Plan sponsors are going to great lengths in their benefits plan communications. Prepare to be amazed.

With a wider range of options available than ever before, the search is on for better ways to communicate. Plan sponsors are thinking more strategically about how to get their employees to sit up and take notice. And that’s driving an interesting trend in employee communications: marketing benefits plans to employees.

The Business Case for Marketing Your Benefits Plan

Taking a marketing approach to benefits plans is a new way of thinking about employee communications: treating your employees as customers of the group benefits plan and using benefits communications as your sales pitch. It means looking at employee communications campaigns within a more targeted, consumer-driven model. It’s also a significant departure from the traditional “if you build it, they will come” mentality.

But is this advertorial approach to group benefits really necessary? Why go to all the extra trouble?

Although the level of understanding varies from organization to organization, with group benefits, there’s often a significant disconnect between what employees think they’re getting and what they’re actually getting. Unless there have recently been major changes to the benefits or to the plan design, most employees only understand their plans at a basic level. “The sense that I get from speaking with people in HR is that employees just don’t understand what they have,” says David McCullagh, senior communications consultant, with ACS/Buck Consultants. Andrea Nasello, principal, communications consulting, with Morneau Sobeco, agrees, commenting that employees often look at their benefits package when they’re first hired, but afterwards don’t give their benefits much thought. And with so many more pressing matters in a typical workday, group benefits just aren’t a daily priority for most employees.

However, research suggests that Canadian employees do value having group benefits programs, even if they’re not devoting much time or thought to them. According to the results of the 2007 sanofi-aventis Healthcare Survey, 61% of respondents said that they would prefer their health benefits plans over $20,000 in cash. Facing the upcoming labour drought, plan sponsors will want to promote their group benefits in the hopes of attracting and retaining employees. “Plan sponsors invest a significant amount in their benefits plans as part of their total rewards package and, in many cases, what’s offered through the benefits plans can be a key differentiator in attracting and retaining talent for the organization,” affirms Liz Sargeant, assistant vice-president, voluntary benefits, with Sun Life Financial.

There’s also a link between understanding and appreciation of benefits and employee engagement. The 2007 Global Workforce Study conducted by Towers Perrin found that the No. 1 driver of employee engagement is the belief that senior management is sincerely interested in employee well-being. “Benefits and related wellness initiatives are an important part of the picture when it comes to demonstrating a company’s interest in employee well-being,” affirms Barbara Kaufman, principal, with Towers Perrin. Communicating the value of employee benefits may even help generate better performance. “You generally work harder for a company when you know you’re being compensated in a fair way, and in a way that is aligned with the market,” McCullagh adds.

Interestingly, even if employees have a basic understanding and appreciation of their group benefits plans, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have an accurate perception of their value in hard dollars. For example, according to the results of the sanofi-aventis survey, when asked how much they thought their health benefits plans cost their employer each year, more than one-quarter (29%) of respondents said “zero.” Particularly if the benefits are mostly or entirely employer-paid, many employees simply take their benefits plans for granted. Says Nasello, “Benefits tend to be something that they expect to have.”


Amazing Techniques

Looking for innovative ways to communicate with employees? Here’s what some of today’s employers are doing.

Dazzle your employees – Brand benefits information so that employees can easily identify it from all of the other information they receive. If you’re communicating primarily online, use Flash elements and graphics to add some pizzazz to your emails. Whenever possible, direct employees to the website where benefits information is posted so that they know where to find more information when they need it.

Be creative – Learning about benefits doesn’t have to be boring. One imaginative plan sponsor held a scavenger hunt with clues hidden around the workplace. Employees had to correctly answer benefits-related questions to move from one clue to the next. Another employer created a play to get key benefits messages across. Don’t be afraid to try something new—look at unusual ways to make group benefits interactive and fun.

Make it personal – People respond to and identify with stories about “people like them,” so customizing the message will make your communications more effective. Communicate regularly with employees, not just on an annual basis during the enrollment period, and make sure that all benefits-related materials are kept up to date.

Make it fun – Turn a benefits education session into a social event. For example, some plan sponsors hold in-house fairs to explain the various plan benefits and other wellness-related initiatives. Try piggybacking your benefitsrelated event with a social activity, such as a party or a barbecue, to give employees another reason to attend.

Take a total rewards approach – In an increasingly tight labour market, the total rewards strategy may be the way of the future. Understanding group benefits in the context of all other benefits being offered by the employer—including pay, pensions and other non-traditional benefits— may increase the value proposition and encourage employees to stay.

However, most employers are making significant investments in benefits. And, faced with escalating healthcare costs and cost-containment concerns, they’re looking for a return on this investment. “Employers can’t just keep paying people more and more, and offering more and more benefits, because there’s an end point,” says Jacqueline Taggart, senior consultant, with Watson Wyatt Worldwide. If spending additional dollars on benefits isn’t an option, employers need to focus on how to get the best value from their existing plans. And this means helping employees understand their options, utilize their benefits appropriately and recognize the true value of the benefits offered.

