BHCG Monitor: Focus on Health Care Benefits - November 2012
 
 

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Social Engagement: Employee Benefits Communication & Social Media

Consider this: 79 percent of American adults use the Internet on a daily basis and nearly all of the online public uses social media in some form (a number that has doubled since 2008). Forty-six percent of cell phone users in the U.S. own smart phones (Pew Research). However, 70 percent of employers do not use social media for benefits communication (SHRM Workforce Trends Report), even though more than 90 percent of Human Resources survey respondents believe social media is a tool HR should be using (Pew Research).

Along with the media/communication sea change, benefits strategy has changed as well. Employers spend a significant amount of money on benefits and employees are customers of those benefits. Employees and their dependents are also asked to be partners in making better health care decisions. Employee benefits communication is no longer just about education and compliance, it's also about marketing – or that all important word: engagement. Because of its interactive nature, social media has a unique capability to connect us and foster loyalty which is the key to successful marketing and engagement. But what's the best way to get started?

The case for social media

Employers have been slow to adopt social media as a benefits communications strategy even though many use social media as a recruiting tool and may have a company marketing presence on social media. In many cases, employers recognize that social media is an important phenomenon but they don't truly understand it. It's common to find members of the baby boomer generation who don't clearly grasp the benefits of social media tools, which can create a strong reluctance among employer decision-makers. However, employers that continue to use traditional communication methods exclusively – like face-to-face meetings, e-mails and printed material – run the risk of creating a disconnect between the way they communicate with employees and the way employees communicate with the world.

In order for benefits to impact business goals, they must be communicated effectively to employees – and dependents. The first step to getting people to pay attention to their benefits information is to make it accessible. As noted in the statistics cited above, people are becoming "connected" in rapidly increasing numbers, transforming social media into a powerful and efficient method of communicating (and marketing) relevant information like employee benefits.

The next step for effective benefits communication is to communicate with employees and dependents year round. Reminding them about benefits once a year is not enough to get employees actively engaged in critical decisions about their health and finances. But what's the right strategy for continuous communication? Most communication professionals agree that it's necessary to break information into useable "chunks" and employ the right tools. Social media is perfectly suited for this type of simple, conversational ongoing communication. What's more, social media offers two-way communication so employees can easily ask questions about their benefits or interact with other employees.

Social media tools: best uses

Rather than being intimidated about the prospect of implementing a social media strategy, employers should consider social media as simply a set of communication tools. First determine what you want to accomplish and use the right tool for the job. Understand your target audience, select the appropriate channel(s) for your messages and find out from your employees which sites they use. Some forms of social media are a better fit than others, depending on the amount of detail that needs to be communicated.

Social networks

Social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn connect people around interests and activities and can be extremely effective tools for distributing information as well as ideas. Be aware that social network groups will take on lives of their own and provide for feedback, both positive and negative. However, social networks can be managed successfully with self-defined controls to minimize risk which requires some hands-on monitoring. A number of carriers and health and wellness programs offer social networking tools for consumers that can be a turnkey platform for employers to integrate social media into their communication strategies.

Social network ideas:

  • Create a Facebook group for wellness events and topics; post videos; share tips and stories
  • Develop a social network group for new employees
  • Use a LinkedIn group to allow employees to ask questions regarding benefits or post surveys

Blogs

One of the most effective ways to get started with a social media strategy is to start a benefits blog. Use it to impart important messages and in-depth responses to common questions as well as soliciting comments to engage employees in the benefits and wellness conversation. Consider the blog as a resource for employees to get the most from their benefits. It is advisable to set a blog post schedule no less than twice a month, with more posts scheduled for open enrollment. Give employees information that is actionable and make sure your blog is set up to allow you to review blog comments before they are posted.

Blog ideas:

  • Leadership communication; explain benefits decision rationale and changes
  • Benefits tips, updates and reminders (get instant feedback)
  • Public and employee recognition

Twitter (microblogs)

Twitter and other similar microblogs let you post short updates and frequent bits of information and reminders one at a time. Microblogs like Twitter spur more interactivity than a traditional blog and give you an instant and effective way to identify employee concerns and sentiment. Another advantage of Twitter is that it lets the user determine where he or she wants to access the content, either online or on a Smartphone. The Twitter feed can also be featured on your website or Intranet and serve as a vehicle to continuously update your site content.

Twitter ideas:

  • Answer benefit FAQs
  • Ask for opinions to guide benefits decisions
  • Insider tips

Videos & podcasts

Videos and audio clips serve to make sometimes boring and/or confusing benefits information more interesting and understandable for those with different learning style preferences. An easy and low-cost way to incorporate videos or podcasts into a communication strategy is to interview a benefits staff member about a particular benefit or important event.

Videos & podcasts ideas:

  • Explain changes or new programs
  • Employee video contests to engage employees and boost participation in wellness or other benefits
  • Substitute for in-person meetings for open enrollment/new hire orientation
  • Monthly updates from leadership

How to get started

Many employers may be convinced of the need to introduce social media into their benefits communication strategy, but are stymied as to how to get started. Looking for a way to put your toe in the water of the social media employee communications pool? The interactive, continuous nature and ease of use of social media makes it an ideal vehicle for open enrollment and wellness activities – consider getting started by incorporating social media elements in both of these areas.

Another good piece of advice is to get your benefits communication out from behind your firewall by developing a branded benefits website which will increase its accessibility for all employees and dependents. Optimize the site for mobile devices and use it to post continuous communication like Twitter feeds and blogs. If you're concerned about confidentiality, consider that most benefits information is generic and the majority of employers offer similarly structured benefits. Competitive information and personal data can be accessed on password protected sites linked to the branded benefits site.

As with any strategy, the best way to begin to incorporate a social media communication plan is to ask some key questions as part of the planning process:

What are your key messages & objectives and who are you talking to?

Begin with organizing your benefits information and determining your key messages for each benefit which will help you determine your core objectives. For instance, for open enrollment, are you looking to increase enrollment in a high deductible plan or looking to have employees understand and accept a major benefit change? Do you want more people to use voluntary benefits? These are the type of questions to ask to see if social media will help you get there and which social media tools are appropriately matched with your objectives. Next, determine who you are talking to and where you think they would prefer to get their information. Remember, you are not abandoning your traditional methods, just augmenting them.

What is a good use of your resources?

Ask yourself, where can you get the most bang for your buck with a social media strategy? Can you leverage your outside vendors' capabilities? Many have already developed social media applications for their programs – be sure to ask your present vendors and if you are in the market for new ones, select health wellness, enrollment and financial vendors who are investing in social media platforms, mobile technology and mobile apps. You can then begin to use social media and introduce it as a communication strategy without having to produce the content yourself. But be sure to ask yourself what you can feasibly monitor and maintain, given your allocated resources.

Also, tap into the technological savvy of your younger workforce whose familiarity with social media makes them resident experts. You might consider bringing on a social media intern who can help plan and implement your strategy. Also consider that an effective social media campaign will serve to free up resources like valuable staff time for answering questions over and over again or repeating information for things like orientation and open enrollment.

Social media has fundamentally and forever changed the way we communicate. Employee benefits communication needs to reflect this new paradigm. In general, if social media can help you reach your benefits goals, communicate more frequently and gather real-time feedback, it is worth the investment of time and resources.

 
BHCG Monitor: Focus on Health Care Benefits - April 2012