BALTIMORE ( Stockpickr) -- It's official: Earnings season has begun! Alcoa ( AA) kicked off the barrage of earnings reports with its call after the closing bell on Monday, spurring that period of time when corporate management teams must bend knee and report to their owners: the investing public. Earnings season is a critical time period for the market. For most companies, it's the only time each quarter when new fundamental data gets released to the public. For that reason, earnings season can send a stock on a bullish rampage, or torpedo any chance at earning a decent return.>>5 Stocks Poised to Pop on Bullish Earnings For income investors, earnings season is an even bigger deal. That's because it also tends to be the time when companies announce their dividend payouts for the quarter. The past year has been stellar for dividend investors -- right now, corporate profits, cash holdings, and dividend payouts all sit at record highs. Even if that fundamental strength isn't being factored into share prices right now, investors shouldn't eschew dividends if they want to earn market-beating returns year after year. The data shows that dividends and performance have historically been inseparable. >>ACTIVE STOCK TRADERS: Check out Stockpickr's special offer for Real Money, headlined by Jim Cramer, now! Over the last 36 years, dividend stocks have outperformed the rest of the S&P 500 by 2.5% annually, and they outperformed nonpayers by nearly 8% every year, all while paying out cash to their shareholders, according to data compiled by Ned Davis Research. The numbers are even more compelling when looking at companies that consistently increase their payouts. That's why we pay close attention to the firms that are shoveling more corporate cash to shareholders. With that, here's a look at seven stocks that hiked payouts recently.