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Hitting the Mark

More companies are targeting benefits communications to different demographics by fine-tuning the message and the media that delivers it.

Saturday, July 1, 2006
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Forget being subtle. When communicating about benefits to young workers, a population whose short attention spans are often scattered in a million directions, you need to be creative, aggressive and sometimes potentially downright offensive.

"I feel like putting a thumb tack on every chair," says Alan Hait, senior director of benefits for New York-based IAC/InterActiveCorp. "I'm serious."

The average age of his firm's domestic workforce is about 33 at IAC/InterActiveCorp., which owns businesses such as Evite, Match.com and Ticketmaster, so Hait knows firsthand the frustrations of trying to reach an instant messaging, iPod-listening, cell-phone gabbing, multitasking workforce. "They're always in a rush," Hait says. "If you're standing in the hallway handing out leaflets, they will walk right past them."

Breaking through the cacophony requires companies to grab young workers and, figuratively speaking, give them a good shake. When sending out mailings, for instance, Hait has contemplated using the most ugly, disgusting colors -- "fluorescent pink," for instance -- to seize their attention.

That may sound silly, even drastic, but the reality is that a growing number of companies are thinking more seriously than ever before of ways to better target benefits communications to their different demographics, namely the young newcomers. Targeting can be an effective practice, and a host of looming issues gives the strategy a sense of urgency.

Dwindling pensions, for starters, necessitate that companies make sure their employees take increased responsibility for their own retirement, says Martha Terry, practice leader for rewards communication at Towers Perrin, a human resource consulting company with corporate headquarters in Stamford, Conn.

On the medical side, rising costs have made companies push participation in health benefits. That's a change from the not-too-distant past, when companies figured they were saving money each time a young worker didn't bother to enroll. Nowadays, preventative health care is considered worth the expense, says Christine Miller, president of Millerwood Communications Inc., a Bolton, Mass. consulting company that focuses on human resource communications.

Additionally, while many employees say benefits are a major reason they came to work at their current job, employers may be failing to teach them about those much-sought-after benefits. According to the 2005 MetLife Employee Benefits Trends Study, just 30 percent of employees feel their employers do an effective job at education.

"Employers have a tremendous opportunity to strengthen loyalty and retention by improving current levels of benefits communications and education," says Ben Colvin, vice president of institutional marketing at MetLife, a provider of insurance and other financial services headquartered in New York.

Add it all up -- dwindling pensions, rising health-care costs, demand for benefits and the need for education -- and targeting demographics seems like a bottom-line necessity, perhaps akin to balancing the budget. Of course, reaching these demographics isn't easy.

What works for baby boomers isn't necessarily going to work for Gen-Xers (generally, those born between 1965 and 1980), and especially the new kids in town, Gen-Yers (born in the 1980s and 1990s).

Different ages have different expectations, so companies need to find the message and media that's most effective for each generation.

Reaching Young Workers

Take the Gen-Yers. For a group that, according to experts, is into instant gratification, saving for a retirement that's some four decades away isn't an appealing idea.

Standard retirement brochures, which typically feature an old couple walking on the beach, certainly won't be changing any minds, says Barbara Hogg, retirement communications leader at Hewitt Associates, an HR outsourcing and consulting firm based in Lincolnshire, Ill.

As soon as you show old people, Gen-Yers tune out. As soon as you even utter the word "retirement," you've lost them, she says.

The trick is to just get them to save something, no matter how little. Because as it stands now, it doesn't appear they're doing that. Just 31 percent of eligible Gen-Yers participate in an employee-sponsored 401(k) plan, according to a 2006 Hewitt report entitled Three Generations Prepare for Retirement.

Hait at IAC/InterActiveCorp knows all about Gen-Yers and their inattentive ways. Last year, his company launched a new health Web site containing a whole host of information and tools, including the ability to enroll online. This year, the company wanted to increase the number of workers visiting and using the site.

To do that, it launched a campaign through various mediums -- mailings, posters and e-mails -- that used wild stock-art images. One showed a balding man looking at various toupees with a headline reading: "Decisions, decisions." Another showed two chubby men eyeing a single donut left on a tray with the accompanying headline reading, "Hard to resist."

Hait's philosophy for the campaign: "What I wanted to do was punch you in the face as you walked down the hallway and then tell you a joke." Workers had various reactions to the materials: "Funny," "clever," "stupid," "dumb" and "offensive" were all descriptions they used.

"Say what you will, it got the job done," Hait says. "They didn't ignore it." Indeed, 90 percent of all workers enrolled online, up from 70 percent the previous year. The only aspect of the campaign that didn't work was a DVD, which was mailed to homes. Despite the fact that it was a "damn good DVD," as Hait describes it, no one watched the 10-minute program. "It was asking too much."

