“Each outing is its own game. You roll on your game plan. It is a different chess match each time you go out there. I just try to be prepared.”
HR professionals put a lot of time and energy into getting their open enrollment communications strategy just right. What’s the theme going to be? What emails do I need to send and when? Is the website cutting it? When should I do the open enrollment fair?
It can quickly become overwhelming. Taking stock and formalizing a communication plan as soon as possible, however, determines whether all that time a Benefits team invests in OE will produce results or be wasted effort.
Oh, and it also can have a major impact on the decisions employees make, thus impacting their health and financial well-being. No pressure, right? One of the most effective ways to handle that is to get a plan in place now.
With that in mind, let’s look at some steps employers can take to optimize their open enrollment communications strategy this year.
(Since ConnectYourCare administers consumer-directed employee benefits and COBRA, our examples are based on experiences in this area, but the advice should be relevant to any benefits professional.)
OE Communication Tip 1: Do Your Homework
For any open enrollment communication strategy, employers should review last year’s results. A look at your historical past is a great representation of where you’re going to go in the future.
Sample questions to ask:
- What drove enrollment?
- What measurable events did you have in your open enrollment events last year?
- Any anecdotal feedback from your employees around the open enrollment fairs?
Really dig into those successes and don’t shy away from the failures from last year either. Additionally, when you’re doing your homework, you really want to get to know your audience.
In our survey of nearly 200 employers, we asked them to rank what tools are most effective in driving enrollment in their tax-advantaged programs.
Most employers said that segmented and targeted communications were the most effective tools within their organization. Providing employees with savings examples and calculators were then the second and third most effective tools, respectively, which overlaps the employees’ perspective as well.
Open enrollment group/one-on-one meetings also ranked very high on the list. Videos and webinars, virtual fairs, and contests and prizes rounded out the bottom of the group.
When I look at this, I think about how employers can stack these different types of tools on top of each other to really leverage the most effective strategy that they can deliver to their employees.
Know your audience
You want to analyze the demographics of your audience and know exactly who you’re messaging to. Focus groups and surveys can help you make sure that you’re providing the right message and make sure that you’re addressing your audience correctly.
In the previously mentioned ConnectYourCare survey of health savings account (HSA), flexible spending account (FSA), and health reimbursement arrangement (HRA) participants, we found that older employees — those that are aged 55 or older — are most likely to rate themselves as very knowledgeable when it comes to these account types. The youngest workers — those right out of college — are least likely to rate themselves as knowledgeable.
So what does this tell us? It tells us that employers should really seek out that undereducated population within their own organization.
Take a step back and think about who that might be in your organization. Is it a recent acquisition? New hires? Millennials? Make sure that you focus your communications on those undereducated populations.
When asked what type of communications are they looking for, 91% of our survey respondents said they would most like to see more webinar and video content. Of that group, 68% said they want this type of information to be on-demand webinars and videos that they could watch at any time, and 23% would like to see more scheduled webinars.
After that, employees say that they still want more detailed guides and materials, followed by interactive tools that help them choose the best plan, and then finally less confusing language. That last one has been a common trend throughout the years.
Those stats tell us a little bit more about exactly what types of content we all need to be building. However, the key here is to make sure that you know your employees and use past communication wins and failures to inform where you invest the most time and energy going forward.
Make open enrollment bite-sized for employees
You also need to look at your open enrollment timelines.
There’s no magic recipe for communications, but it is important to break down education into building blocks and roll out information in bite-sized pieces over time.
Take your messages and map them to an educational journey, making sure that you’re not overwhelming your employees with too much information in the beginning. Build upon each message as your communication strategy rolls out.
And then finally make sure that you set measurable goals.
- Are you looking to boost enrollment in lower premium plans with your tax-advantaged accounts?
- Are you aiming to reduce the amount of time the Benefits team spends answering questions?
- Are you looking to lower costs?
Really define these goals, quantitative and qualitative, and then make sure that you align your communications to these goals. Each communication should be supporting a goal that you’ve defined for your team.
OE Communication Tip 2: Address Your Audiences Properly
In Tip 1, I mentioned getting to know your audience so you can provide segmented communication.
At this point, we’ll assume that you’ve dug into your audience demographics; you’ve done your focus groups, and you understand things like your mix of millennials versus Gen Xers versus boomers. That’s when you can start segmenting your communications.
Here at ConnectYourCare we’ve filled out segmented communication based on the generations. We’ve found this approach really helps employees relate to and understand how the communications that you’re rolling out to them impacts their lives specifically.
Address pain points
As part of any open enrollment communication strategy, you do not want to shy away from pain points. It has a negative connotation, but employees really appreciate when you take those difficulties and address how you have improved or will improve things for them.
Did your employees have a difficult time with the previous vendor?
Did last year’s focus group make it painfully obvious that there’s something that your employees don’t like?
Don’t cover up those pain points. Address them head-on, and your employees will get the message and appreciate the directness.
For example, in our recent survey, 45% of HSA account holders said that they chose to open an HSA because they see it as a long-term saving vehicle. The savings benefits were even more appealing than the more immediate, shorter-term benefits like tax savings and lower premiums.
With information like that, you can customize your communications to emphasize the biggest selling points of a particular benefit for your employees. In our example, that might be making more people aware of the long-term advantages of your HSA, and then getting more granular by sharing information about how an HSA helps people prepare for retirement, how investing HSA funds works, etc.
It’s also essential to speak employees’ language to ensure they really grasp your message and can make sense of the vast amount of information that they are hearing every single day.
You’re a benefits expert, and sometimes it is hard to describe benefits to employees from a lay person’s perspective.
