Over the years, we’ve worked with a wide range of clients in devising and implementing incentive programs. These clients have come from a diverse range of industries and niches, and their program needs and strategies have varied widely. But one question that we get all the time from our clients, no matter how different they may be from one another, is: Do I need a program web portal?

In a word, yes. You do need a program web portal.

The best incentive programs will have a website of some kind associated with them. There’s no question that having a web portal will make your life easier in the long run, along with giving your incentive program added authority and clout. Web portals look professional, plain and simple, and they make things easier for your program participants.

So let’s take a deeper dive into why you really need a web portal, looking at the benefits, the notion of integrating it with your existing internet presence, and the possibility of incorporating a mobile app into your digital presence. Lastly, we’ll examine the handful of scenarios where a web portal isn’t as necessary.

Benefits of Having a Web Portal

Aside from the added authority that a professional looking site will give your program, there are three primary benefits that we like to point out to our clients. First, having a web portal allows you to consolidate everything about your incentive program into one place. This includes things like:

  • Program rules and offers: It’s essential that program participants understand the rules of your program as well as the eligible offers. A web portal is the perfect place to host all of this information.
  • Entry forms and data collection: Regardless of whether you’re running an employee incentive program, a program targeted at independent salespeople, or a customer loyalty or rebate program, you’ll often need to collect data from program participants. Doing so with a web portal keeps everything in one place and makes data collection easy.
  • Progress and balances: Your program participants will want to be able to check in and see how they’re doing. Have they accumulated enough points to redeem their desired reward? What’s the balance of their reloadable debit card? A web portal gives your participants a place to do this on their own, rather than calling you with questions.

Next, a web portal provides you with a place to host your program’s terms and conditions at next to no cost, and be able to update your terms and conditions as needed. Just imagine how expensive and time consuming it would be to send out a paper copy of your terms and conditions to all program participants if you need to make a minor change or update—that’s potentially thousands upon thousands of pieces of mail. With a web portal, updating your terms and conditions is simple, fast, and cheap. By making the website the absolute authority on the current T&C’s, there is no question where things stand.

Most importantly of all, though, a web portal will allow you to automate virtually everything about your program. Amongst other things, this includes:

  • Point tabulations: Attempting to keep track of program participant points without a web portal can make for a complex task. A properly coded website takes care of this process for you automatically.
  • User approval: Whether it’s approving new participant signups or fulfilling orders for merchandise or travel, approving user requests with less work is one of the greatest advantages of having a web portal.
  • Password retrieval: With automatic password retrieval, you’ll dramatically cut back on the number of phone calls and support emails you receive.
  • Participant support: Setting up a frequently asked questions and/or a help section on your site creates an automated support option for users, thus reducing the number of support requests coming in.

There’s no question. A web portal offers unparalleled benefits for your incentive program.

Integration with Existing User Portals

Once a client has acknowledged that a web portal is a good idea, there’s often a common follow-up question: Can the rewards portal integrate with their existing user portal and web presence?

Technically speaking, yes. There’s typically no reason from an IT perspective that you can’t integrate your rewards web portal with an existing user portal on your website. That said, though, we generally don’t recommend it for a couple of reasons.

Attempting to integrate your rewards web presence with an existing user portal is almost certainly going to cost you more. You’ll need to either involve your own IT department or a third-party firm to assist with the required programming. And, in 99% of cases, neither your IT department nor the hypothetical third-party will have any experience with developing portals for incentive programs. This means that the learning curve will undoubtedly be quite high. As a result, your ROI will start to fall off rather quickly. If you run the numbers, you’re likely to find that integration simply isn’t worth it.

It’s also important to remember that whether you’re talking about employees or channel partners, the registration process will need to include the collection of personal data from users. More often than not, some of the data required will differ from the personal data that’s already stored as part of your existing user portal. This means that you end up needing to collect additional data either way, which adds another layer of complexity to any attempt to integrate your rewards web portal with an existing user portal.

For these reasons, we generally recommend keeping your rewards portal separate from your existing web presence. That said, though, there’s a viable solution available that can serve as something of a compromise between fully integrating your web portals on the one hand and keeping them wholly separate on the other: Single sign on, or SSO.

