My Clean Break column this week takes a closer look at Air Miles for Social Change, a new division within LoyaltyOne, which runs the popular billion-dollar Air Miles rewards program. This new business division has spent the past 18 months partnering with government agencies, utilities and environmental groups on programs that get consumers to buy greener products, take transit, consume less energy, reduce their waste and embrace healthier diets and lifestyles. Normally I’m skeptical of anything having to do with loyalty programs, but here’s the thing: it seems to work, and work really well.
For some reason, a large percentage of the population really dig getting Air Miles. There’s trophy value to them, and while they’re worth much less than cash itself, members of the Air Miles program seem to treasure these rewards more than cash. An odd phenomenon, but a good one. That’s because for government agencies and utilities and transit authorities, handing out Air Miles in exchange for good behaviour is much cheaper than handing out cash in the form of discounts and rebates. And because they’re partnered up with LoyaltyGroup, which has direct access to and detailed information on nearly three-quarters of Canadian households (i.e. about 10 million), it gives them a less expensive yet highly more targeted way to reach out to consumers — at least when compared to that relatively ineffective and expensive medium called advertising. The Ontario Power Authority, the first agency to work with Air Miles on such a program to encourage energy conservation, found that it spent two-thirds less but got seven times the results compared to its advertising- and rebates-based approach a year earlier. You’ll get more details on that if you read the column.
Since working with the OPA, Air Miles for Social Change has run with the concept and now has about 25 similar programs on the go across Canada. It’s catching on.
It’s not that issuing rewards for good behaviour is an entirely new thing. It’s what Toronto’s Lowfoot.com is doing, as well as New York City-based Efficiency 2.0 — both focused on energy management for consumers. But what Air Miles brings to the equation, at least in Canada, is unmatched reach into households. And with that comes the power to influence positive change with carrots instead of sticks — not that we don’t need both.