Can points-powered apps help employers boost wellness programs?

Hey Dan, wanna walk down to the boardwalk again?”

It’s a muggy June night in New Liskeard, Ont., where my boyfriend is working for the summer, and we’re on a final stroll before my overnight bus ride back to Toronto. I still haven’t packed or eaten dinner but I’m desperate to keep walking. According to my new app, I’ve completed 94 per cent of my recommended 12,100 steps per day. If I can walk another 800, I’ll get four Scene points.

“Sure,” Daniel shrugs, and we turn back towards the Wabi River. “So how much are you getting for this?”

I do some quick math. A free movie costs 1,000 points through the Scene rewards program offered by Cineplex Entertainment. So the cash value of a successful 12,100-step day, based on a $13 admission price, is about five cents.

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Daniel stops in his tracks. “Are you serious? So if we find a nickel on the ground right now, we’ll be making more money than if we keep walking? And if we drop a dime, then we’ll be losing money?”

“That’s not the point,” I say defensively.

Nobody is claiming that Carrot Rewards, an app funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada, will make people rich. Instead, proponents say it’ll trigger people’s inner competitiveness and desire for external validation, provide positive feedback and get them hooked on walking.

To start the app, which is currently available in British Columbia, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador, users sync it to the built-in pedometer in their smartphone or to an external device like a Fitbit. For two weeks, it simply tracks daily steps. After that, it comes up with a customized goal for each user. For each day users reach that goal, they receive loyalty points.

“There’s a little bit of a gaming component when we interact with points,” says Andreas Souvaliotis, founder and chief executive officer of Carrot Insights Inc. “They have a unique power to make us do things that we otherwise may not have done for a few extra pennies.” He adds that while marketers have long taken advantage of that power, Carrot aims to channel that mindset into better health.

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In the past, the Public Health Agency of Canada would tend to advertise through traditional media. During the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009, for example, it aired a 30-second TV ad during which the chief public health officer encouraged Canadians to get the flu shot. More recently, the organization has upped its social media game, and in 2015, it started working with Carrot to engage with Canadians even more, according to Gerry Gallagher, an executive director at the federal agency.

“What’s new about [Carrot] is that it helps to tailor more specifically our messaging,” she says, adding it has been very successful so far. Active users complete 60 to 70 per cent of the healthy living quizzes, and 245,000 Canadians had signed up for the step program as of this spring. The agency expects data on how many steps users take to meet their daily goals in a few months. Last month, the Ontario government boosted its involvement with the app by announcing $1.5 million for a pilot project with Carrot. The move followed earlier funding announcements of $5 million through the Public Health Agency of Canada and $2.5 million from the B.C. government.

Souvaliotis notes the four types of points Carrot users can earn are diverse and aim to appeal to different demographics: free movies with Scene points for younger, urban users; free airfare with Aeroplan miles for older users; free gas with Petro-Points for men, as well as rural and suburban users; and free groceries and gadgets with More Rewards points for suburban users in western Canada.

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Nevertheless, 68 per cent of Carrot users thus far are women aged 25 to 44, says Gallagher. The app is seeing use from both rural and urban communities and across a broad range of income levels, so the agency is looking into ways it can reach men.

Apps at the office

Carrot has the potential to merge with workplace activities since it includes the three necessary phases of wellness programs, according to Marie-Josée Le Blanc, a partner at Mercer.

The first stage is knowledge. “Most people know it’s better to walk your dog, rather than watching a TV show and drinking a beer,” says Le Blanc, noting the app helps create awareness by pushing out fun facts and giving extra points for taking healthy quizzes.

But knowledge isn’t sufficient, she adds. “The challenge is to get them to the next stage: ‘I believe.’ So you need to raise awareness. You need to put in the face of the employees . . . what their health risks are and ideally having shocking statistics related to that. Like, as a result of you being inactive, you have so many more chances of developing cardiovascular problems before age 50.”

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The final stage, she adds, is action. “Human beings are driven by two things: motivation and comparison with their peers. So that’s why a good wellness program would also incorporate incentives to get people going, to get them to act. . . . It doesn’t take long after that for employees to transform the external motivation to an intrinsic motivation. And when you’ve reached that stage, you really know your people are good to go.”

Not a replacement

Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada recently tested Carrot with its own B.C. employees, two other employer clients and people who had purchased individual health coverage. Plan members received extra points if they entered a promotion code allowing the insurer to track their usage habits, says Marilee Mark, vice-president of product development and integrated health solutions at Sun Life.

Engagement rates for the pilot groups ranged from 72 per cent to 86 per cent, which is higher than the results for Carrot users in the general population. “It’s hard to know exactly why that is but it might be related to how does this align with what an employer’s doing already and that they see it as an endorsement from an employer and therefore there’s a higher level of engagement,” says Mark.

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“We don’t have enough different employers to test with to know if that would be consistent.”

The University of British Columbia, a participating employer in Sun Life’s pilot project, found the app complemented but couldn’t replace its wellness program.

“It wasn’t our entire programming or the breadth and depth of what we offer,” says Miranda Massie, a health promotion specialist at the university. “We just saw it as a really nice add-in piece, and it was something that was already created by the experts.”

Massie notes the app encourages friendly competition, which Le Blanc says is key to wellness programs. “The app itself only tracks your own [data], but I know of colleagues who were comparing their apps every day. . .,” says Massie.

The points, of course, were the biggest motivator.

In a survey of participants in the pilot project, Sun Life found 50 per cent would be unlikely to continue with the app if it didn’t offer points. “We do know that the loyalty points were one of the drivers, which is OK,” says Mark, noting the large number of participants who said they had made a healthy lifestyle change as a result of using the app. And that, she says, is key, “because you want to know, is it making a difference, aside from people getting their points?”

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Organizations also have the opportunity to customize the app for their workforces. “Imagine if an employer happens to have special activity days or they happen to have special vaccination days or they happen to have whatever . . .,” says Souvaliotis. “Those activities could now be linked to Carrot. . . . Or, maybe to a certain employer, the fact that you walked 10,000 steps today matters quite a bit, so maybe the steps rewards can be enhanced inside an employer environment.”

For her part, Massie is eager to move forward with Carrot, now that the Sun Life pilot project is over. “How we could embed some additional promotions or maybe an additional campaign, so it’s not just the pilot and now everyone forgets about the app?” she says. “Would there be a way for us to go back to these folks who participated initially a few months from now and see how many of them are still using it? That’s what we still need to figure out — the next steps from here.”

Sara Tatelman is a former associate editor at Benefits Canada.

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Editor’s note: As of Sept. 7, 400,000 Canadians had signed up for Carrot Rewards’ step program.