How does the benefits app market compare with consumer apps?

The way in which individuals are choosing to communicate and access information has been profoundly impacted by the growth of digital technology and the ever-rising popularity of the smartphone.

Devices feature pic

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  • Mobile apps can provide employees with access to benefits wherever and whenever the need arises.
  • Apps can complement traditional benefits communication and tap into the changing ways in which staff consume information.
  • The increasing use of smartphones and the growing familiarity with digital technology in the consumer sphere could help boost engagement with corporate apps and the benefits they relate to.

Nearly three-quarters (70%) of UK adults had access to a smartphone in May 2014 compared with 62% in May 2013, according to Deloitte’s Mobile consumer 2014: UK cut report, published in September 2014. The research also found that the average number of apps downloaded by consumers had fallen from 2.4 to 1.8 per month. One of the contributing factors cited for this decline is the maturity of the consumer app market.

While there may be signs of maturity in the consumer market, there remains scope for growth in the corporate market, where apps can help to drive engagement with employee benefits. A range of apps have been developed across the benefits spectrum. One of the most notable areas is health and wellbeing, where multifunctional apps provide a number of activity and support options, from access to information and consultations to aggregated fitness data and engagement with colleagues. They are also being employed in the field of financial education (see column) and to complement flexible and voluntary benefits, such as bikes-for-work and retail discount schemes, with apps that can be used by staff while on the go.

Tapping into consumer trends

According to Ofcom’s Communications market report 2014, published in August 2014, 16- to 24-year-olds spend 216 minutes a day on their smartphone. While this is significantly higher than the UK adult average of 82 minutes, they are not the only generation turning towards digital technology. Deloitte’s research reveals that the largest increase in smartphone take-up (10%) was in the 55 and over age bracket. Bulent Osman, managing director of the App Garden, says: “There’s a great shift in the way society is beginning to socialise and communicate, and expectations of employees in general are rising quite rapidly and adjusting to the new world of mobile and instant communications.”

One of the key appeals of apps within the consumer sphere is that they can be used whenever and wherever a person is, and this flexibility is also an advantage for employers and their workforce. Brian Hall, managing director of BHSF Employee Benefits, notes that with the growing ’always-on’ culture, there is an increasing need for benefits to be instantly available.

Steve Edgell, managing director of Wheelies Direct Cycle Solutions, says that apps could encourage continuous engagement: “With the use of apps, there may be opportunities for employers to move to ‘anytime benefits’ rather than flexible benefits windows, and in that scenario apps will come into their own in terms of being able to communicate with employees throughout the year.”

Employees’ personal familiarity with apps could help shape the growth trajectory of benefits apps. Lars Peter Busch, managing director and founder of LogBuy Group, highlights the importance of aligning consumer app functionality and features with those used by corporates. “It’s very important when [developers] create an app that the usability is very good.”

Organisations could also draw inspiration from certain consumer app marketing strategies to drive employee engagement with benefits apps. Patrick Watt, corporate director at Bupa UK, says: “What we’re seeing with these new digital technologies is the emergence of a new channel: business-to-business-to-consumer.”

Looking to the long term

Enhanced communication and engagement are not the only upsides to benefit apps. Savvas Neophytou, co-founder and chief executive officer of Now Healthcare Group, adds that the flexibility they provide can also lead to increased productivity and cost savings. Aggregated data from apps is also a valuable feature for employers, because it can help them to identify key trends and adjust their benefit packages accordingly.

While complementing more traditional benefit channels, apps can set the way for employers to meet the needs of a multi-generational workforce and changing communication habits. Osman says: “For most businesses, this is a tremendous opportunity and one that I think they will begin to grab as examples of [employers] doing this take hold.” 

Viewpoint: Fully responsive websites are the way forward

Ian McKenna

Mobile devices represent a great opportunity to engage with staff to ensure they understand the full range and advantages employers spend on benefits.

Devices don’t just get used when people are mobile; for many users they are a far more comfortable and convenient way to access information than a laptop or desktop PC. Recently, fully responsive websites that adapt to the way information is displayed depending on the device have diminished the need to develop specific apps for individual mobile platforms.

Employee benefits providers have been quick to grasp this opportunity. For example, Standard Life’s retirement journey support content on its website has had 43,000 users since 6 April, with several thousand having used the site to transact online.

Friends Life, now part of Aviva, has also built content to support its e-community service, which is designed to provide relevant engaging content to members through the medium of choice: webinars, forums, posts, quizzes, emails and polls. This content can be delivered in a highly segmented manner aimed to support both the needs of the employee as well as the employer.

Friends Life describes one of the objectives of the service as being to enable the member to ‘have their pension in their pocket’, avoiding the need to keep hold of all their paper documentation.

Financial education is seen as a really important part of this service to help members understand their choices and benefits when it comes to pensions and saving for their retirement. The e-community also enables Friends Life to roll out relevant campaigns to target segments, for example particular age groups, and so on.

When it comes to actual apps for employee benefits, the BenPal app from JLT Employee Benefits is a simple tool that enables users to easily identify their projected income in retirement based on certain criteria. I know several other pensions advisers that use the tool themselves in their own client meetings.

Ian McKenna is director at Finance and Technology Research Centre 

Case study: Cambridge Judge Business School brings apps to its employees


Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS), at the University of Cambridge, is providing its 250-strong workforce with access to Rize, a mental wellbeing app for IOS and Android devices. The mobile app aims to enhance mental wellbeing and lower levels of stress and anxiety, by guiding users through bite-size, interactive tutorials and exercises built on therapeutic concepts. It will be introduced on a trial basis from September 2015 and the business school will look at longer-term implementation if this proves successful.

The app was developed through CJBS’s entrepreneurial programme Accelerate Cambridge, and underwent a trial run at the business school earlier this year. Feedback from the initial trial has informed the development of the app, and it is this updated version that CJBS will make available to staff. Julie Brown, HR director at CJBS, says: “Hopefully it’s going to help people in terms of their mental wellbeing, and it’s also supporting a new initiative that has been developed through the business school.”

The September roll-out coincides with the beginning of the academic year for the business school, which can be a time of heightened stress for staff, says Brown. “It’s when people’s stress levels tend to be quite high, so it’s a good time for them to be thinking about and monitoring [their mental wellbeing], and having something proactive to help them deal with [it].”

A range of communication methods will be harnessed to raise employee awareness of the app’s availability, such as email, the intranet, posters and mentions in staff and manager meetings.

CJBS is looking at ways to increase its focus on employee wellbeing, which includes the establishment of a wellbeing working group. This group entered the school into the Global Corporate Challenge. September also sees the launch of workshops on mindfulness and managing those coping with anxiety and depression.