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These platforms, fundamentally marketing tools, are revolutionizing the way brands engage with their audiences. Offering a variety of rewards products such as cashback incentives, pay-to-play games, and paid task completions, these platforms cater to diverse consumer interests. The integration of recommendation systems into rewards platforms has emerged as a pivotal strategy, leveraging cutting-edge technologies like deep-learning models and data analytics to predict and influence customer behavior. By rewarding users for their engagement with personalized offers, brands are cultivating loyalty and encouraging continued interaction.

This article delves into the intricacies of building a recommendation system and its specific application to rewards platforms. The unique aspects of these systems, prerequisites for their implementation, and steps for building them are explored in depth. Additionally, we’ll discuss important considerations such as performance evaluation, updates, data privacy, and cost versus ROI.

How AI/ML work

General AI/ML framework

AI, in its most basic form, is the concept of enabling machines to carry out tasks that would typically require human intelligence. This is often accomplished through a method known as machine learning. In this process, AI systems are provided with vast quantities of data, which they utilize to enhance their performance on a particular task over time, without any explicit programming for that task. This process mirrors the way humans learn from their experiences.

AI project steps

AI projects generally follow a structured process to ensure that the development and deployment are effective and efficient. Here’s an overview of the typical steps involved in such a project:

  1. Problem Definition
    The problem definition phase focuses on discerning and articulating the precise issue or chance that AI/ML can tackle, such as refining predictive suggestions to enhance user experience. It involves a thorough grasp of the enterprise’s strategic aims and the role that AI/ML can play in realizing them, whether it’s to augment sales, elevate user activity, or amplify satisfaction levels. Integral to this phase is the creation of clear benchmarks for success and the selection of appropriate metrics, which could range from engagement rates to sales conversions, to monitor the progress and impact of the AI/ML implementation.
  2. Data Collection
    The data collection stage involves amassing pertinent data from a range of sources, which is crucial for the project’s foundation. It is essential to guarantee that the collected data is of high quality and ample quantity to meet the project’s demands. This stage also requires navigating through potential obstacles such as adhering to data privacy laws, securing data access rights, and ensuring a diverse dataset to avoid bias in the outcomes.
  3. Data Preparation
    The data preparation phase entails refining and pre-processing the collected data to render it apt for analysis. This includes rectifying missing values, addressing outliers, and ironing out inconsistencies to ensure the integrity of the dataset. Additionally, feature engineering is carried out to construct significant attributes that will be instrumental in training the model, enhancing its ability to make accurate predictions and decisions.
  4. Model Selection and Development
    Selecting the most effective algorithm is essential, followed by the creation of an initial baseline model. This model serves as a starting point for subsequent iterations, where enhancements are made to optimize performance.
  5. Model Training and Validation
    The model is trained with the prepared dataset to learn from the data. Its performance is then validated using methods such as cross-validation to ensure reliability and accuracy. Additionally, hyperparameters are fine-tuned to enhance the model’s effectiveness.
  6. Model Evaluation
    The model’s effectiveness is assessed against established metrics and success criteria to gauge its performance. It’s crucial to confirm the model’s ability to generalize to new, unseen data, maintaining its predictive accuracy. Additionally, the model is scrutinized for biases and to ensure fairness in its predictions.
  7. Model Deployment
    The model is launched in a production setting, where it’s integrated into current systems and workflows. Additionally, pipelines are established to facilitate either real-time or batch processing, depending on the application requirements.
  8. Monitoring and Maintenance
    The model undergoes continuous monitoring to maintain its accuracy over time. It is updated with new data and retrained as needed to stay relevant and effective. Additionally, managing the model’s lifecycle, which includes versioning and eventual retirement, is a crucial aspect of this phase.
  9. Feedback Loop
    Feedback on the model’s performance and its overall impact is gathered and analyzed. This information is then used to iteratively refine and enhance the model, taking into account both the feedback received and any new data that becomes available.

Recommendation systems basics

What are recommendation systems?

Recommendation systems are specialized AI applications designed to predict the best item for a user by utilizing suitable algorithms and pertinent historical data. In the following discussion, we will explore the unique aspects of these systems, focusing on the tasks they address and the associated data and models they employ.

