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Annual Enrollment for Higher Ed: Changing Your Strategy and Planning for Virtual Events


This year’s annual enrollment process presents new challenges for benefits professionals. Anticipating plan changes, navigating a stressful environment, and exploring virtual options are all top of mind. For many higher education institutions, this year will require a big change in approach: In-person enrollment events of the past may have to move in part or entirely online.

In this webinar, Jennifer Benz, Senior Vice President and Communications Leader, and Megan Yost, Vice President Engagement Strategist, discuss strategies and tactics for how to successfully conduct annual enrollment during a pandemic. You’ll learn:

  • How to refine your strategy to accommodate changes in the physical workplace
  • How to conduct virtual benefits fairs, virtual benefits meetings, and online enrollment
  • How to alleviate employee anxiety and prevent misinformation from circulating
  • Pro tips for making sure your annual enrollment strategy is meeting your broader HR goals

Jen and Megan also share case studies from several higher education institutions as well as how other organizations are handling annual enrollment this year.

This webinar was previously recorded. View the full transcript below.


Annual Enrollment for Higher Ed: Changing Your Strategy and Planning for Virtual Events

Webinar Transcript:

Jen: Hi, everybody. Thank you so much for joining us today. This webinar is about annual enrollment for higher education. We're going to talk about changing your strategy and planning for virtual events. We are so excited to have you today. I'm Jennifer Benz. I'm the communications’ leader at Segal Benz. We’re the communications practice of the Segal Group, and I’m here with Megan. Megan, thanks for joining us. Megan Yost is a vice president in our practice, and we’re super excited to spend the next hour with all of you talking about annual enrollment.

Can you believe we're already talking about annual enrollment? It is the middle of June. So, we’re going to talk a bit about Segal Benz, who we are, and then we’re going to go through how the pandemic has changed expectations for what folks are really thinking about, and what we need to be planning for this fall.

We’ll discuss annual enrollment strategy and planning, and talk in detail about moving in-person events and conversations online. We have a handful of case studies that are all about higher ed institutions, and how they have been conducting annual enrollment. And then we’ll have Q&A at the end. So please submit your questions along the way into the questions panel and we’ll get to those.

Also, we’ll share the slides and the webinar recording after this event. So you don't have to furiously take notes. We have a lot of content in the slides, and we’ll definitely be sharing those afterwards. So thank you again for joining us today.

A little bit about us as we get started. We always love to share this information. We have the amazing job of helping great organizations inspire people to improve their health, their finances, and their future. It’s the work that our team absolutely loves doing, what Megan and I have focused on almost our entire careers. And right now that work is more important than ever. We especially love doing this work for higher ed institutions where there is such an incredible impact that your institutions have on your communities, your students, and your faculty and staff. And such an interesting and complex community that you’re impacting. So this is a really exciting topic for us to share with you today.

We also want to explain a little bit about us and how we fit within the rest of Segal, which I know many folks who are joining us today are familiar with. Many of you work with our organizational effectiveness practice or our compensation and career strategy practice. Segal is a full-service HR consulting firm. We handle all aspects of HR and benefits consulting. And we’re really excited to combine all those different areas of expertise in the way we deliver work for our clients.

We have tons of information online about that. We’re always happy to chat more about the different services we offer. And in particular, right now, all of our colleagues in different practices have really been focusing a lot of energy on helping our clients through this really tumultuous time with the coronavirus, and all of the disruption and changes that are happening right now. We have a ton of resources around that on, as well as on Everything around what’s happening with legislation, the different workforce planning challenges, the different communication challenges, impact on benefits and so forth. So tons and tons of great resources and information there.

So, with that, I will turn things over to Megan to really talk a bit about the context of what we’re talking about today, and how the pandemic has really changed people’s expectations. Megan.

Megan: Great. Thank you so much, Jen. And thanks to all of you for joining today and taking time out of your day to tune in and be part of this conversation. We’re really thrilled to have you. So as Jen said, we’ve been living through a very tumultuous time. And that disruption has affected everyone in every corner of the world, in any industry you could possibly work in. And that’s no different for higher ed to anything else. And so a lot of us are adapting to new ways of working. Of thinking about how to integrate technology best into our day to day lives to continue doing what we do in a remote way, if possible.

One thing that has come about as a result of the coronavirus is that communications are more frequent now. People expect to be communicated with more frequently from leadership. They want to know more about their benefits and how they can take advantage of them. This impacts our day to day life with the various businesses we purchase things from. Everybody’s communicating right now. And so the expectations have never been higher to communicate more regularly.

Additionally, there’s a new appreciation for digital cloud-based tools, and an increased acceptance of remote work, if that’s possible for your institution, in continuing to work in some fashion in a remote way. But there’s also an awareness of the pitfalls. So on one hand, many people have found research done early on that they can be as productive if not more productive working from home in many industries. But on the flip side, people are working longer. In fact, some people are working up to 3 hours more a day, which really has an impact on our physical and our mental well-being that needs to be accounted for.