Single-sign-on Web Portals

If you already have another intranet or extranet web portal (meaning it either lives on an internal network or an external network with access controls), arguably the best solution when setting up your rewards site involves leveraging what’s called single sign on, or SSO. Using SSO will simplify things for your users, which will ultimately make things simpler for you (meaning less phone calls and support emails to respond to).

By creating an SSO for users, your program participants will be able to use the same username and password credentials to sign in to both your existing web portal and your new rewards site. SSO allows for quick deployment of a proven rewards platform with the right functionality, all while keeping things as easy as possible for the end user. SSO rules can even be programmed to identify first-time users, thus allowing you to collect personal data as needed for payment records. That user profile is then permanently linked to both web presences, making future access a snap.

If you opt not to use SSO, it’s essential that you incorporate automatic password retrieval into your design. Your program participants will inevitably confuse their two accounts. When they do, they’ll be calling and emailing you for password retrieval help. By automating this process, you can free up your phone lines and email inbox.

Do I Need a Mobile App?

Once a client has accepted that they need a web portal, with or without SSO, we often get the same follow up question from them: Do I need a mobile app, too?

The short answer is no, you probably don’t need a mobile app. It’s not going to be a requirement in most client scenarios.

Why? Giving your program participants access to a mobile app is going to be significantly more complicated than simply launching a mobile responsive website, with little in the way of additional benefits. Developing an app, especially a native app, on top of an online portal is going to increase your costs considerably. For one thing, there are differences in iOS and Android from a development perspective, which means that you’ll essentially need to build out two apps (as only offering one or the other isn’t realistic). While new development tools do allow programmers to create the code once and then publish separately for iOS and Android, it’s not foolproof, and still requires maintaining publisher accounts with both platforms. Additionally, you’ll have the added costs associated with ongoing testing and maintenance, both leading up to and following the launch of your app. This kind of testing and maintenance is important to ensure that your app actually works, and it can get expensive quickly. Finally, don’t forget that Apple and Google might want a cut of the action on your financial transactions, as they can often take up to 25% of all transactions. While incentive and rebate programs should fall outside of the normal realm of app store profit share, it might cause an issue depending on your program’s specific rules.

In our experience, an app makes the most sense for a client when they have a strong need to offer program participants a particular kind of functionality that’s only really possible with a mobile phone. One example of this would be taking a photo of something so that it can be uploaded to their user account for processing (although this is technically available in a less convenient form without an app). Another example might involve a scenario where users need to be able to store documents from the web portal on their local device, in which case an app would make mobile access to those documents easier.

We should add, too, that some clients want to add an app to their offerings simply because they want to be able to say that they have an app. This is understandable, and there’s nothing wrong with this per se. Also, apps will allow you to issue push notifications directly to users’ devices, which could occasionally be of value. Just take into account the costs associated with adding an app and understand that they will likely cut into your ROI.

When Do I Not Need a Web Portal?

We hope we’ve convinced you of just how important official program websites are for your program. But we would be remiss if we didn’t address one last question: When do I not need a web portal? There are in fact a couple of situations where web portals aren’t necessary, and we want to be sure to address those.

If you’re looking to offer a simple, straightforward, one-time reward or rebate of some kind—meaning that offering this reward or rebate requires little to no collection or storage of electronic data—then an online web portal may be overkill. The most effective incentive programs involve long-term commitments, whether they’re targeted at customers or employees. Generally speaking, we don’t recommend short-term programs with no room for expansion or continuation, which is one of the reasons why we tend to tell our clients that a web portal is almost mandatory. But, if you have a good reason to offer a one-time program to your employees or customers, you can likely do it without a web portal.

When it comes to rebate programs, we’ve seen some companies that opt to stick to physical mail for rebate redemption. Oftentimes, companies will do this intentionally to increase breakage, or the number of customers who fail to follow through with the rebate process. Requiring customers to submit a physical form in the mail can certainly discourage them from participating, particularly as sending snail mail becomes less popular. If you’re taking this approach, then a web portal is unlikely to be necessary.

Lastly, we’ll sometimes see clients who opt to communicate rewards through traditional media and then complete their reward offers via mail or in-person. In these sorts of circumstances, there’s no real benefit to creating a web portal.