Crafting a Story

Making smart use of social media -- and new technology platforms such as tablet computers -- can transform benefits communication into something employees won't want to miss.

Sunday, October 16, 2011
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As truisms go, you'd be hard-pressed to improve on this: When employees understand their benefits -- and the value of their benefits -- they make better use of healthcare dollars and wiser investment decisions. Yes, of course. And a car that ran on tap water would be an awesome thing. The real question is, what can be done to improve benefits communications to achieve these desired ends?

According to the 2011 Sanofi-Aventis Healthcare Survey, 91 percent of plan sponsors surveyed thought they were doing a "good" or "very good" job at benefits communications, while 23 percent of plan members rated communication as poor or very poor.

Compelling ... gripping ... a real page-turner. These are not words that spring to mind when one thinks of benefits communications. Despite the availability of an array of communications tools, most organizations remain wedded to modes and styles of benefits communications that fail to reach, engage or motivate.

Do a search for "effective benefits communications" (or some permutation thereof) and you will find two basic schools of thought: The first advances a series of rules and tips (know your target audience, keep it simple, avoid lots of words, use illustrations when possible, etc.), while the second speaks to the utility and vast potential of social media and mobile communications. While there is no shortage of tools and resources for creating and delivering benefits communications, there's clearly a failure to systematically connect and, by extension, sufficiently inform, motivate and promote better personal health-and-wellness decisions. 

More Independent, Less Captive 

There are times when benefits communications are pretty straightforward. During open enrollment, employees will eagerly pore over plan options. They will also seek out and read information on programs that speak to a specific need, i.e., information on the employee-assistance-plan's depression-counseling service. But the benefits needs of employees change throughout the year, driven by life events and any number of external, often-unforeseen factors.

As an employer, you don't want employees finding out about features of their benefits plans after the fact -- even things such as emergency health-travel reminders can easily go unnoticed if communications are sent inconsistently, don't hit all possible "touch points" (from newsletters to messages sent to mobile devices), or are simply uninvolving and, as a consequence, tuned out.

The challenge becomes more daunting as organizations begin to view health, wellness and prevention as a business strategy. Here, the challenge is changing the company culture as it relates to individual health and wellness, giving employees a clear stake in becoming more informed, proactive caretakers of their own well-being. This requires sustained engagement, not just engagement at one or two critical times of the year or at the point of need. 

The first step in rethinking benefits communications as a business strategy is not just knowing your audience, but realizing that your audience has fundamentally changed -- just as it's no longer a world defined by three network-news anchors, it's no longer a monolithic block of "employees" passively awaiting corporate's next missive.

The ubiquity of smartphones and the broadening use of social media -- 65 percent of adult Internet users use a social-networking site, according to a recent survey from The Pew Research Center -- are changing the way people seek, acquire and respond to information.

To the extent that sustained communications is an overarching goal -- as it ought to be -- you must find ways of reaching the "rapidly moving user" who's a more selective information consumer, less apt to respond to information that's pushed out and more responsive to information that pulls him or her in.

When the aforementioned Pew survey asked adult users to describe their social-media experience, the most repeated words were "fun," "great," "interesting" and "convenient."

While benefits and benefits communications are clearly not frivolous things to be entered into lightly, there's no reason they can't be made more, well, entertaining. Which is not to say that communications around open enrollment or a new incentive program need to be delivered with an amusing anecdote; it's more a matter of reorienting benefits-communications content around the subjects and things people care about.

When you boil it down, it's about adapting communications to what a more independent, "non-captive" audience is drawn to, what they find engaging and what they respond to. 

The Model

Dramatically improving benefits communications and engaging the new information consumer rests on four core elements: storytelling, choice, social media/learning and, yes, instant gratification.

Storytelling. Every social science rests on the view that a mix of logic, instinct and impulse drives humans. Behavioral economists, who study behavior in laboratory settings, have found myriad cognitive biases. One, in particular, has direct pertinence to benefits communications; it's called conjunction fallacy, which is characterized by people's tendencies to make decisions based on storytelling rather than data.

Tests have repeatedly found that most people will judge a situation to be more probable if it is described in vivid detail, even when a less-detailed version of the same scenario is, in fact, more likely.

In a business context, Chicago-based Groupon's popularity has been largely attributed to its creative staff, who write promotional text for "deals" featuring a distinctive mix of thorough fact-checking, playful wit and engaging yarns around local offerings that entertain and inform consumers.

