When it comes to communicating with employees, it can be challenging for employers to create subject matter that’s engaging enough to ensure staff properly absorb all of the information.

In 2021, the City of Toronto decided to try a new strategy by adding an animated video to its benefits communications campaign. “People are busy. We wanted something that was quick and would engage them,” says La-Verne Georgiadis, manager of policy and program management in the City’s pension, payroll and employee benefits division. “It was a very short video, but I think it provided a comprehensive overview of our benefits and it has been very well received.”

Read: Group of DB pension plans release educational video for financial literacy month

The video showcased cartoon characters who provided an example of a common question or topic followed by the corresponding answer. Its purpose was to help employees gain awareness of the City of Toronto’s benefits programs, as well as ensuring they treat benefits spending as if it was their own dollars, says Georgiadis.

The team also wanted content that was appealing to different demographics and would engage the entire workforce, she adds.

Have fun with it

“I think [an animated campaign] is new and different, especially for the City,” says Tom Milne, creative director and senior communication consultant at Eckler Ltd. “It’s about getting attention and doing something a little different, having fun with it and approaching benefits in a way you wouldn’t normally.”

One of the key components to animation is having fun, something employees might not expect from their benefits campaign. “Having fun with pension and benefits communication has been taboo — it’s so serious . . . but you need to engage people because, if they’re not paying attention and following along, it doesn’t matter what message you’re delivering,” he says.

As part of the animation campaign, the City of Toronto used brief vignettes that covered topics like sick pay gratuity and retiring allowances, notes Georgiadis. If an employee had a question, they could look at a vignette on the website that provided two examples for each scenario. “Within retirement, there’s always specific areas an employee needs more support on, [which] generates a lot of calls. So we put in very specific, short vignettes — not more than two minutes long.”

Read: Survey finds 84% of U.S. workers questioning ability to prioritize retirement savings amid rising inflation

The City’s employees have responded well to the new animated approach, with the vignettes gaining huge traction, she says, noting her team is using employee feedback to continue to improve the communications and determine what each employee group wants to know.

City of Toronto’s seminars by the numbers

8 — The number of retirement seminars hosted by the City of Toronto between January and June 2020

250 — The average number of people attending each seminar, compared to an average of 75 for traditional face-to-face sessions

300-350 — The average attendance per session for general benefits education sessions

Strategic communications

Last year, the City also introduced a comprehensive educational plan for benefits with formalized sessions and vendor engagement in order to provide more details to employees. It also hosts quarterly retirement sessions with its vendors.

“We started doing more of a strategic communication of benefits last year and the first example was providing education sessions for our general benefits, but we expanded those to include things like estate planning and financial planning,” says Georgiadis.

She notes a bigger piece to understand is the adjudication process. One of the City’s education sessions focused specifically on dental adjudication, reminding employees that dental offices are businesses, so they can charge more if they choose to. “The underlying message is: you are the consumer, whether you buy a car or any product, check your bill and shop around. We want to support our employees and maintain a healthy workforce — that’s why we provide these benefits. And it’s our responsibility to make sure they’re sustainable.”

Be relatable

In these types of communications campaigns, it’s important to create distinct personas, as people tend to gravitate toward someone with whom they share similarities, says Milne, noting animated characters are perfect for this because employers can develop the personas from scratch.

He refers to a campaign where a man is playing tennis and a bunch of tennis balls are flying at him. He’s trying to juggle all of the balls and the message ties in with mental health and well-being. “I think it was very relatable, seeing this kind of imagery and many people probably [thought], ‘Wow that’s me, I’m in the same situation’ and then they would read more.”

Read: How are personalized communications connecting with employees?

For any employers considering an animated approach to their communications campaigns, Georgiadis suggests first establishing the message they want to convey through the animation, then working with a communications team to refine it and make sure the messaging is on target while keeping it fun and light. She notes her team was able to complete the entire project, including development, in three months.

If employees like the campaign and are attracted to the messaging, an employer can then build on that so staff know what to expect, says Milne. Creating a series is key, he adds, because employees who enjoyed the first campaign will continue to follow any similar ones in the future.

Going forward, the City of Toronto has hired two education specialists and will be developing the next campaign in-house using a software purchased specifically to help with animation. The videos and vignettes will be developed more quickly to educate employees in a timely manner and communicate any upcoming benefits changes.

“This is one part of an overall communications plan,” says Georgiadis. “Everything is a building block. The whole intent is to have various types of communications for our benefits that meet [employees’] needs.”

Sadie Janes is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.