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Benefits communication incorporates social media, technology

Benefits communication incorporates social media, technology

While most benefits managers are still considering how social media and other cutting-edge tools fit into their benefits communications strategy, early adopters are forging ahead with innovations aimed at better informing and engaging their employee and retiree populations.

Six years ago, the Employees Retirement System of Texas began exploring ways to more fully engage members in their health and benefits decisions. As part of that process, ERS, which administers benefits for some 550,000 employees, retirees and dependents, took stock of its communications strategy.

As the strategy evolved, ERS pruned its printed publications, retaining a retiree newsletter and a few other key mailings, and expanded its reach through email, YouTube videos and Facebook postings.

Certain members love print and “read every word we send them,” while others “won't read anything we send them, but they will watch a video,” said Catherine Terrell, director of communications and research for the Austin, Texas-based agency, “and we need to reach all of those groups.”

The engagement effort has reaped benefits that include greater use of generic drugs, which saves members money and generates longer-term program savings, said Ms. Terrell.

“There definitely are innovators,” and they're using all of the available technology to communicate benefits, said Jennifer Benz, chief strategist and founder of Benz Communications in San Francisco. “But, overall, the (benefits management) industry is still very far behind,” she said.

Why the lag? Ms. Benz thinks benefits managers are so burdened by compliance issues and other job demands that embarking on a new communications strategy “seems really daunting.” She said she believes employers tend to focus on the concerns that new technologies pose, rather than the opportunities they afford.

Employers are “really thinking carefully about how they want to use new communications vehicles,” said Brenna Shebel, assistant director of the Institute on Health Care Costs and Solutions at the National Business Group on Health in Washington. Before adopting new tools, some employers conduct focus groups. “They want to make sure that it's something that employees will use and it's something they're interested in before they'll make that available to them,” Ms. Shebel said.

Randolph Carter, senior vp in the communications practice of Sibson Consulting, a division of The Segal Co. in New York, said some employers have made the leap from thinking about publications to thinking about content and matching content to new vehicles for conveying that information.

“Most, however, are still most comfortable thinking about communications in terms of, "We've got to do a brochure, we've got to put it in the newsletter,' “ Mr. Carter said.

A lot of employers are waiting to see what works before investing in new communications technologies, said Kathy Kibbe, North American director-communications and change management with Towers Watson & Co. in San Francisco. As those successful strategies begin to emerge, things will start to move more quickly, she predicted.

That could happen in fairly short order. Among 604 global companies surveyed by Towers Watson in April and May 2011, 69% said they planned to increase their use of social media tools during the next 12 months.


Yet among many human resource departments, scant or nonexistent communications budgets remain a barrier to effective communications. According to an ADP Research Institute survey, 36% of large employers and 66% of midsize employers have no employee communications budget (see related box).

Mr. Carter said embracing new technology would help employers do more with less.

“Everybody has a cellphone in their pocket. Employers who recognize that fact and are comfortable using those cellphones to reach people are the innovators,” he said.

If a company is going to spend $50,000 on communications to introduce some new life-cycle funds to the 401(k) plan, he argued, it ought to go ahead and make the additional $5,000 to $10,000 investment required to provide Internet and smartphone access to that information.

Cutting-edge communications also can help cut through the clutter of messages bombarding employees. “Employers who are truly interested in reaching people's attention will explore new methods, new techniques to really get their messages across,” Mr. Carter said.

According to a 2011 benefit enrollment survey, Towers Watson found that one of the greatest challenges employers face is helping employees grasp new plan features. So when Dallas-based casual-restaurant company Brinker International Inc. replaced its traditional preferred provider organization offerings with high-deductible health plans in 2011, the company knew it had a huge communications challenge on its hands.

The change immediately affected 12,000 full-time and salaried employees and spouses who were enrolled in the plans and would need to elect new coverage. Brinker hired Abernethy Media Professionals in Dallas to produce a series of five short, videos to explain various aspects of the new plans. Each featured a cartoon character named Sam.

“The approach that we chose was by having this fictitious character, Sam—it made it feel like "Sam's just like me,'” said Virginia Nisbet, Brinker's director of benefit design. Given the complexities of health benefits and the significant changes facing Brinker's employees, Ms. Nisbet wanted “to make it more personal and simple, as simple as you can make health care,” and opted for the cartoon concept.

Brinker spent $15,000 on videos for its 58,270 employees, and that upfront investment has paid off in several ways, Ms. Nisbet said. For one thing, it appears people understood the available options. Not only did Brinker sustain health plan enrollment, but people who had never enrolled before decided to participate in the plans.

What's more, the company's call center didn't receive the usual volume of calls that usually come in after an open enrollment period, Ms. Nisbet noted.

“People were understanding what they needed to do and how things were going to be different because of the information they received,” she said.

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