Wrapping health and wellness in personalities and things (music, films and books) people are inherently interested in provides a vehicle to present "narratives" that are more involving and effective than the dry, fact-filled items that are standard fare. It shouldn't be too much of a stretch for HR to find examples of prominent people grappling with everyday problems and setbacks, and weaving these examples into their communications.

For example, consider linking a message about depression treatment to an online article about Sheryl Crow's lifelong struggle with the disease. For a message about keeping fit, meanwhile, a quick visit to Twitter reveals a message from actor Gerard Butler explaining his dramatic weight loss (which he attributes to "doing lots of cardio and yoga").

Choice. Several months ago, bloggers across the political spectrum debated a phenomenon they were calling "epistemological closure" -- a narrowly defined world view perpetuated by media (blogs, radio, cable TV) that relentlessly caters to pre-existing (political) biases.

Today, people with distinct viewpoints can spend all their time viewing like-minded media content without ever encountering an objectively presented opposing viewpoint. Information gathering has fundamentally changed: People want to choose their sources; they have become less trusting of centralized news delivered from on high.

Attempts at "personalized" benefits communications fail because the personalization is only superficial.

The key is to give individuals receiving these communications a range of choices -- providing an avenue for them to independently explore their interests and/or resources that relate to their specific needs. In other words, communications that give users the ability to dynamically personalize the communications by making choices that are meaningful to them.

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Consider, a new site launched and overseen by Reuter's popular financial blogger Felix Salmon that espouses the following mantra: "We believe that the best way to get people to come back is to send them away: Click on a headline, go straight to another site, and see for yourself."

The site includes a section of "curated" links with a means of automating the aggregation of related links and sources; this approach narrows the field of choices, but also give users choices -- within certain parameters.

Similarly, HR could steer employees to health, wellness and related news, and provide them with a satisfying breadth of options within a defined genre.

Choice is also expanded when communications are "platform agnostic" -- they can be delivered to the desktop, mobile device or tablet -- and hit multiple touch points. What channels do you use to communicate? Do you have a company newsletter? If so, how often do you distribute it and do employees and their families have multiple ways of accessing it? Multiple touch points provide users with more choice and flexibility -- and allow you to send information where employees and their families "live."

Instant gratification -- or, put another way, communications that provide continuous information and interactivity and/or deliver real-time benefits -- are another critical component making communications more attractive, dynamic and actionable.

This can be achieved by designing social media that sustains employee interaction (more on this below) and by creating or using polls in which users get real-time results on what their colleagues are thinking. A new company called Wayin, founded by former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, is premised on the idea that people enjoy creating and responding to polls; the company's mobile app enables you to create a visual poll and submit it, via Twitter, to your followers or the broader community.

HR can easily incorporate this into its communications framework as a means of stoking employee interactivity while gleaning valuable feedback. 

Social Media. Social learning, promoted by the likes of Facebook, Twitter or even the polling just described, is premised on the idea that attitudes and behaviors are shaped by observing and imitating others.

As previously noted, more and more adults -- which is to say, more people in today's workforce -- are drawn to the interactive nature of social media, where they can join groups, collaborate and discuss. Social media can be easily woven into the communications fabric, though it does require thought and dedicated resources.

For instance, a subscriber-only Twitter page in which you push relevant links and reminders to employees can be very effective -- but it requires continual maintenance in order to amass and keep a following. Steering users to prescribed LinkedIn groups, where they can get "crowd-sourced" feedback on health and wellness, can also be an effective tactic, as employees can then independently seek out guidance and advice.

To sum up, the emergence of everything from social media to mobile health apps gives HR access to tools to deliver more compelling, flexible and user-driven communications. But merely having new and improved delivery mechanisms doesn't automatically lead to improved communications -- pouring old wine into new wineskins, as it were, is not the answer.

Taking a step back, thinking through basics in communications theory, applying what we know works (wrapping stories around personalities and things people are inherently interested in) and then leveraging the amazing assortment of tools only recently available to sustain user engagement will ultimately lead to more compelling, gripping and effective benefits communications.

This will inevitably lead to more informed, proactive and healthy employees, significantly narrowing the gap between healthcare costs and outcomes -- the crux of any business-based healthcare strategy.

Charles Epstein is president of BackBone Inc., a health and technology communications firm with offices in Florida, New York and Connecticut.

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