones. Not surprisingly, PMG also has seen a 3 percent increase in online redemption in each of the last three years. About 27 percent of PMG gift card recipients redeem online versus in-store redemption.

Gray says when recipients in programs that Hallmark Business Connections supplies are given the choice between a traditional plastic gift card or a virtual card, the virtual card wins out 70 percent of the time.

Embracing technology

Although many of the key benefits of incentive gift card use remain the same as when Borst entered the industry (see story on facing page), the technology has made gift cards a completely different experience for both recipients and program sponsors. GCIncentives, for example, has rebranded its Super Certificate to the GC GiftPass. The product still provides recipients the choice of more than 200 gift card options, but it features high-tech multimedia capabilities that allow for more personalized and memorable recognition.

GCIncentives rolled out a digital card last year that uses haptics, the science of applying touch sensation and control to interaction with computer applications. A GC GiftPass can arrive on a recipient’s smart phone in the form of a virtual beer that can be tipped and enjoyed to reveal the actual reward. Or a company can provide recipients a virtual scratch-off game similar to lottery tickets that recipients play to discover their reward. “These are applications that actually bring people together,” says Buer. “The enhanced visual or multimedia allows you to make the giving and receiving more personalized, interesting and fun.”

GCIncentives has also created a virtual wallet that allows program participants to store multiple GiftPass rewards in their account and save for something aspirational.

Analytics offer insights

In addition to fun new presentation capabilities, incentive gift card providers also are enhancing the data collection capabilities that come with their services, as well as the ability to deliver program updates to participants electronically to drive engagement. “Our clients are looking for capabilities to monitor, measure and track. They also want help clearly communicating their program,” says Gray. “Hallmark is a great name and brand, but they want things they can customize so it’s clear that the rewards are coming from them.”

Incentive gift card purveyors are increasingly helping their clients track redemption patterns and the demographics. You have to be careful what you collect, Gray cautions, but analytics can provide valuable insights that can produce important improvements to a program.  

Haptic technology and other advancements allow companies like GCIncentives to create interactive digital gift cards that make recognition more memorable.