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Irish Loyalty Awards - with Eileen McGuinness

An interview with Eileen McGuinness, the Co-Founder of the Irish Loyalty Awards, and a longtime loyalty practitioner with over 15 years' industry experience.

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Eileen McGuinness
Co-Founder of the Irish Loyalty Awards
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In our most recent installemnt of the “Ask a Loyalty Expert” series, we speak to Eileen McGuinness, who had co-founded Ireland’s first of its kind loyalty awards program, giving rise to a growing loyalty community. Eileen tells us about her journey thus far.

What inspired you and Marie to create the Irish Loyalty Awards?

During my tenure at Aer Lingus, where I headed up the launch of an air club, Avios, it became evident to me that unlike the UK and some other parts of the world, there still wasn’t a very strong loyalty community in Ireland. Marian, whose background was more focused around loyalty partnership acquisition and awards programs, had come to a similar conclusion. 

So, we sat down and discussed the question of whether there might be a potential loyalty niche on the Irish market and a need for a loyalty community. We found that while the loyalty industry was starting to evolve in the country, we were still a little behind the curve, particularly with regards to having a loyalty networking community. 

We felt an awards program was the best way to build that community. There were a lot of other marketing-related awards, which were thriving, but were quite broad and there wasn’t anything focused specifically on the loyalty niche. We believed we had the expertise to be able to develop an awards program, so it was just a natural fit. 

We were very fortunate and had a fantastic first year. Our prime sponsor, Visa, came on board and supported us, and the event quickly turned out to be a hit in Ireland.

How have the awards evolved since 2019?

Unfortunately, we had the pandemic in between, so the event industry got a kick. But what really came from that - if you really look at the light at the end of the tunnel - was that the community we had built in 2019 really stayed strong and loyal to us. We had huge support from our sponsors, huge support from our entrants, and in 2020, we saw a huge increase in the number of entries and the number of sponsorships. 

We were on target to have an absolutely fantastic event, which we unfortunately had to cancel on the eve of the event. We’d had people on airplanes coming to the awards to speak and we were very close to making it work just before we went into the national lockdown. It was obviously quite disappointing having to cancel, but people were very understanding and supportive.

We decided not to do a virtual event in 2020. We really believed that what drew people to these awards - and why we created them - was the space to network with other people in the industry. We held strong for 2021 until it became evident that we were still not going to have an in-person event. That’s when we decided to go ahead with a virtual event, which was new ground for us. It worked very well and from an execution point of view, it was an excellent standard of a virtual event and everybody was very happy with the outcome. 

This year, we were absolutely delighted to all get back in person at a wonderful Irish castle called Culkie. The event was a great success. We also had the global loyalty summit beforehand, which was all about championing education and expertise in loyalty. Part of our strategy is that we’re always trying to champion and increase knowledge and expertise for our community, so this was an important element. 

Many events struggled to make "virtual" work. How did you do it?

We invested into a really good production company who had huge expertise. The quality of the event was TV studio quality, and was truly exceptional. We had a lovely stage, all the sponsors were there, and that was all we could do from a social distancing perspective. 

Everyone who was a finalist was geared up and they were online. When the winner was announced, that person then got interviewed. We also sent out gift boxes to our attendees prior to the event, which included a bottle of wine and some food vouchers. We did everything we could to make it the best possible experience for people, but my own preference is absolutely in person and I’m delighted we’re back. 

It’s really not just about winning awards, it’s about being with your peers, being with your suppliers, and really for the team to get recognised.

How would you describe the event? 

It’s a very high-end, black-tie event. There’s up to 250 people attending. It’s very much a big-stage event, where we go through our 17 categories and present the brands from each of the categories. The categories themselves reflect what is happening in the industry each year and each year, they change as some categories become less relevant over time. 

There’s great buzz, a great sense of excitement. Of course, there’s also disappointment among the finalists who don’t make it and there’s always people disagreeing about who should’ve been the winner, but each winner is selected independently based on the facts of their loyalty offerings. 

Mostly, there’s a lot of celebration. The Irish can party well, so we really do have a good party. And I think at the end, there’s the sentiment of a great event that we’ve all enjoyed. 

We also get to reward personality of the year, and this year, at the international loyalty summit beforehand, we had some excellent speakers from across the globe, for example from Microsoft Rewards and Deloitte

There’s a lot of work done by the entrants in getting their entry submissions ready. We obviously go through the whole formal process of judging with the help of our panel of independent judges. We take a rigorous approach, but we also allow the public to get a say and vote for their favourite loyalty program, which is quite unique. 

