Blockchain Will Transform Customer Loyalty Programs

Loyalty programs have proliferated across travel, retail, financial services, and other economic sectors.

The average U.S. household participates in 29 different loyalty programs, according to the 2015 Colloquy Loyalty Census. The result is a maze of point systems and redemption options, with cumbersome processes for exchanging points among program partners. Loyalty programs are ripe for some kind of disruptive innovation that would make them easier to use.

Blockchain may just be the answer. Best known as the technology behind bitcoin, blockchain enables a ledger of transactions to be shared across a network of participants. When a new digital transaction occurs (for example, a loyalty point is issued, redeemed, or exchanged), a unique algorithm-generated token is created and assigned to that transaction. Tokens are grouped into blocks (for example, every 10 minutes) and distributed across the network, updating every ledger at once. New transaction blocks are validated and linked to older blocks, creating a strong, secure, and verifiable record of all transactions, without the need for intermediaries or centralized databases.

For consumers juggling an array of loyalty programs, blockchain could provide instant redemption and exchange for multiple loyalty point currencies on a single platform. With only one “wallet” for points, consumers would not have to hunt for each program’s options, limitations, and redemption rules.

All loyalty programs are vulnerable to a blockchain revolution, but the travel industry is perhaps the most at risk. Travel loyalty programs tend to be complex and multicurrency, making them different from retailers, which typically run simple discount programs, or from banks, which offer cash back or a single currency that can be spent easily across a range of merchants. In some cases, travel loyalty program points differ by journey component (flight, car rental, hotel, dining), leading to fragmented point collections.  While estimates vary widely, we estimate that the typical “breakage” rate (meaning the share of points not redeemed) is about 10%–20%. Plus, it can be difficult for the average person to accumulate enough points to earn a meaningful reward.

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