It takes a village to create the rewarding experiences Canadians deserve with their money. At Neo, our Partnerships Manager, Katlin Mathison, knows what it takes to connect an extensive community of local and national businesses across the country. We chatted with him to understand his role, our Partnerships team and the impact of working with Neo partners.
Tell us about your background and how you got involved with Neo.
I grew up in Brandon, Manitoba - sports and music were my two biggest passions, and the tight-knit prairie community was great for fostering these interests. After spending my university years between Edmonton and Liverpool, UK, I moved to Winnipeg where I became fascinated with the local start-up scene.
I found an excellent fit on the growth team at SkipTheDishes in 2015. Over the next few years, I learned a great deal about the many moving pieces it takes to create a positive network effect between restaurants, customers and couriers. Throughout the rapid growth of this successful marketplace business, I expanded my experience in building partnerships and growth marketing, while learning to consider implications for many different stakeholders.
As SkipTheDishes left the ‘start-up’ phase and I began looking for my next challenge, Neo was a natural choice for me - I am so excited to be a part of the team working to build a better solution for small businesses to reach and reward their customers, here in Canada.
What is your role at Neo?
I focus on improving communications between Neo and our partners, and develop strategies to grow our member base through these partnerships. This means making sure that the entire partnership process is as seamless as possible so that merchants can get set up on Neo’s marketing platform in as little as 15 minutes, and ensuring that they’re set-up for success on a long-term basis. We then help merchants utilize our platform to its fullest potential by transitioning their regular customers into Neo members, maximizing the impact of their program.
How is Neo’s rewards program different?
Today, merchants pay credit card fees every time a customer uses a credit card at their store. All too often, that fee is used to fund another company’s rewards program, such as a bank or big loyalty group, even though that merchant doesn’t get any benefit in return. Not only are many merchants paying for miles or points that can’t even be redeemed at their business, but they’re also giving away valuable data about how their customers spend with them.
At Neo, we want merchants to get something back for the interchange fees that they pay. By leveraging the information generated by these everyday transactions, we can help businesses incentivize win-win relationships with their customers, offering personalized experiences without paying a third-party or changing the way their business runs today.
On the customer side, the average Canadian subscribes to 12 different loyalty and rewards programs, whose offerings are often confusing, difficult to redeem or simply irrelevant. With Neo, earning rewards is much simpler. It’s a seamless and personalized platform that’s dynamic to what customers care about, so all you have to do is pay with Neo, and you can get instant cashback.
This creates a cycle where businesses can see more profitable behaviour from their customers, and customers can get something back for supporting the places they already like. Building win-win relationships between partner businesses and Neo customers is at the very core of our model.
Can you share more about the seamlessness of the Neo Card? What do people need to do to earn rewards?
Typically in Canada, rewards are earned on a points or miles system. Canadians find these convoluted and often don’t know what a point is worth in real dollars, which is part of the reason why $16 billion in rewards currently go unclaimed in Canada. There are other barriers in place as well, such as minimum redemption thresholds, frustrating processing times, and blanket rewards such as marked-up electronics or flights on limited dates. As you can see, there’s not much choice or personalization.
All customers have to do with Neo is use their card at partnered stores. When they meet a requirement within the Neo app, such as spending a little more than usual or visiting more often, they get a cashback reward instantly applied to their statement - no need for extra steps.
Everyday spending, savings, and rewards are now conveniently located in one helpful app.
Neo emphasizes supporting local businesses and rewarding customers when they shop at their favourite neighbourhood spots. Why is that important to our mission?
In today’s digital age, there is a widening gap across Canada between small and medium businesses and large corporate brands. Multinational companies with massive budgets are increasingly using technology to market to each unique customer differently, leading to better buying experiences and more valuable relationships with customers.
The good news for small and medium businesses is that the barriers of entry have all but been removed as modern technology advances. By offering partner businesses the same tools that big companies are using to succeed, Neo levels this uneven playing field and makes supporting local just as frictionless and rewarding as interacting with Netflix, Uber, Amazon, or SkipTheDishes.
As much as Canadian shoppers talk about supporting local, only about 8% of our spending budget is with local businesses. Neo is looking to move the needle on that statistic - we know that when people buy from small and medium businesses, they’re supporting the pillars of our communities. After all, we’re local too!
How do we create relationships with small business owners, who may not have much experience with digital marketing or have small budgets?
Most small and medium business owners have a million things on their mind, and marketing may not be their top priority. They’re also used to financial companies having goals at odds with their own. Neo is the only company in Canada that offers digital-first spending, savings and cashback products specifically designed to help small and medium-sized businesses grow, and the good news is it only takes a 15 minute conversation to get started.
Once we find time to have this conversation, business owners are excited to hear that we don’t charge any fees or commissions, and no additional equipment, experience, or upkeep is required. We both truly succeed when people use the Neo Card at their business, so we’re working towards the same goal and growing together.
How do we decide which merchants to partner with?
As long as a consumer business accepts credit cards as payment, Neo for Merchants will work for them. With that said, we want to make sure that we have a diverse range of partners (both online and brick & mortar) for every neighbourhood and market in which we operate. We take care to ensure we have the right mix of different business categories, from pharmacies, liquor stores, and retail shops to restaurants, cafes, fitness and beauty studios, and everything in between.