Recommendation systems are specialized AI applications designed to predict the best item for a user by utilizing suitable algorithms and pertinent historical data.

Objective task

The core objective of a recommendation system is to deliver highly personalized suggestions tailored to each individual user. This process revolves around deeply understanding and anticipating user needs and preferences. At the heart of personalization is a thorough analysis of each user’s interactions, such as their browsing history, purchases, and ratings. This data forms the basis for understanding what each user finds appealing and relevant. The system continuously learns from user behavior, identifying patterns that might not be immediately apparent. For instance, it might recognize that a user prefers certain types of products at specific times or that their preferences shift subtly over time. Based on historical data and learned patterns, the system attempts to predict what the user might be interested in next. This involves sophisticated algorithms capable of sifting through vast amounts of data to make accurate predictions.

In essence, the task of personalizing recommendations is a complex, ongoing process of learning, predicting, and adapting to each user’s unique preferences, with the aim of delivering a seamless, engaging, and highly individualized experience.


Recommendation systems utilize a variety of data types to learn patterns from user preferences and provide personalized suggestions. The key data types include:

  • User Data
    This includes information about the users, such as demographics (age, gender, location), and psychographics (interests, values). User data is often anonymized and segmented for better personalization.
  • Item Data
    Pertains to the characteristics of the items being recommended, such as products, movies, or books. This includes metadata like descriptions, categories, price, author, or release date. For better accuracy, item data is sometimes enriched with external sources.
  • Interaction Data
    Captures how users interact with items. It includes explicit feedback like ratings and reviews, and implicit feedback such as viewing history, click-through rates, and purchase history. This data is crucial for understanding user preferences.
  • Contextual Data
    Involves the context in which interactions occur, such as time, location, or device used. This data helps in understanding the situational factors influencing user choices.
  • Social Data
    Information from social networks can be used, such as friends’ recommendations, likes, and shares. This leverages social influence and networks in recommendations.

Here are the main types of algorithms used in these systems, explained in a simple way:

  • Collaborative Filtering
    Imagine you’re at a party, and a friend recommends a movie they loved because you both enjoyed similar movies in the past. Collaborative filtering works similarly. It looks at what you and others have liked or bought before and recommends things that people with similar tastes liked. It’s like getting recommendations from a group of friends.
  • Content-Based Filtering
    This one’s like a knowledgeable friend who knows your tastes in books or music so well that they can recommend new ones based on what you’ve liked before. Content-based filtering examines the properties of the items you’ve liked (like genre, author, or artist) and finds new items with similar characteristics.
  • Hybrid Systems
    This is like combining the insights of all your friends and acquaintances. Hybrid systems mix collaborative and content-based filtering to provide more accurate recommendations. They use the strengths of both methods to suggest items that are both popular among people with similar tastes and similar to what you’ve liked in the past.

Typical use cases

Amazon.com product recommendation

Best sellers
This list is generated primarily by sales data. The system aggregates purchasing information across various demographics and displays items that are currently the most popular or have been purchased the most within a specific time frame. This feature relies on the wisdom of the crowd, assuming that items that sell well are likely to appeal to other customers too.

Recommended For You
This is a more personalized feature that uses a recommendation system based on collaborative filtering, content-based filtering, or a hybrid approach.

Customers who viewed X also viewed
This feature helps users discover products that they might not have found on their own by leveraging the browsing patterns of similar users. It assumes that if a product was interesting to other customers who looked at the same item, it might also be of interest to the current user. This type of system can be particularly effective in helping customers find related or complementary products.

Frequently bought together
When a customer views or adds an item to their shopping cart, Amazon displays products that have been frequently purchased with it under the “Frequently Bought Together” section.

This encourages customers to purchase complementary items that they may not have initially considered, thereby increasing the convenience for the customer and the total sales for Amazon. This feature relies on the concept of ‘market basket analysis’, a key component of retail sales data analysis.

Netflix video recommendation

Netflix’s video recommendation system is particularly sophisticated due to the complex nature of video-watching data. Unlike straightforward e-commerce transactions, video-watching patterns encompass not just what viewers choose but also how they engage with content.

