Every time a customer goes online, she must wade through all sorts of content vying for her attention: emails, tweets, Facebook alerts. How's a brand to stand out? Reward users, says Lars Albright, CEO of SessionM, a start-up that creates loyalty campaigns for brands such as Viacom and Honda. He talked to Inc.'s Jeff Haden about a better way to rise above the noise.

Everyone knows rewards can work, but why do they work so well online?

Consumers are people who decide how to invest their time online. They have so many choices--PC, tablet, TV, mobile--and competition for their attention has never been so strong. Plus, they're incredibly savvy about ignoring advertising. How do you stand out, especially to power users, who consume and share the most? You have to recognize them and reward them for investing their time.

How do you do it so that you're not simply buying loyalty temporarily and on the cheap?

Take the best elements of offline rewards programs--such as getting additional value or special treatment as a VIP customer--and apply them to the digital world.

Take Allstate's Drivewise, a device the company created to collect your car's driving data. Customers get a 10 percent discount for signing up, and depending on how they drive, they can save up to 30 percent. That's a smart way to reward customers and encourage safe driving.

What else should business owners know about reaching the new digital consumer?

Forty-four percent want to receive mobile coupons and deals, which, by the way, get 10 times the redemption rate of traditional coupons.

Say I own a local bike shop, and I have limited resources. Where do I start?

First, an example: We ran a program with HBO where people could view a video-based message and then get a gift card to the HBO online store. It exposed people to a show and drove motivated traffic to the online store. So maybe you create a video on changing a flat tire. For watching it, customers get a discount code for supplies in your store. Any business can give customers a reason to invest their time--and at the same time heighten brand association and increase purchase intent.

That sounds more complicated to create and then manage.

Think of it this way: Some people don't even look at print ads or digital banner ads, so you're wasting part of your ad spend there. Take a portion of that budget and experiment with a simple rewards program. Come up with a way to reward your core customers and attract new ones. The best rewards programs do both--and make interacting with your brand a worthwhile investment.

How to Get Started

1. Focus on your power users. Clicks and downloads can tell you only so much about your customers. To single out your most loyal fans, track active users and return visits.

2. Aim for quality and relevance. Cheap gimmicks don't qualify as rewards--and they don't fool anyone. Offer something people actually want.

3. Give 'em choices. Customers will value a reward more if they play a role in choosing what they receive. Plus, offering a range of rewards will help you test different options to see what resonates the most.

4. Make it easy to get and use. Take a hint from the airline industry's frustrating programs: If customers can't ever cash in their points or get rewards, they have little reason to stick with your brand-especially if they can get the same deal or something better elsewhere.