We research reviews, social media presence, web traffic and spending data to better understand the popularity of prospective partners in a given category, but at the end of the day, it comes down to one question - is this business going to use the tool to its fullest potential? Because our goal is to shift customer spend from non-partner brands to Neo merchants, we need to be very strategic about who we select to work with.
To maximize the growth of small and medium-sized business partners, we need to ensure that we have partnerships where customers are already spending. In select categories such as gas or grocery, this may mean working with a larger company. Building partnerships like these generates better outcomes for our local partners too, because they’ll be promoted to a larger group of customers at the end of the day, turning them from strangers to first-time purchasers, and eventually into loyal regulars.
How do we drive more traffic and increase profits for our merchant partners?
Neo for Merchants provides a modern and cost-efficient way to reach and reward customers for profitable behaviour without the maintenance and cost of other marketing methods. By understanding how customers spend historically, we’re able to deliver the right incentive at the right time to create additional value for the partner business.
Our platform also helps partners make more informed decisions for their business by providing data they simply can’t get anywhere else, and allowing them to act on it right away. Whether we’re distinguishing between new and existing customers to drive first-time purchases, rewarding customers for increasing their average spend or visiting more frequently, or winning back a customer who hasn’t purchased in a while, Neo is always working in the background to bring our partners incremental profit automatically.
How does Neo personalize rewards?
Neo personalizes rewards based on customer preferences, spending patterns and location. We help members with passive recommendations on where to go for their morning coffee, what to snack on nearby, or where to fuel up on their route home. Obviously, our members don’t receive notifications every time they pass a partnered business - instead, think of it more like ‘Netflix for your wallet’.
For example, you might enjoy watching horror films, and I might prefer comedies. We both have the same movie selection at our fingertips, but as Netflix learns what we watch and enjoy, it will begin to make unique recommendations for each of us over time. That’s personalization. Similarly, we’re applying personalization to how Neo members spend their hard-earned money. Neo helps people make faster and smarter spending decisions based on the things they already like.
Discovering rewarding experiences is very open-ended for members. They can search by category or keyword, view partners nearby on the map, or browse a list of online-only merchants to be rewarded without even leaving their couch. The more customers use their Neo Card, the better the rewards get, and the more accurate the passive recommendations become.
What range of categories can members expect to earn their rewards from?
We can partner with any business, large or small, that can accept Mastercard: online-only or brick & mortar businesses are welcome. That means customers can be instantly rewarded for everyday things. From retail, gas, grocery, and liquor purchases to enjoying their local cafe, restaurant, and bar scene, and even including fitness, beauty, entertainment, and transportation.
Neo covers all the bases when it comes to our members’ everyday lives. Think of any spending you might do on a given day, and Neo has a way of rewarding you, both online and in-person - and more partners are joining the network every day.
Launching Neo nationwide is no small feat. How do we scale our partnerships? Does your team travel city-to-city to forge merchant partner connections?
Our team comes from all across Canada (and around the world), making our job easier when launching in a new city. You could say we have our own built-in local guides, as our very own team members can vouch for the local legends that make their city unique.
Informed by research and in-house data, we first analyze factors such as business categories, reviews, and population density to set our priorities and define success within a market. From there, we connect with select merchants by phone, email, and in-person to decide if the platform is a mutual fit. The simplicity of the sign-up process for business owners definitely allows us to scale quickly.
A lot of the partnership recommendations come from our merchant partners themselves. It’s like a ripple effect - they’ve got a great pulse on their own backyard, and they recognize that as more popular businesses join Neo, more customers will be recommended to their shop, and the more opportunities they’ll have to elevate their business.
What’s next for Neo as far as rolling out in Canada?
We’ve opened up early access to Neo for Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. Thousands of brick & mortar merchants are available on the Neo app in Western Canada and hundreds of online merchants are available nationwide. Most of our merchant partners are asking us for ways to promote and recommend Neo to their customers (since they know these customers are incentivized to spend again), which is why residents in these cities are beginning to see Neo’s “Earn Rewards Here” stickers in businesses all over town.
In a few months, we’ll launch in the lower mainland of BC with additional cities like Burnaby and Coquitlam. I can hardly wait until Neo is available to people across Canada, so they can access our high-interest savings account, no-annual-fee credit card, and earn meaningful and personalized rewards, all in one account.
Fast forward to the future. Where do you see Neo going?
We’re challenging the status quo and modernizing everyday spending, savings and rewards in Canada, with cutting-edge tech at the forefront of everything we build. There’s no sugar-coating it - it’s a monumental endeavour.
What gives Neo a winning advantage is our world-class team. No one in the Canadian fintech space matches our drive, diligence, and passion for continual improvement. To be a disruptor, we have to be 10 times better than what exists today, and must work tirelessly to make every process more efficient and effective than the last. We simply have to do things better, faster and with smaller budgets - that’s how we’ll change the spending and savings game for all Canadians.
To learn more about how Neo supports Canadian businesses, check out Neo for Merchants. If you're interested in joining the Partnerships team, visit our Careers page.