Netflix’s approach goes beyond traditional collaborative filtering to include a range of other techniques such as deep learning and natural language processing to interpret complex patterns and make predictions. This allows Netflix to offer a highly personalized viewing experience that adapts to the nuanced preferences and behaviors of its users.

Recommendation systems for reward platforms

These systems, distinct from traditional transaction-centric models, prioritize relationship-building and long-term engagement over immediate transactions. This shift marks a significant change in how platforms approach user interaction and revenue generation.

Recommendation systems for reward platforms, distinct from traditional transaction-centric models, prioritize relationship-building and long-term engagement over immediate transactions.

Prioritizing Relationships Over Transactions

Traditional recommendations often emphasize immediate transactions, focusing on quick sales or short-term gains. However, recommendation systems in reward platforms pivot towards building long-lasting relationships with users. By understanding individual preferences and behaviors, these systems can offer personalized rewards and experiences that resonate more deeply with users. This approach fosters a sense of loyalty and connection, encouraging repeated and prolonged engagement with the platform.

For platform owners, this translates into a more stable and sustainable revenue stream. Users who feel valued and understood are more likely to return and engage with the platform consistently. Moreover, this ongoing engagement offers a wealth of data that can be leveraged to further refine and personalize the user experience, creating a positive feedback loop that benefits both the user and the platform.

Let’s delve into the specifics of the data used to train these recommenders, focusing on three key aspects: interaction data, external demographic data, and the balance between industry-specific knowledge and a black-box approach.

Interaction Data: Embracing Complexity and Sparsity

The cornerstone of any recommendation system is interaction data, particularly when it comes to reward platforms. These data are often characterized by their long timeframe and high complexity. The nature of user interaction with reward programs is inherently sparse and irregular. For instance, a user’s engagement with a paid game or participation in a cashback shopping program can vary significantly in terms of frequency and duration. This irregularity presents a unique challenge in understanding user preferences and predicting future behavior.

This irregularity of interaction data of reward platforms presents a unique challenge in understanding user preferences and predicting future behavior.

To address this, sophisticated algorithms are employed to parse through this sparse data, identifying patterns and correlations that might not be immediately apparent. The goal is to construct a comprehensive understanding of user behavior over time, despite the irregularity of interactions. This approach enables the system to make more accurate predictions and offer more relevant rewards, even when user engagement is infrequent or erratic.

Leveraging External Demographic Data

Incorporating external demographic data can significantly enrich interaction data, offering a more nuanced view of user preferences and behaviors. Demographic information such as age, gender, location, and income level can provide valuable context to user interactions. This context helps in segmenting users more effectively and tailoring rewards to fit specific demographic groups.

For example, demographic data can reveal that users from a certain age group or geographical location may prefer specific types of rewards. This insight allows reward platforms to customize their offerings, ensuring that they are relevant and appealing to different segments of their user base. The integration of demographic data thus enhances the precision and effectiveness of recommendation systems.

Incorporating external demographic data can significantly enrich interaction data, offering a more nuanced view of user preferences and behaviors

Balancing Industry-Specific Knowledge and Black-Box Approaches

Defining the most relevant data points for prediction in reward platforms is often a complex task. Unlike more straightforward e-commerce recommendations, the dynamics of rewards and loyalty programs are not always easily deciphered through algorithmic analysis alone. This is where the interplay between industry-specific knowledge and data-driven “black-box” approaches becomes vital.

Business practitioners, with their intuitive understanding of the industry and customer behavior, can provide invaluable insights into which data points might be most predictive of user preferences in the context of rewards. Their expertise can guide the development of more tailored and effective recommendation algorithms. However, this approach must be balanced with the capabilities and limitations of the available data. Practitioners’ insights need to be integrated with data-driven models to create a synergistic approach that leverages the strengths of both human intuition and algorithmic precision.

Business practitioners, with their intuitive understanding of the industry and customer behavior, can provide invaluable insights into which data points might be most predictive of user preferences in the context of rewards

Reward vs. Classic recommendation systems

Use-case Objective User Behavior Importance of demographics and external data Importance of industry-specific knowledge
Product Recommendation

Transactional Short-term Medium Use-Case Low
Video Recommendation

Relational Medium-term High Low
Rewards Recommendation Relational Long-term High High

3 options to build your recommender

There are three primary avenues to consider: hiring a tech team, using built-in solutions or hiring a tech agency specializing in AI. Each option comes with its own set of advantages and challenges.

