Ask any HR or benefits manager what they want from their perks communications and they are likely to come up with words like ‘creative’, ‘effective’ and ‘inspiring’. The problem is benefits marketing material can often be dull, ineffective and boring.
In fairness to benefits managers, most of their job descriptions will favour analytical or numerical skills over marketing abilities, and it can’t help that some of the products they have to promote aren’t an easy sell.
However, there is no denying the growing importance of communication as employers look for a return on the benefits they invest in for employees. Paul Bartlett, head of employee reward and benefits at Grass Roots, says: “Communication is the link between providing benefits and getting people to understand and engage with them.”
With this in mind, some organisations are considering innovative ways to get staff to engage with their benefits package, for example, by employing actors to depict benefits situations, or even using board games to show staff how perks work.
Sometimes, staff engagement with perks also comes from good, old-fashioned fun, says Sue McArdle, managing director of marketing agency Wilding McArdle Wilson.
Last year, the agency worked with directories service Yell to promote its new refer-a-friend scheme. The campaign focused on the money an employee would receive for recommending a friend to work at the company. It used actors dressed as flight attendants to imply that with the extra cash employees earned from the scheme, they could afford to go on holiday. “The method was right for the brand and it was also fun,” McArdle says.
Jim Larter, managing director of drama-led training company RoleplayUK, believes role play and forum theatre could be used more to communicate with employees about benefits. He has not worked on such projects yet, but has helped employers promote flexible working as part of their diversity agenda.
“In forum theatre, an actor portrays the person on flexi-time, and we freeze the scene to let the actor talk to the audience about the pressures of having to care for someone while working. It makes delegates think about their actions and creates empathy with the actor’s character and, hopefully, with the delegate’s colleagues,” McArdle explains.
Digital developmentsOther employers are capitalising on new developments in digital and online platforms to get their benefits messages across to staff. Paul Harrison, managing director of Carve Consulting, which specialises in employee communications, says: “We work for one company that uses [blogging site] Twitter either to remind staff about group events or encourage employees to adopt company policies, for instance, flexible working. It augments existing communications, but makes it more immediate,” he adds.
The agency is also in talks with several clients about launching their own social networks to engage staff with benefits.
Harrison believes RSS feeds – messages sent to an employee’s email, mobile phone, website or other device when a web page is updated – are another way to communicate about benefits, particularly special offers. “Travel firms offering reduced price tickets for employees could use RSS feeds to tell staff ‘we have got a flight to Bangkok leaving on 14 June for £250’, so you can create excitement about a product,” he says.
Train company GNER uses a similar method, sending out email alerts to communicate about products in its voluntary benefits scheme. Other companies that have ventured online include Emap, which uses podcasts to promote its benefits; PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has created webcasts about its flexible benefits plan; and provider Personal Group, which has made a series of videos showing how easy benefits are to use, which clients can post on their websites.
Many of the new online, flexible and voluntary benefits platforms also make it easy for employers to market individual benefits using techniques employed by websites such as Amazon; for example, by recommending perks according to past selections of employees, personalising communications or targeting campaigns at different groups of staff.
However, Alex Tullett, head of benefits communications at Jardine Lloyd Thompson, warns employers to check their data rights first. “Employers don’t have the right to hold a lot of the information that would help to profile people. Only where flex schemes have been in place for several years could you start to identify trends across the employee population,” he says.
If some of these suggestions seem familiar, it may be because many of these new approaches to benefits communication have been borrowed from the marketing department. Andrew Woolnough, flexible benefits distribution manager at the Jelf Group, says: “It’s about thinking of your employees as consumers.”
Avoid gimmicksBut employers must take care to prevent innovation from becoming gimmickry. Diane Smith, business development manager at NorthgateArinso Reward Solutions, says: “You need to understand who your employees are and what method works for them.”
Innovation in benefits marketing can also come from giving a new spin to an old medium. For example, NorthgateArinso worked with one client to communicate a new lunch at work scheme, which let employees pay for meals in the staff canteen through a salary sacrifice arrangement. In the run up to the election period for its flexible benefits scheme, the employer advertised the new benefit on napkins in the restaurant. “That seemed to work quite well and got the message across clearly,” says Smith.
Similarly, merchandise such as branded pens, mugs and mouse mats, is hardly a new marketing tool for promoting employee benefits, but employers have updated the technique by taking an integrated approach to campaigns. For instance, when law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain launched a ‘Pick’n’Mix-branded flex scheme provided by Thomsons Online Benefits, staff received jars of jelly beans along with their user names and passwords for accessing the site and invites to a provider fair. This resulted in a threefold increase in awareness of benefits.
The best form of communication, therefore, isn’t always the all-singing, all-dancing option, but whatever suits an organisation and meets its objectives in communicating its benefits package in the first place.
As Chris Hopkins, director at internal communications agency Caburn Hope, says: “Before you even get down to thinking about the method of communication, you need to stand back and ask: ‘what are you actually trying to communicate?’ In other words, why is the product there and what is it you’re trying to achieve, as that will align benefits with the business vision.” EBcase studiesEmap goes digital to reach young employeesAs may be expected of the former publisher of Smash Hits magazine and broadcaster of Kiss FM radio, Emap’s workforce has historically had a young average age.
This may change now that Emap has sold its consumer magazine and radio divisions, but last year, when group benefits manager Stewart Grant was considering how to engage staff with the firm’s share incentive plan, he decided to experiment with a new communication channel deemed appropriate for this younger workforce by using podcasts.
These were recorded at Kiss FM’s studio. “In a lot of respects it was quite easy to do, as we had the resources, engineers, and equipment,” says Grant.
The podcast, featuring a question and answer session, was posted on Emap’s intranet for staff to download or stream.
Grant says feedback was so good that the firm subsequently broadcast a second podcast to promote its flexible benefits. He is now considering how to incorporate video into benefits marketing, either through a video podcast or online presentation.
But Grant accepts not all employees will want to receive information about benefits digitally. “You’ve got to offer different formats so people can access information the way they want to,” he says.
Grimsby Institute provides a marketing lessonThe Grimsby Institute of Further & Higher Education uses a variety of media to communicate its perks.
Its communication channels include the organisation’s website, a monthly newsletter, and a benefits roadshow among others. Peter Barnard, registrar and clerk says: “People learn in different ways, so email on its own, for example, won’t be everyone’s preferred style of communication.” One of the institute’s more unusual forms of communication, however, is its staff diary, which includes key information for employees and a ‘yellow pages’-style advertising section that promotes the services of benefits providers such as Bupa.
These advertising pages and annual sponsorship, which next year will be taken by Jardine Lloyd Thompson, also help to offset the cost of producing the diary.
Above all, however, it is considered to be an effective benefits communication channel.
“I know how effective the diary is as I see people using it. Benefits are an important part of our HR offering and we have got to communicate them if we are to stand out in our sector,” says Barnard.