What’s Hard About Making Benefits Communications Easy to Understand?

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A couple of months ago I was, just like many of your employees, trying to make sense of a benefits annual enrollment guide.

This one was from my husband’s employer. And, this long, technical, and hard-to-read guide was the only resource I had.

If I wanted more, I would need to call a central office and wait on hold. I knew my feelings were not uncommon: How was anyone supposed to understand the guide and read through all the information? Why couldn’t this be quick and easy?

I wanted to know more about the plans and make a quick decision, but as an insert alerted me, the guide was already outdated. How could I be sure I even had the right information? And, how on earth does this still happen when technology has made information instantaneous and put it at our fingertips?

Unfortunately, I was not alone. This happens all the time. And, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Studies and studies: where’s the truth?

I spend my days advising benefits managers and communicators that benefits and wellness information (and especially annual enrollment details!) need to reach employees and their families in engaging ways. Our benefits and wellness messages have to keep up, or risk being ignored completely.

And what is exciting about our job now is that we have new tools. Social media is an increasingly effective way to reach people in engaging (and cost-effective) ways. It cuts across demographics, it’s mobile, it’s fast, and can be easily integrated into existing communication efforts.

Yet, we still get resistance all the time. Despite case study after case study and great coverage of the simple ways social media can work for retirement, wellness, and enrollment communication, many companies are still reluctant to push ahead. Instead, they insist that this is still new, unproven territory.

This is surprising given just how hard it is to not see social media changing our daily lives. Information Week recently released its own findings on social media use and found it was up 230 percent since 2007, and, that two thirds of Americans now use Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and other social media sites. Web users already look to the Web for information on their health. Expectations are changing and the next generation is pushing the boundaries on what it wants online.

So, for most companies, open enrollment is coming; what’s a benefits manager to do?

Here’s what we know

Benefits communication has to be effective and get your employees and their families involved. It has to cut through the daily noise and get people motivated to take action.

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One guide, once a year, is not the answer. It’s about creating a conversation on an ongoing basis that will trigger something in someone to make a better choice. And, that’s where social media comes into play.

?So what can you do?

Get your benefits information on a benefits website outside of your firewall. It will not only reduce some of your printing costs, but give your employees and families an ongoing resource to answer their questions throughout the year.

Remember, your employees are not always the primary decision makers when it comes to health care and they are not always your only audience. Add a blog to your website and now you’ve started a dialogue — and given yourself an easy, convenient (and cheap) way to keep your site fresh.

Twitter, Facebook, text messages, YouTube, and other social media tools all have a place as part of your overall strategy. No, they are not your primary ways to communicate — nor is any one channel any longer. These new tools are great ways to support your objectives and are a great way to get information on events, deadlines and reminders out to your audience. If you’re interested in learning how you can use these tools for your benefits communication, check out our Social Media Cheat Sheet (PDF) or our social media toolkits.

No, social media won’t replace all communication methods. But don’t be fooled. It’s growing as a communication vehicle – fast! The truth lies somewhere in the middle – you can and you should use social media as part of your overall communication strategy.

The challenge for all of us is to create an integrated strategy – one where we can reach our audiences in multiple mediums and ones they prefer. We owe it to our employees to tell them what we know. Over and over again and by every means available. A one-time letter is too often too little, too late.

And by the way, the annual enrollment guide I was reviewing for our health care decisions hit the recycling bin as soon as I was done completing the carbon copy enrollment form. Now we’re in the dark the rest of the year.

Leslie Orellana is a senior consultant at Benz Communications (www.benzcommunications.com), a San Francisco-based consultancy that focuses on custom, comprehensive benefits and HR communications services. Before joining the Benz Communications team, Leslie spent 12 years as an in-house corporate communications manager for such “Fortune-100 Best Companies to Work For” as Intuit and Genentech. Contact her at leslie@benzcommunications.com.

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