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Your Six-Step Plan for Successful Benefits Communications

By Eric Mann | March 8, 2018 | Rally Health

The biggest challenge facing benefits leaders comes down to one word: Engagement.

Everyone wants more of it. After all, you’ve spent all that time and money to create the perfect mix of benefits for your workers.

The shortfall comes when companies don’t also invest in getting their employees to actually use the programs they’ve so carefully selected.

That’s according to Jennifer Benz, who has worked in the HR industry for more than two decades and runs a consulting firm solely devoted to benefits communications. Her company, Benz Communications, has produced benefits campaigns for a variety of Fortune 1000 companies, including Intuit, Nvidia, and Adobe.

“There’s still a big divide between employers who invest in the strategies and tactics that create engagement — and those who don’t,” Benz says. “Leading companies are creating standout results with year-round communication strategies and smart and sophisticated ways to reach the right employee at the right time. But others are still stuck in the old ways of communicating about benefits.”

What’s the single biggest thing you can do to improve your benefits communications, and therefore, your level of engagement?

According to Benz, it’s simple: Have a very clear road map for your communications strategy.

Companies tend to design their benefits programs with specific business goals in mind. Yet they fall short when it comes to actually communicating the value of the benefits they’re offering.

The best way to make sure you’re communicating effectively is to have a really solid communications strategy in place. And the best time to be thinking about your strategy is when you’re putting together your benefits packages — not as an afterthought.

“Most of the time, all of this planning goes into putting these programs together, and people totally leave the communications part to the last minute,” Benz says. “Or they think, ‘Oh, whatever we did last time is going to be fine.’ That’s a big missed opportunity.”

Luckily, after years of working with companies large and small, Benz and her team have a tried-and-true formula for creating a highly successful communications strategy. We’re going to share her “secret sauce” with you here.

Step 1: Set goals and objectives

Keep in mind that your company goals drive your HR goals, which in turn, should drive your benefits goals. They should be closely related.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself to arrive at these goals:

  • What role do benefits play in achieving your organization’s overall strategic goals?
  • What behaviors do you want, or need, to change?
  • Where do your employees get stuck trying to be healthier and/or more productive?

It’s important to have a good understanding of your benefits philosophy. Are you trying to be competitive with top employers in your market? Is your emphasis more on long-term health and wellness? Or are you looking to maximize your return on benefits investment?

Step 2: Segment your audience

Benz highly recommends that you create “personas” based on your employee population. This is a well-known tactic taken from consumer marketing. Personas are detailed but fictional compositions of your customers, or in this case, your employees.

To be clear, we’re not talking about treating employees differently. Rather, you want to be thinking about ways to communicate differently to distinct cohorts of employees, whether segmented by age, job type, life stages, etc.

Personas allow you to more effectively hone and target your messaging. Aim to develop four to six personas, depending on the size of your workforce.

Here are some questions to ask when developing your personas:

  • What are their demographics (age, gender, years of service, income, role, and location)
  • What motivates them?
  • What keeps them up at night?
  • What are their passions or interests?
  • What kind of demands do they have outside of work?
  • Where do they go for information?
  • What types of claims do they file?
  • What kind of employee are they (executives, remote workers, non-English speakers, employees of acquisitions)?

Here’s a good tip: Look around the Web (perhaps on LinkedIn®) for an image of a person that’s representative of your persona, and add it to your file. This will really help you visualize this persona as you craft messaging specifically for that audience.

Step 3: Drive action with your messages

Knowing which employees to focus on, what drives them, and how they prefer to receive information will help you craft key messages that will resonate with your target audiences.

Put yourself in the shoes of your employees. Really take the time to step outside your own perspective and look at benefits from their point of view. Your communication should revolve around what’s most meaningful to your employees and their families  —  not what it means to you or the company.

Be sure to articulate the “what” and “why” of your benefits in plain language, avoiding jargon or a bunch of technical details. Be transparent so that employees can see what’s in it for them.

The work that Benz did for American Greetings Corporation illustrates the value of clear, employee-focused communications. American Greetings had an ambitious goal in mind: doubling enrollment in consumer-driven plan options with a health savings account — in just one enrollment season.

But employees were wary of these plans for three big reasons: They were afraid of the high deductible. They didn’t understand how the plan worked or how it was coordinated with the HSA to help offset the deductible and pay for eligible expenses.

Benz’s solution was to craft targeted, easy-to-understand content, including the creation of detailed audience profiles, to help employees select a medical plan that would best fit their family circumstances and budgets. More than 50 pieces of communications were created; several pieces had multiple versions to accommodate the company’s vastly different audiences (four unions, a large non-union population, and age ranges from mid-20s to early 60s).

