Experiential Rewards: For a Better Employee Recognition Program, Ditch the Gift Cards

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They say you should never go into business with your friends, but Taylor Smith and Kevin Yip, the entrepreneurs behind employee rewards and recognition company Blueboard, totally ignored that advice. They met in a basketball league when they were both in the third grade, and they’ve been practically inseparable ever since.

And it’s a good thing they did ignore that advice, because Blueboard, which helps organizations improve their employee recognition programs through the use of “experiential rewards” (more on that later), probably wouldn’t have come about if Yip and Smith weren’t such close friends.

To hear Smith tell the story, Blueboard was born out of frustration. After college, Yip and Smith both landed impressive corporate gigs and became roommates. In their younger years, they used to play sports, take the occasional sojourn to a foreign country, and generally spend their free time doing things they enjoyed doing. But all that seemed to end once they hit the working world.

“We realized that, outside of work, we weren’t making much time to do things that were interesting to us,” Smith says. “In high school, you have the chance to play sports or join a club. But in our corporate jobs, we’d just come home after work. Maybe we’d have a beer. We weren’t as active as we used to be.”

Yip and Smith wanted to fix that – and they wanted to help other people fix it, too. They wanted to “start a company that would inspire people to get out and experience new things.”

At the same time, there was another problem weighing on their minds: Boring employee recognition programs.

“We both had the experience of receiving gift cards from our employers,” Smith says. “We knew employee recognition was missing the mark.”

And so, it all clicked: Yip and Smith would start a company that replaced impersonal, generic employee rewards with meaningful experiences. They would kill two birds with one stone: put an end to ineffective recognition programs and help people break free from the tyranny of the routine.

And so, Blueboard was born.

Becoming James Bond: What the Heck Is an Experiential Reward Anyway?

What sets Blueboard apart from other companies in the employee rewards and recognition space is its commitment to experiential rewards rather than more traditional rewards like cash bonuses and gift cards.

In essence, an experiential reward is an event that an employee earns, rather than some sort of good or service.

As an example of the form that experiential rewards can take, Smith points to the “James Bond Experience,” one of Blueboard’s most popular options.

“This came out of a customer conversation,” Smith explains. “They didn’t know what they wanted to do. So we asked them, ‘What did you want to be when you grew up?’ And they said they wanted to be James Bond.”

The result? Words don’t quite do it justice – but this video of the guys behind Generation Y Not trying out the James Bond experience might give you a good idea:

And here’s one very satisfied (if queasy) employee trying out some aerobatics, thanks to Blueboard:

Of course, not everyone is fond of such extreme experiences, which is why Blueboard also offers an array of more traditional experiential rewards.

“We do normal things, too,” Yip jokes. “We send a lot of people to couples massages, or yoga classes, or kayaking.”

Ultimately, Smith says, every experiential reward that Blueboard offers is about “doing something that’s really cool, but also really impacting the very personal and memorable moments of people’s lives.”

So, Do They Work? The Numbers Say Definitely

Experiential rewards sound pretty awesome, but from an employer’s standpoint, one has to wonder: Do they work? What’s the ROI like for these things?

“We don’t just do recognition,” Yip says. “We also want to help organizations improve their cultures.”

Before implementing a recognition program for an organization, Blueboard always carries out a survey of employees to get a baseline about what the culture and morale levels are like. As rewards are distributed, Blueboard keeps checking in with employees to see whether or not the program is working.

So far, the results have been undeniable:

– 97 percent of employees surveyed feel that “providing Blueboard experiences is a good way to recruit and retain top talent.”

– 92 percent of employees surveyed said their motivation to perform increased after receiving a Blueboard experience.

–  100 percent of employees surveyed (no, that’s not a typo) said that Blueboard rewards had a positive impact on company culture.

You may think that these are all tech employees – a company like Blueboard seems to scream “Silicon Valley,” doesn’t it? But according to Smith and Yip, employers from all sorts of industries have seen results with Blueboard.

“We did initially think it would be the tech companies that really wanted to use us,” Yip says. “But what we’ve seen is a lot of adoption across multiple industries, including pharmaceutical, real estate, and biotech. So not only are tech companies investing in their top people, but so are a lot of innovative companies from a lot of different industries.”

Companies that employ large numbers of millennials should pay special attention to Blueboard, as it is basically tailor-made for this population. Recent research has shown that millennials prefer experiences over consumer goods, which means that Blueboard is, in a way, the employee recognition solution for the millennial generation.

Yip and Smith are just fine with that.

“A lot of the other companies are focused on the gift cards, the watches, the points,” Smith says. “We’re trying to create something that appeals to the generation that will be 50 percent of the workforce in a few years.”

So far, it looks like they’re succeeding.

By Matthew Kosinski