Marketing group benefits plans to employees is a winning proposition for employees and employers alike: employees who understand and appreciate their benefits make better use of them and become more engaged, while employers can leverage benefits plans to help attract and retain employees without making significant additional financial investments.

Developing Your Campaign

When developing your benefits marketing approach, the first priority, says Jason Billard, communications consultant, with Hewitt Associates, in Vancouver, is to identify what actions you want your employees to take and then determine the best means of moving them from thought to action. “You’ll get off to a better start if you start thinking of your employees as your consumers, as opposed to your employees as your employees,” he suggests.

During this initial planning stage, experts say it’s a good idea to undergo a self-evaluation process. Look at what your company’s doing now, in terms of benefits plan communications, and determine what’s working and what isn’t. It’s also recommended that you involve key stakeholders from all relevant areas, such as HR, communications and senior management. Getting their input—and more importantly, their support—early in the process may help you avoid future stumbling blocks.

While your organization may already have certain key messages in mind, it’s important to remember that your benefits communications plan should focus on your employees’ needs. The best way to find out what your employees want and need is simply to ask them. Conducting a short survey, either paper-based or online, on what employees think of the current benefits and how they’re communicated will help you get a handle on their views.

After you’ve done some background research and held the necessary preliminary discussions, develop a marketing plan to fill in any communication gaps. The details will depend on your corporate culture, the nature of your employee group and your company’s objectives, among other factors. But the best plans, says Sargeant, are relevant to the employees’ needs and help achieve the employer’s objectives. If you need assistance with developing or executing your campaign, a range of resources is available, from insurer materials to specialized communications consulting, to help you on your way.

Sargeant suggests testing your strategies with focus groups before you roll out the plan to your employee base, to make sure that you’re hitting the target. Marilee Mark, vice-president, marketing, group benefits, with Manulife Financial, adds that your testing should include an analysis of the language you’re using to ensure that it’s clear, simple and free of jargon. “The danger with benefits is, it can get too technical, and people stop reading,” she says.

Finally, it’s important to remember that communicating effectively means communicating on an ongoing basis, not just when significant events occur. Mark encourages plan sponsors to integrate their benefits communications within the overall corporate communications structure. “Even though you want some of your messages around benefits to stand out, you want to be consistent with the way you communicate overall,” she says. Communicating regularly about benefits can be beneficial from an employer’s standpoint— for example, ensuring that benefits are being used effectively by explaining benefits utilization and claim patterns, or reducing calls to HR by providing answers to frequently asked questions.

Strategies for Plan Sponsors

Getting employees’ attention is often easier said than done. Every day, your employees are bombarded by messages from all directions, and it can be challenging for employers to cut through the clutter. Here are a few options to consider.

1) Print Versus Online

The past few years have shown a trend toward increased use of online media for employee communications. Tools such as email blasts, websites, blogs and podcasts have become more popular and attractive to employers because they are usually low cost and easy to access. But while you may believe that the growing prevalence of online tools means the end for print-based material, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Many employers today still use both online and paper-based materials in their benefits plan communications. “People are recognizing that there’s a place and need for both print and online, that they can complement each other,” Billard says. The diverse makeup of today’s workforce means that employers may need to use several different methods—such as print-based materials, online tools, call centres and face-to-face employee meetings—to reach the full audience. And it’s likely that this trend toward using multiple media will become even more prevalent as time goes on, says Sargeant. “I think we’re going to see plan communication become more personalized and delivered in a multi-channel environment,” she adds.

Marvelous Strategies for a Mobile Workforce

IBM Canada’s main challenge in communicating its
flexible benefits plan was the way its workforce is organized.
With a large number of employees telecommuting, working
at customer locations or travelling frequently, IBM had to find
an effective and convenient communications medium accessible
to all employees. “We needed to make sure we were
creative, in terms of getting the information to them about
their benefits,” says Leslie Frazer, benefit program manager.

IBM’s solution has been to communicate primarily through
online media—particularly email—and to keep the messages
as clear and succinct as possible. Email notifications typically
consist of tag lines to get employees’ attention with
links to the corporate intranet site for further information.
“People just get so many emails in a day,” remarks Frazer.
“Emails over the years have actually become shorter, and
probably much more effective.” A variety of benefits-related
documents, including the plan guide, frequently asked
questions and monthly newsletters containing benefits
information, are posted online for easy access.

Benefits-related emails all have the same branding so that
employees can easily identify them among all of the other
messages they receive each day. “When an employee sees
that particular email, they know it’s related to benefits—there’s
a specific look and feel,” Frazer adds. IBM also periodically
holds face-to-face meetings with employees to highlight any
changes to the plan or to discuss specific benefits issues.

Frazer believes that consistent messaging and online delivery
of benefits information has helped employees to understand
the plan, and to know where to look for additional resources.
Online communications are integral to IBM’s culture as an information
technology company and remain the most effective
way to reach its geographically diverse employee base.

