Open enrollment. Speak those two words to anyone in the benefits industry and you’ll more than likely get an eye roll or a sigh. When it seems like you have just conquered and survived another enrollment season, you’re already starting to plan for the next one.
But what can be done to stop the eye rolls and sighs? What changes can be made to put a smile on those faces instead of a frown? I have just the thing: a well-rounded communication strategy.
I hear you saying, “I know this already.” Yes, you may know it, but let’s refresh ourselves on what a good communication strategy looks like and ways to put it into action.
1. Don’t Repeat the Past
The first few sentences out of my mouth when I start working with a client are “Tell me what you did last year” and “Tell me why you think it didn’t work.” You’ve got to look at the past to make sure you aren’t on a copy-paste-repeat mode when it comes to your strategy. Each year has new objectives and goals, so repeating a strategy isn’t effective.
2. Communicate Year-Round
Don’t flood employees with benefits communication only once a year during open enrollment. It’s unbelievably overwhelming for them. Instead, your strategy needs to involve sending bite-size chunks of information throughout the year. Companies spend thousands, even millions, of dollars providing employees with great benefits plans, but only promote them once a year. Although we wish employees had photographic memories, they, unfortunately, do not. There are just too many messages being thrown their way: Enrollment is required. We’ll need proof of dependent eligibility. There’s a great new telemedicine benefit. Use the prescription drug program’s cost tool. Think about switching to the HDHP. The list goes on and on.
My suggestion is to sit with your internal communication team — or an outside consultant, whomever is at your disposal — to create a comprehensive calendar of what you want to promote throughout the year, including open enrollment. Think of the basics — who, what, when, where, why and how. Who is your audience? What is the message? Where will the information be seen? When and how should it be delivered? Why is it important? And keep in mind: It takes people eight times to read something before they remember the message.
3. Use Multiple Channels
Everyone likes to receive information in different ways. Some say it depends on a person’s generation, but in my experience, I’ve learned it’s all a matter of personal preference. Print and digital are the main channels, but with advancements in technology, print and digital pieces take on many different forms.
With print, I’ve found success with changing the standard paper size. Simple, right? Last year, instead of a traditional-sized newsletter for an automotive client, we tried something new with a four-paneled 6-by-6 brochure. To really draw in our audience, we went one step further by customizing each brochure with the employee’s name and their individual rates. The benefits team was inundated with positive comments. Employees loved the design — and how the information was tailored to them. It’s the small things that can make a big difference in the minds of employees.
For digital, we’ve learned you’ve got to play with motion. Whether that’s animated GIFs on the intranet or animated videos, it’s hard to capture the employee’s attention with just a small, static image on a page. Movement is your friend.
4. Put Important Messages First
You’ve heard journalists say, “Don’t bury the lede.” Well, same goes for benefits communication. Figure out what’s the most important information you want employees to know and tell them up front. Write your titles in ways that capture their attention and provide information using minimal words. Here is an example about telemedicine and wanting employees to know it is free:
Now, look at that again, rearranging and rewriting the words so the main message is up front.
5. Take Out the Jargon
I recently read that only 7% of the population understands general benefits terms like deductible, coinsurance, copayment and out-of-pocket maximum. You know who comprises that 7%? Benefits professionals! So essentially, you can assume your entire audience doesn’t understand the basics on how their plans operate. You could have the most beautifully designed communications, but employees’ eyes will start to glaze over as soon as they start reading it.
There are times when I will have my ninth-grade daughter read something I wrote to see if she understands the message. She’s the best test subject. Her feedback helps me recraft the message to make it more understandable. You can also incorporate your co-workers in different departments. Have them read your message to make sure that they understand it and that they were engaged in what you were saying.
6. Have Fun with Themes
I’ve worked with many clients to develop a theme, logo or special tagline to use for benefits communication, specifically launching it at open enrollment. It’s one way to make benefits communication — dare I say it? — fun! If your company won’t allow too much fun or stray from the corporate brand, that’s OK. Something as simple as a memorable tagline used on every communication helps employees associate the message with it being from Benefits. Also, keep using what you create all year long — put it on new hire orientation information, recruiting materials and more. It reinforces the messaging and helps employees identify benefits communication from a sea of other corporate information.
7. Ask for Feedback
You won’t know if your strategy was successful if you don’t ask. Surveys are still great tools to use. Be specific about the communication tactics you are asking about: You can’t just say, “Did you receive communications before open enrollment?” That answer provides zero insight, unless you want to make sure your printer sent out the materials on time. Ask questions like, “Did you read about the new telemedicine benefit in the newsletter?” or “Did you find the desk drop with tips for open enrollment helpful?” Have open-ended questions too, as you never know what feedback could spark a new idea for next year.
Take a close look at the feedback you received. That feedback can help you create a strategy that is tailored to your audience. Addressing and using the employees’ pain points in future communications can help you build their trust.
In the end, always remember why it’s important to put in the time to create a sound strategy. You want employees to have a good understanding of their benefits, so they make smarter decisions and appreciate the value of what the company provides.
Emily Dobbins is vice president of communications for Hodges-Mace LLC.