The result: CDHP enrollment at American Greetings more than doubled from 20 to 47 percent.

“One of the challenges of benefit communications is that so often we talk about the programs we’re offering, but not about their value or the need for them in someone’s life,” Benz says. “It takes some effort to distill that into something that’s most meaningful and most useful for the average person.”

Benz cites other tactics that don’t work:

  • Using a lot of facts and evidence.
  • Using big numbers that people can’t relate to.
  • Telling people to change for the good of the company.

Tactics that do work:

  • Personal stories.
  • Doing the math for your employees and making it simple.
  • Appealing to the emotional impact of becoming healthier.
  • Having a call to action.
  • Change orientation. What’s the simple benefit that your program offers your members? It usually boils down to time, money, or a better emotional state.

For example, smart, targeted messaging drove Benz’s highly effective collaboration with a large retailer. To engage the huge toy store’s notoriously hard-to-reach retail employee base across more than 1,500 stores, the company created a fully integrated bilingual campaign and an award-winning, one-stop-shop benefits website.

Previously, handbooks “read more like legal documents than something a family could use to make smart choices.” Instead, the retailer completely revamped its benefits website with bold, fun graphics and 100-plus pages of content (available in both English and Spanish).

Online traffic during enrollment tripled, and time spent on the site averaged nearly 10 minutes. Sweet.

Step 4: Find the right mix of channels and frequency

Benz recommends that you steal from the consumer marketing playbook and “sell” your benefits the way your company would market its own products or services.

Branding is a key component of consumer marketing — and one of the ingredients that’s often missing in benefits communications. Investing in a unique look and feel for your benefits  program helps employees to connect with their benefits.

“Good, strong branding lends credibility, consistency, and reliability to your messaging,” Benz says. “When your communication isn’t consistent with your overall company brand, your employees don’t recognize it and, therefore, it won’t be as convincing or effective.”

For example, Benz created a memorable benefits brand for Nashville-based Ardent Health Services that helped unify communications to its more than 11,000 employees across several health care systems. The communications strategy centered on an engaging tagline (“Know more, choose better, live well”) that drew employees to a similarly branded benefits website.

The result: Ardent has seen 90 percent employee engagement in wellness programs over five years with $1 million in net cost savings.

Every company can offer a branded benefits website that’s a one-stop shop for benefits information. Companies may want to consider making this content accessible outside the firewall so it can be used for recruiting purposes and seen by prospective hires.

Use multiple channels strategically. Not everyone consumes information in the same way. You might mix the traditional channels (newsletters, employee meetings, health fairs) with online tools (email, social media, webinars) and  surprising new tactics (podcasts, text messaging, large format installations).

Finally, communications are best when they happen year-round, not just during the six weeks of open enrollment. Help your employees pick the right plans, then  spend the rest of the year encouraging them to actually use the programs they’ve chosen. Your benefits are on 24/7, keep the communications in place to support them.

Step 5: Measure outcomes

Measuring results is critical to knowing the effectiveness of your efforts.

First, you need to have a clear understanding of what “success” means to you, and how you’re going to measure it. The last thing you want to do is roll out a huge communications plan without having specific key performance indicators that you want to see as a result.

These KPIs might include:

  • Email click-through and open rates
  • Meeting attendance (in person and online)
  • Preventive care utilization
  • Health plan enrollment
  • Aggregate biometric data
  • Claims data
  • Retirement plan and HSA balances

Another critical component of measuring outcomes is building in a feedback loop so you’re actively listening to your employees. This might include email surveys, social media, focus groups, or even simple one-on-one conversations.

Step 6: Reflect and refine

After you implement your campaign, it’s crucially important to look over your metrics and reflect on what you did well and what areas need improvement. Think about places where your employees are getting stuck or seem confused about what you want them to do.

Consider the following:

  • The effectiveness of your campaign: Are you reaching your intended audience? What KPIs did you hit or miss?
  • Program participation/use: Look at numbers for health and wellness plan enrollment, participation in preventive care, financial wellness programs, and EAP
  • Health and financial outcomes. Evaluate biometric and claims data as well as retirement plan and HSA balances

Then, take these insights and adjust your current campaign levers (messaging, channels, frequency, and segmentation), if possible. Or use this valuable knowledge to inform your next campaign.

Congratulations, you’ve completed your six-step communications strategy! Take the time to complete these steps thoughtfully, and don’t be surprised to see your engagement levels improve accordingly.

Eric Mann heads up marketing efforts for our key partners. He has more than 20 years of technology and health care marketing experience, leading browser marketing for Netscape and product marketing for Oracle Health Science.

Eric Mann
Rally Health