For more case studies, go to


When determining the right mix of print and online media, understanding the company’s culture is critical. For example, rolling out an intensive online campaign to employees who don’t have regular access to the Internet at work isn’t likely to be effective. It sounds obvious, but plan sponsors need to remember that it’s all about the employee—not what’s easiest or cheapest for the employer.

2) Brash Tactics


Realizing that they need to step it up a notch, many employers are experimenting with unusual and bolder communications tactics. For example, Mark and others have noted a trend toward storytelling to make information about benefits plans more engaging—often in the form of case studies based on typical employee situations, taking into account age, income level, family status and other demographic factors (e.g., Jane is a 25-yearold customer service representative with no dependents and an annual income of $33,000, and she chose the following options). Or, says Mark, you can tell a short story—for instance, a narrative about a plan member whose child was injured on a family holiday outside of the country and how they got the assistance they needed. “People tend to read a story because it engages them on an emotional as well as a cognitive level,” she adds.

If “the what’s-in-it-for-me is the new trend for the future,” as Tina Young, principal and central region market leader, communications, with Mercer, believes, then employers may also consider offering incentives. Some employers offer giveaways, draws or prizes to motivate employees to take initiative. For example, one plan sponsor used rewards to encourage employees to use an online financial planning tool, resulting in outstanding program participation. Others use incentives during the annual enrollment period to encourage employees to submit their selections on time. The trick is to find the right rewards to achieve the desired behaviours.

Some employers are taking a more holistic approach to benefits, viewing them within the context of a broader wellness strategy. The practice of hosting wellness fairs in the workplace, inviting insurers, employee assistance program providers and other benefitsrelated providers to participate, is becoming increasingly popular. This approach has the advantage of offering personal, face-to-face contact and creating a “one-stop shop” for employees’ group benefits needs. “They keep repeating it, so we know it’s found useful by the employees,” says Jessie Kaur, national director, customer relations and sales support, with Standard Life.

Others believe that the secret is to get a little edgier in how you communicate benefits information. Billard has noticed a new interest in negative framing techniques—techniques that focus on the negative consequences of not doing something—among employers. For example, an employer could focus on the impact of losing money by not using up healthcare spending account funds within the prescribed time period. Billard sees the “you could miss out” message as a powerful tool in moving employees from thinking about their benefits plans to actually taking action.

While there are many options to choose from, employers need to determine the most appropriate methods for their organizations. “It all depends on the culture of the organization and what’s needed—what works in one may be totally off the wall for another organization,” Nasello adds.

3) Total Rewards

Looking at group benefits within a total rewards context means emphasizing the value of the overall employment deal, including group benefits plans, RRSPs and pension plans along with the more traditional salary and bonus components. Many employers are either using, or considering using, total rewards statements to communicate benefits to employees, whether in print or online.

The advantage of the total rewards statement is that it positions the benefits plan within the context of the broader HR offering and gives employees a visual record of all compensation components. Not only does it help employees understand the employer’s investment in their total compensation, says McCullagh, “it also provides a dollar value to some of these benefits that they’re getting, which is often unknown to employees completely.”

The Bottom Line

The good news is that, with greater access to information, benefits knowledge among employees seems to be improving. Instead of flipping manually through long and cumbersome plan documents, many employees can now turn to benefits newsletters, websites, modelling tools and call centres to help answer their questions.

The recent move toward flexible benefits may also have helped raise the bar on employee communications. “I think the whole flex benefits movement has done a lot to help employees understand what their benefits are, because you have to make choices,” comments McCullagh. Requiring employees to re-enrol in the plan on an annual basis helps make group benefits a priority—however, the onus is still on the plan sponsor to make sure that the options have been communicated effectively. “A flex plan’s just not going to be as successful as it can be if it falls down on communication,” says Billard.

And, with flexible benefits plans growing in popularity and a wider range of options becoming available for selection, the plan sponsor’s load isn’t getting any lighter. “As choices become more complex, employees are going to be asking for help…and that request will go back to plan sponsors in terms of looking for support to support their employees making choices,” Sargeant says. Claire Allard, senior director, service and sales support, group and business insurance, with Desjardins Financial Security, agrees. “Communication will increase…it’s going to be much more demanding because [plan members] will need more information to make the best decisions for them,” she adds.

As the talent pool gradually dries up, employers will need to put on an even greater show to engage employees in the future. “The bottom line is, if you believe something is boring and uninteresting, then that’s how the material is going to sound,” says Taggart. She encourages employers to think seriously about how to make benefits plan communications stand out from all of the other marketing messages that employees receive each day, to get them excited about their benefits. “Your reach will exceed your grasp, but if you don’t reach, then you get nothing.”

Alyssa Hodder is managing editor of Benefits Canada.

For a PDF version of this article, click here.

© Copyright 2008 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the February 2008 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.