Hiring a Tech Team Built-in Solutions Tech Agency Specialized in AI for Reward platforms
Skills required:
Data scientist or ML Engineer
+ Data Engineer
+ DevOps or back-end engineer
Solutions available:
AWS Personalize
Google Recommendations AI
IBM Watson Recommendations

Skills Required:
Platform-Specific Knowledge
+Basic AI Understanding
+Data Analytics engineering & and analytics skills

Outsource the development of your recommendation system to an expert in AI
PRO Customization
A dedicated team can tailor the recommender system to the specific needs and nuances of your platform.

Full control over the development process and the ability to make real-time adjustments.

Intellectual Property
Developing in-house keeps the technology proprietary to your company.

Generally, more affordable than building a system from scratch.

Quick Deployment
These solutions can be integrated relatively quickly.

Proven Effectiveness
Built-in solutions are often tested and refined, ensuring reliability.

Agencies bring specialized knowledge and experience in AI and recommender systems.

Faster implementation compared to building an in-house team.

Quality Assurance
Agencies often have a track record of successful implementations, ensuring quality.

Hiring a full team is often the most expensive option

Recruitment, training, and development

Continuous maintenance and updates require ongoing commitment and resources.

Limited Customization
You are somewhat restricted to the features and limitations of the platform.

Dependency: Reliance on external platforms for critical operations and updates.

Data Privacy Concerns: Involving third-party services can raise concerns regarding user data privacy.

Less Control
You have less direct control over the development process.

Performance evaluation

This evaluation involves a strategic approach, focusing on defining Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in relation to marketing goals and conducting rigorous A/B testing with previous rewards displays. Let’s delve into these aspects in detail.

Defining KPIs in Relation to Marketing Goals

The foundation of a robust evaluation strategy is the identification and definition of relevant KPIs. These KPIs must align closely with the platform’s overall marketing goals. This could range from increasing user engagement, boosting conversion rates, enhancing customer loyalty, to driving up the average order value.

Select Relevant KPIs

Based on these objectives, select KPIs that accurately reflect the system’s performance in achieving them. For example, if the goal is to increase user engagement, KPIs like click-through rate (CTR) and time spent on the platform might be relevant. For conversion rate enhancement, look at metrics like conversion rate and average order value.

A/B Testing with Previous Rewards Display

A/B testing is an effective method to evaluate the performance of the recommendation system, especially when compared with previous reward displays. Divide your user base into two segments – one exposed to the current recommendation system and the other to the previous rewards display method. Ensure these groups are comparable in terms of demographics and behavior patterns. Implement the testing phase over a significant period to gather actionable data. During this phase, closely monitor the KPIs defined earlier. For instance, compare the CTR, conversion rates, or user engagement metrics between the two groups.

Iterative Improvement

Use the insights gained from A/B testing to make iterative improvements to the recommendation system. It might involve tweaking the algorithm, modifying the user interface, or even redefining the reward structure.

Continuous Learning and Updates

Continuous learning is a process where the system constantly updates and improves using new data and user feedback. This approach helps in adapting to changing user preferences, improving recommendation accuracy, incorporating new trends, and handling the cold start problem. It leads to more relevant, personalized suggestions, enhancing user engagement and offering competitive advantages to businesses.

Continuous learning helps in adapting to changing user preferences, improving recommendation accuracy, incorporating new trends, and handling the cold start problem

Data Privacy

With the increasing reliance on user data to personalize recommendations, ensuring the privacy and security of this data is not just a legal obligation but also a critical aspect of maintaining user trust and platform integrity.

Understanding the Importance of Data Privacy

Users are more likely to engage with platforms they trust. Respecting their data privacy is essential in building and maintaining this trust. With regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU and various other data protection laws worldwide, compliance is not optional. Violations can lead to hefty fines and legal complications. Platforms that prioritize data privacy are often viewed more favorably, enhancing their reputation and attractiveness to new and existing users.