A great tip is to take a second when you’re reviewing your materials to just take a step back and say, “How would I describe this to a friend or a neighbor?” and then reword it in a phrasing that would make sense to them.
of HSA account holders said that they chose to open an HSA because they see it as a long-term saving vehicle
Make savings real
People see the world through a “What’s in it for me” perspective and your employees are no different.
We asked employees what the most useful tool was when they’re deciding how much to contribute to their accounts — either an HSA, health care FSA, or dependent care FSA. The most valuable tool/tactic was reviewing their previous spending habits, followed by seeing potential savings/spending scenarios for someone like them.
Showing employees how a program could benefit them by illustrating precise savings scenarios can have a big impact on enrollment and engagement.
In fact, one of the employers ConnectYourCare works with pulled previous health plan data for each employee on its PPO and calculated the specific savings potential if they had been on the high deductible health plan (HDHP) plan with an HSA. The data was populated into a letter and mailed to the employees’ homes.
Making this communication specific to each household and using their real, exact dollar figures showed the employees exactly where they would have saved if they had enrolled in a different plan (where applicable). That also gave the employees’ spouse and other household members the chance to see the numbers.
In that example, personalized open enrollment communications motivated employees to re-evaluate plan enrollment decisions in light of this new information, and HDHP adoption increased.
OE Communication Tip 3: Innovate and Iterate
Try something wildly different. And when I say wildly different, it could be a viral video, social media, or a virtual strategy. Getting creative is important.
If you execute the same communications plan year over year, you’re bound to get the same results or a decline in results.
Remember our survey question in which we asked HSA, FSA, and HRA account holders to rate the tools and tactics that most influenced their enrollment decisions?
Only 3% said that they decided to enroll in a tax-advantaged plan based on the information they received at an enrollment fair.
Going back to Tip 1, if one of your goals was to increase enrollment in a HDHP with an HSA, you’d know that continuing to put all your eggs in the OE fair basket might not be effective for you and identify a need for a new plan.
Shaking things up is necessary to achieving measurable change, and there are a lot of ways to do that.
Make the enrollment process work for you
Consider not only changing the way you talk about things; maybe you can go as far as changing the fundamental way you enroll.
For example, if you have passive enrollment, maybe change it to an active enrollment strategy.
Even something as simple as changing an affirmative “opt in” interaction to a negative “opt out” interaction during the optional benefits portion of an enrollment process can be very impactful. That’s something we’ve helped our clients do in the past.
How’s that work? When an employee is prompted to make a choice regarding his/her optional benefits – let’s say a health care FSA for this example – present them with an opt-out option, in which they must choose to forfeit the benefit.
Accompany the option with a message that appropriately summarizes the weight of that choice. Something like “I wish to forfeit my FSA benefits. I understand that this means I will lose my ability to use pre‐tax dollars to pay for qualified medical expenses.”
The employee is taking an action to decline a benefit, and the message ensures that he/she is presented with the consequences.
That kind of approach can better motivate employees to act when compared to standard benefit open enrollment language, which can be a little bit heavy or easy for employees to tune out when HR professionals are trying to cover all of the education items that they want to convey.
Think (and measure) like a marketer
This is a fun one for me as a marketer myself. I think of marketing as both a science and an art. You can leverage proven practices to influence your communications.
Use your data and what you know about employees to build a highly targeted messaging campaign to reach specific employee segments like we talked about in Tip 2.
Want to drive enrollment in your dependent care flexible spending account? An obvious starting point for that is to segment to reach employees with children, customizing the message and delivery time as necessary. For example, you may wish to send out communications seasonally to correspond with when many parents are making summer day camp or after-school care decisions.
Another example would be reaching out to employees who live in large cities to drive enrollment in tax-advantaged commuter accounts. Many companies can boost enrollment in various programs by reaching out to that type of low-hanging fruit.
Measuring communication effectiveness is also very important in making sure that you move forward and advance your communication program. Measure along the way to keep an eye on your communication successes.
Which banner ads are driving the most clicks? Which pages are employees viewing the most? There are lots of tools like website analytics, that offer insight into what information employees are finding valuable.
If you’re using home mailers, you can create a trackable URL that employees can easily type into a browser and then monitor that for effectiveness.
And then, of course, most email programs offer lots of reporting analytics that help benefits teams and marketers alike realize the effectiveness of different communications.
For advanced testing, you could try A/B testing. For those not as familiar with A/B testing, an example might be sending out a similar message with different subject lines, and then you use your analytics to see which subject line resonated more with employees.
Based on those learnings, you can help grow and advance your communication program.
And if you ever need a little bit of inspiration, don’t overlook the value of your internal marketing or communication department. Work with those team members to get advice to avoid wasting time.
They can help you perform some “quality assurance” on your communication pieces, ensuring that what you’ve produced meets best practices in terms of design, user experience, and beyond.
Hopefully the above gave you ideas on where you can evaluate or re-evaluate your own communication strategy to make open enrollment a more positive experience for you and employees. To recap, here’s a quick list of the OE communication considerations we covered here:
- Review last year’s results thoroughly, especially to ascertain which tools and tactics were the most effective
- Analyze the demographics of your audience and identify the segments most in need of education
- Once you have your audience segmented as necessary, tailor communications and how/when they’re delivered to match
- Recognize pain points throughout the organization and address them head-on
- Illustrate savings or other scenarios for employees to help them make the most informed decisions possible
- Take your messages and map them to an educational timeline to help ensure that you’re not overwhelming employees with too much information at one time
- When thinking about the wording of your message, ask yourself: “How would I describe this to a friend or a neighbor?”
- Measure each communication tactic along the way to keep an eye on your communication successes
Best of luck this open enrollment season!