5 guidelines for open enrollment communications

I’ve worked as a benefit communication consultant for more than 20 years, and I have to be honest — aside from technology innovations and a desire from employees to avoid printing and to “be more green” — not much has changed.

Our goal continues to be educating employees on what their benefits are, how to select them by the open enrollment deadline, and, if we’re lucky, to help them understand how to use them effectively.

What also hasn’t changed is the tendency for benefits sponsors (employers) to view the creation and deployment of open enrollment communications as a daunting task and one which is at best, unpleasant and at worse, a six-to-eight week-long nightmare.

My job as a consultant is to help alleviate the “pain” — to help employers create appealing and easy-to-understand communications that engage employees. Engaging employees is key to the success of your benefits program and to a successful open enrollment. Keep in mind that you may be spending millions of dollars on your benefits, so it makes sense to develop eye-catching “marketing” materials for your “consumers.”

To help take the sting out of the open enrollment process (at least on the communication side), I offer these five simple guidelines:

1. Develop a plan and start early.

In general, I recommend starting at least 12 weeks prior to open enrollment. That doesn’t mean you have to start creating materials, but you should have a plan in place pending renewal decisions.

Have a plan in place pending renewal decisions

Your plan/production schedule should include every element you will use to communicate, including

  • emails
  • print materials (benefit guides, postcards, posters, desk drops, table tents)
  • live meetings
  • text messaging
  • videos
  • online portals

Assign delivery dates for each element and then work backward to your first draft. Include the person responsible for writing and design, the reviewers, printers or other vendors so everyone knows their role. And remember that you can probably do a lot of work ahead of time pending your final plan decisions.

Quick tip: Repeat your open enrollment messages in at least two places (an email and a poster, or a postcard and a text message) to increase the likelihood employees will see it at least once.

2. Consider what has worked/not worked in the past.

Your first question might be: Did open enrollment go smoothly last year? If not, think about the impact of your communication materials. What could you have done better? What didn’t work?

Think about the impact of your communication materials and your audience

Secondly, you want to consider who your different employee audiences are and how they like to receive communications. We know that Millennials like to receive information on their smartphones, while older employees probably prefer print, or a mix of print and technology. And you are going to have to mail materials home for employees who don’t work in an office setting or have a company-assigned PC or email.

Quick tip: If there’s time, you may want to ask employees about their communication preferences via a quick survey, some focus groups, or break room conversations.

3. Do not underestimate the value of professional writing and design.

It’s important to understand that not all HR pros are good writers and not all writers are benefits writers. A professional benefits writer can take complex benefits information and present it to your employees in a way they can read — and understand! A pro can turn four paragraphs of confusing and redundant information into one clear and concise sound bite that focuses on “what’s in it for me” for employees. She can also help you clarify goals and key messages for your campaign, which is critical if you hope to drive behaviors and motivate employees to take action.

Organize your information in an appealing and easy-to-grasp manner

Likewise, we are not all skilled graphic designers. A graphic designer familiar with benefit communications can organize your information in an appealing and easy-to-grasp manner.

Bottom line, professional writers and designers are worth the expense.

Quick tip: Avoid cluttering up content with clip art. Graphics should enhance, not detract from, your content.

4. Focus on the open enrollment process only.

It’s easy to assume that open enrollment is a great time to provide more focused benefits education to employees. This is not, however, a best practice. While you can use the time in the months or weeks prior to open enrollment for more education, the materials you send out for open enrollment should focus on the benefits available, costs, and what the employee needs to do (read materials, consider best options, enroll on time).

The materials you send out should only focus on open enrollment

What you want to avoid is giving employees so much information that they give up before they even begin. You have 10 months to help employees understand how FSAs, HSAs, HRAs and other complex benefits work.

Quick tip: Avoid sending multiple pieces of information in an enrollment packet. A one-stop resource, such as a benefits guide, is more likely to be read.

5. Take advantage of new technology for the “wow” factor.

Technology options such as automated PPTs with voiceover, text messaging, email blasts, videos, social media and online wallet cards are more cost effective than you might think and are sure to get your employees’ attention if delivered in the right manner. Many options are accessible on tablets or even smartphones, so employees can access information on their own time and share it with family members.

Take advantage of new technology

Some require an investment, but the good news is that you can often update the information year after year for less money. Better yet, most technology is trackable, so you can determine if employees are engaging with it.

Quick tip: Talk to colleagues and read trade publications to learn more about the latest technology.

I won’t pretend that this is everything you need to know about communicating at open enrollment, but it’s a good start toward creating benefits materials that will get your employees’ attention. Try to incorporate one or more of the guidelines above into the process you follow for creating communication materials, and I can almost guarantee you will get positive results.

About Lisa Beyer

Lisa Beyer is a Senior Communication Consultant for Willis Towers Watson’s Human Capital and Benefits Communicati…
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