We love averages. So much so it allows us to feel confident in our design choices even when they will backfire. We all see the “data” that suggests “most” people like X or Y. The incentive world is full of these poll-based outcomes hiding behind “research.”

While the numbers are what they are – ask 100 people a question you’re bound to get a group that answers in a similar way. Unfortunately, averages are just that. Average. They represent a “smoothing” of the data to help people get some directional information IMO. 

Telling me that 45% of your audience are Millennials is interesting. But knowing your audience skews heavily toward Millennials is frankly unactionable. For example, in this Millennial scenario, you know that 45% of your participants are between 19 and 39 years old. So?

Here’s the problem. How many 19-year-olds are the same as 39-year-olds? How many 39-year-olds are doing TikTok videos and how many 19-year-olds are worried about their life insurance coverage and whether they have a 529 plan in place for children’s college.

Yeah. Not so monolithic, is it? Not so easy to say “offer x” to keep 45% of your audience engaged.

If someone were to design an incentive program with that information, most people (I’m pointing at those that think they have strategic program design expertise in their company – PROTIP – many don’t… just ask) would create a program for what they think a “millennial” is and ultimately not get the results they should be getting.

N=1 – The ONLY Number That Matters

That is the real truth in all these studies. Averages don’t really help. But stats get clicks and readership.

You need to design for one person. The person reading your email, enrolling in your program, earning awards, and ultimately, redeeming for the award THEY want. That is the only person that matters. Period.

Ways to make sure you design for N=1

  • Allow for multiple communication options – email, text, print (yeah that’s still a very successful option), environmental – think posters, etc.
  • Develop choice architectures that allow participants in the program to choose their own “summary list” of things they want to work toward.
  • Make sure you have a vast array of options for award redemptions – from very specific gift cards to more cash-like options like reloadable VISA/Mastercard/other.
  • Leverage ongoing surveys and polls to assess whether you’re hitting the right notes with the program and the people in the program.
  • Don’t be afraid of going old-school and conducting focus groups and 1:1 conversations (I think we’re all familiar with zoom now!)

This list isn’t exhaustive – it’s a starting point for your program design.

Always think N=1 – even when someone claiming to be an expert starts throwing the latest survey averages at you and acting all smart and stuff.

Trust me – I’ve stayed at Holiday Inn Express a lot. And I have a blog so I are smart.


Do you want a program design that is above average? Then click this link and we can talk through how to design the best incentive program for that ONE special person.