It’s a calendar event now, people have it in their calendars and look forward to it.

How are the finalists shortlisted? What is the process?

There’s a detailed criteria for each of the category. Once we get the entries, they’re reviewed by a panel of independent judges and we get a shortlist based on the criteria and the overall score assigned to each of the entries. 

Once you become a finalist, you are once again judged with a different set of criteria. We sometimes do interviews with the finalists to allow judges to better understand the entries if some information may be missing or the judges aren’t able to otherwise make their decision. The meetings usually take place via Zoom, after which point the finalists go up on our website and are open to a public vote. 

Public vote isn’t taken into account at the shortlisting stage, people get to have a say once the finalists have been selected. The public vote is just an opportunity for brands to get that extra exposure and let the customers know that they’re doing something good.

What kind of criteria is used to shortlist candidates? 

We look at things such as program engagement, which is a key one. We look for candidates launching new initiatives, and sometimes elements that are obviously more confidential such as redemption rates, number of program members, as well as the proposition itself, i.e. is it a good loyalty proposition?

Also, if you’re in the marketing category, for example, we look at different campaigns and other creative endeavours that the candidates have done. 

As part of the entry process, candidates have access to all the criteria used by the judges in the shortlisting process. We find it’s really important for people entering the awards to be aware of the criteria and make sure their submission really answers the questions. 

What were some of the most interesting initiatives that you selected candidates on in 2022?

Due to the fact that we were coming out of the pandemic in 2022, it was all about how people adapted, since many of the rewards and campaigns that may have been attractive prior to the pandemic were no longer relevant, e.g. holiday rewards. Some companies were very innovative and responded directly to people’s pandemic needs with rewards such as Netflix and Disney+ vouchers, access to book clubs, etc.. 

A lot of it was also about corporate social responsibility this year, looking at how companies have responded to the crisis and the part they played in making things easier on both their customers as well as their employees.

What have you got planned for the 2023 awards?

All the big Irish loyalty brands are involved now and a lot of international companies are taking an interest, too, due to how popular the event has been so far.

We’re looking to have more emphasis on Ireland’s SMEs. There are many businesses in Ireland that have fantastic loyalty initiatives but that don’t take part in the awards because they see themselves as too small a venture. In come cases, they can’t afford to leave their bakery or shop to come to the awards. Ultimately, they don’t get recognised for their efforts, which is something we’d like to change.

That’s why we’d like 2023 to focus more on small to medium-sized businesses and encourage them to take part. It’s very important for us to champion our local businesses, and given how COVID had impacted business, Ireland’s SMEs could definitely use the extra push. We’ll soon be announcing how we plan to do this in the context of next year’s awards. 

We’re also planning to hold a two-day workshop for people interested in getting more formal loyalty qualifications. Not many people start out with the idea of becoming a loyalty professional, it’s something that we end up in as we progress and evolve in our careers, so the workshop will serve as a great opportunity for loyalty practitioners to build on their formal loyalty background. It’s something I’m looking forward to myself.

We’re looking to offer people more guidance in terms of getting their submissions ready, thus giving more businesses the chance to take part. 

Also launching a quarterly Irish loyalty newsletter, which will be all about showcasing everything and everybody involved in the awards. We want to give coverage to both our winners as well as those who haven’t won but had excellent initiatives. Equally importantly, it’ll be great to have that forum where we can examine what is being done in the loyalty world, both in Ireland and beyond, and keep our loyalty community engaged. 

More generally, what kind of trends do you see unravelling in the space? 

Definitely digital. Definitely customer experience, which people are looking at now more than ever before. I’m delighted to see more personalisation enter the space. One of my bear bugs is getting a blanket email or a blanket reward that just does not resonate with me whatsoever. 

We’re definitely seeing data being used and the insights being gleaned from that data are being put into loyalty propositions, which is fantastic. We talk a lot about data these days, but, for me, it’s more about how companies are using that data to improve people’s experiences of the brand. 

I think engagement is key as well. Membership is one lever, of course, but for me, having an engaged population is more important than just having lots of members who aren’t really that engaged. 

We’re probably going to see more “touchy-feely” rewards, as we potentially shift from points and the purely monetary to Surprise and Delight. Points will obviously always be there, but experiential and value-based rewards are on their way to becoming very important. 

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