IAC/InterActiveCorp's approach may be described as "infotainment," a combination of information and entertainment. By appealing to emotions and intellect, rather than just bombarding people with facts about a particular program or plan, this approach can be a very effective way to engage young workers, says John Finney, a senior communications consultant with Washington-based Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

Think Research

For all the emphasis on young workers, though, companies can't forget their other demographics. Gen-Xers, for example, may be more inclined to save than their younger counterparts, but responsibilities such as buying a house and providing for a family may get in the way of that. The Hewitt report states that 37 percent of Gen-Xers aren't saving in their 401(k) plans.

Then there are the baby boomers, who have their own unique concerns. Not only may they be worried about staying healthy, but they're also looking at how much or how little they've accumulated in savings.

To better understand and target the needs of each demographic, think research. "We recommend it," says Paul Sanchez, global director of employee research at Mercer Human Resource Consulting, based in New York. "That investment in research pays off." And once your communications campaign is over, do research again to see what worked and what didn't. "It's critical you continue to listen."

Wyeth, for one, conducts various surveys and focus groups to check the pulse of its workers. "We approach our work in benefits communications in the same way that marketing professionals do, leveraging information and research to reach our targeted audiences," says Karen L. Ling, vice president of employee benefits and human resource policies at Wyeth, a pharmaceutical and health-care-products company based in Madison, N.J.

What you find in research may surprise you. You may think your company has a great Web site outlining benefits, but conduct a focus group, and you might discover employees want more than a flashy site. "It only goes so far," Sanchez says.

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Sure enough, the Internet is a great tool. Consider online modeling programs, which allow workers to plug in the annual amounts they're saving to determine how much they will have for retirement. These tools can make retirement much more concrete to a younger audience, Finney says.

But it would be a mistake to think that the Internet is the be all and end all. Yes, younger workers are comfortable with the Web, but don't assume that's the only medium that works for them. If the benefits are complicated, people may want comprehensive print materials and face-to-face meetings, Sanchez says.

Using managers to promote benefits is effective, Hogg says. Gen-Yers as a group are often looking for guidance and feedback, so managers can act almost as parental influences.

While companies can make the mistake of thinking younger workers only want Internet communications, they also can make the mistake of thinking older workers don't want the Web at all. Some groups may, indeed, prefer print materials, such as manufacturing workers with 25 or 30 years of experience who wouldn't have access to a computer at work anyway, Sanchez says.

Each succeeding year, though, the age at which people are completely comfortable with electronic transmissions goes up. "[Many] baby boomers are very computer-literate," Finney says. When targeting different demographics, the bottom line is that multiple mediums should be used: Web, e-mail, posters, postcards, meetings, even DVDs. "The key is not to use just one medium. One size doesn't fit all."

 

Too Big a Target

Aside from using the wrong mix of media, companies make another mistake when tailoring messages: trying for too big a target audience. "When I start talking to clients, they look to hit as many people as possible," Miller says. "I try to get them away from throwing darts." Targeting a demographic means just that: tailoring a message and medium to just one group, not a bunch.

The more people a company tries to appeal to, the simpler and less effective the campaign becomes. "It's hard to do broad strokes," Miller says. Unfortunately, broad strokes are all that some companies can manage. "Customers often don't have the resources or the ability to target everyone," says Jodi-ann Johnson, director of customer communications for Ceridian, a Minneapolis-based company that offers HR services and products.

So communication campaigns can become a balance between targeting less people to be more effective and targeting more people because the resources aren't available. For Ceridian's drive to promote flexible spending accounts, Miller's company developed "Flexman," a cartoon superhero touting the virtues of FSAs. Fifteen- and 30-second videos of the caped crusader were produced.

The communication campaign's intent was to hit ages 30 to 50, a range that corresponds roughly to two demographics, older Gen-Xers and early baby boomers, Miller says. The early boomers grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the Batman TV series, the Spiderman cartoon and classic comic books such as X-Men and Fantastic Four. "We thought this was a nostalgic, entertaining approach," she says. The Flexman cartoon also touched on the high cost of health care, an issue that would strike a chord with this group.

As for the older Gen-Xers, they can relate to superheroes with the revival in movies of Superman and Batman, and the Flexman cartoon had a campy feel, something that would appeal to a younger audience, Johnson says. The piece also discussed day care, an issue Gen-Xers are likely to be concerned with. Links were provided at the end of the Flexman video for more information, a tactic meant to convince any skeptical Gen-Xers. "In my work experience, I do find that generation has more questions," Miller says. "I do find them more inquisitive."

Because of the campaign, Ceridian's customers saw a 15 percent increase in people who enrolled in flex accounts, and employee contributions went from $1.65 million to $2.2 million.

The word around Ceridian now is that Flexman truly is a superhero.

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