Implementing Data Privacy in Recommendation Systems

  • Data Minimization: Collect only the data that is absolutely necessary for providing recommendations. This approach not only reduces the risk of data breaches but also aligns with regulatory principles.
  • User Consent and Transparency:Ensure that users are fully informed about what data is being collected and how it is being used. Obtaining explicit consent for data collection and processing is essential.
  • Anonymization and Pseudonymization:Techniques like anonymization and pseudonymization can help protect user privacy by ensuring that the data cannot be traced back to an individual without additional information that is held separately.
  • Regular Security Audits:Conduct regular audits to ensure that all data is being handled securely and in compliance with privacy laws. This includes reviewing data storage, access controls, and data processing practices.
  • Encryption and Secure Data Storage: Implementing robust encryption protocols for data at rest and in transit is crucial. Secure data storage facilities, whether on-premises or cloud-based, should adhere to high-security standards.
  • Data Breach Response Plan: Have a clear and efficient plan for responding to data breaches. This includes mechanisms for detecting breaches, procedures for containment and mitigation, and communication strategies to inform affected users and regulatory bodies.

Economics of Recommendation systems

The Primacy of Data in Achieving High ROI

The success of a recommendation system, and by extension, its ROI, is heavily dependent on the quality and relevance of the data available. If the data accurately reflects user preferences, behaviors, and interactions, the recommendation system is more likely to generate meaningful and effective suggestions, leading to higher engagement and sales. The diversity and comprehensiveness of the data also play a crucial role. Platforms with rich data sets, encompassing various user interactions, are in a better position to leverage recommendation systems effectively. Good data not only powers the recommendation system but also provides valuable insights into user trends, preferences, and potential market opportunities, further enhancing the ROI.

The success of a recommendation system, and by extension, its ROI, is heavily dependent on the quality and relevance of the data available

Understanding the Costs Associated with Recommendation Systems

  • Initial Development Costs: These include the expenses involved in designing and building the recommendation system. Costs vary depending on whether the system is developed in-house or outsourced, and the complexity of the algorithms required.
  • Usage Costs: This refers to the operational expenses of running the system, such as cloud hosting fees, data storage costs, and charges for accessing third-party APIs or datasets.
  • Maintenance & Update Costs: Continuous tuning, updating algorithms, managing data, and ensuring system security constitute ongoing maintenance costs. These are crucial for keeping the system effective and responsive to changing user needs.

ROI Estimates

At RecoGenius, we frequently encounter requests for ROI (Return on Investment) estimates. It’s a logical concern; everyone wants to gauge the potential returns of their investments before making pivotal project decisions. However, providing precise ROI forecasts can be challenging without first examining the specific use-case at hand. A crucial aspect of this analysis is assessing the quality and quantity of the data available. Despite these complexities, we’ve observed that projects where implementing such systems is pertinent typically yield an impressive average ROI ranging between 10X to 22X. This substantial return makes the decision to adopt these technologies a straightforward and highly beneficial one.

We’ve observed that projects where implementing such systems is pertinent typically yield an impressive average ROI ranging between 10X to 22X


In conclusion, the landscape of artificial intelligence and machine learning is rapidly evolving, offering transformative potential for various sectors, including e-commerce. Recommendation systems, as a specialized application of AI/ML, have become instrumental in enhancing user experience by providing personalized content and product suggestions. The crux of an effective recommendation system, especially for reward platforms, lies in the delicate balance between fostering relationships and leveraging transactional data. By embracing the inherent complexity and sparsity of interaction data, and supplementing it with external demographic insights, these systems can offer highly targeted and relevant recommendations. However, the challenge remains to combine industry-specific knowledge with the often opaque nature of AI models to ensure efficiency. As technology continues to advance, the future of recommendation systems looks promising, with the potential to redefine how we discover and interact with products and services online.

Mehdi B.

Mehdi B.

Mehdi is the founder of reco-genius.com, an AI agency specializing in performance solutions for reward platforms. He brings over a decade of private equity experience and a flair for innovative tech solutions. Mehdi is a software engineer, a graduate of École Polytechnique (aka "The French MIT"). He also holds a Professional Certificate in AI from Stanford and the AWS Machine Learning Certification.