As we think about how the pandemic has impacted higher ed specifically, there’s been multiple phases in terms of how organizations and institutions have been thinking through the impact of the pandemic, from prioritizing the safety of faculty, staff, and students, reviewing the financial impact to exploring how to resume operations in the fall, which is an ongoing discussion. There was even an article about this in the New York Times this morning.

And then moving through the future—what’s changed, how individuals are now using technology and how can that continue in the future, and what will the future look like. There’s ongoing discussions to take into consideration.

Additionally, I want to highlight just some of the really broad impact of the pandemic on communications. As I mentioned before, expectations are really high in terms of frequency right now, and, in some of the research that was conducted early back in March, what the findings are from those early studies is that those who are communicating more regularly, more frequently, have a direct impact on the perception of the people that they’re serving.

So, if an employer, for example, is communicating more frequently, their employees believe that they are handling the outbreak better, that they’re putting safety above profits in a for-profit institution. And on the alternative side, if an organization is not communicating regularly, that directly impacts employee perception—they feel like their employer can’t handle it, and that their motivations might be questioned.

So this is something to consider when you think about going forward. We’re continuing to live in a world of uncertainty and just the amount of communicating you do, even if there are a lot of unknowns about your world, is really important to the perception of the people you’re serving and supporting, to your faculty and staff.

And on that note, as you think about the broader impact, and this is certainly always top of mind for universities and colleges because of the community and the broader world you serve, the alumni and kind of your extended network of people who are impacted by you, is how your actions also are perceived in the broader community that you support. So you have the impact of your communications on your people, but you also have the impact of your communications on your alumni, your communities, and so forth. And that’s something else to think about, because the awareness and the attention on your actions has never been greater.

So let’s talk about how all of this impacts benefits. One immediate impact is that benefits have never been more important. The value of benefits has never been more visceral to people. And that’s because many of the impacts on individuals are on the most basic level. So if you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which has this triangular or pyramid shape, to all of the things that we need to satisfy in our lives, to reach self-actualization, some of those most basic foundational pillars to our lives, whether it’s food or access to employment or feeling secure about our lives, health insurance, and so forth, are on some of those foundational levels. And the pandemic has really disrupted this for many people. And so the way they’re thinking about benefits is different than ever before. And the value that they place on them is also incredibly high right now. And that has some impact in terms of thinking about the messaging that you deliver to your faculty and staff.

So as you’ll see on the next slide, you really want to think about your health care plan design changes, any reductions you’re making to benefits. If you’re making changes to the retirement plan, you want to think about how that is delivered, how those messages are delivered to your people, because they’re really impacting your people in a very, very significant way at the moment.

And on that note, if you have to deliver bad news, you want to explain why, make sure the rationale is really clear, that you get right to the point and you're very direct in your messaging, and that you avoid mixed messages. You don't want to say one thing, and then go ahead and say another thing that will really frustrate a lot of your faculty and staff.

Jen: Thanks, Megan. And I think we should also mention, that all of the stress of the pandemic is now compounded with the stress around racial justice and this kind of social awakening that’s happening in our country right now. So we have a lot of folks talking about that what we really have are two pandemics happening, or two crises happening, or three if you put in the economic reality too. And so this whole environment creates a very, very stressful situation for folks that are really getting to those foundations of, can I provide for myself, can I take care of my family? What does this mean for me and my ability to do the things that I want to do in my life?

Megan: So on that note, if you have made any changes in the last few months or last year, or if you have benefits that will help people, for example, financial stability counseling or any resources to help people with their financial well-being, tell them. Considering the stress that people are under financially, as well as mental health and many other resources and benefits, annual enrollment is an opportune time to put those benefits in front of people, and to make sure that they’re aware of them—promote their awareness of all of these rich benefits that can really impact them in a very, very meaningful way.

Jen: So that’s the context of the world that we’re operating in right now. So let’s talk more specifically about annual enrollment planning and how you can really start to think about your strategy. And our advice is, of course, to always start with your strategy. What is it that you’re trying to accomplish with your benefit strategy overall? And how does that fit within the overall strategy of your organization and what you’re trying to do with your workforce, and the ways that you’re trying to move the organization forward? It’s helpful to focus on specific and measurable behaviors. So really think about what you want people to do during annual enrollment and what do you want them to do throughout the rest of the year with their benefits. And how do you set goals and make plans for doing just that?

A lot of times we end up talking about what we want people to know about their benefits or what we want them to understand about their benefits, and especially in times that are so stressful like this, we really want to hone in on the things you want folks to do. What are those specific actions? And one of those actions may be something like using a decision support tool so they choose their best health plan option, but be really specific about that, rather than speaking in general terms to help people understand their options and so forth.

And we have a tool on our website, our open enrollment communication campaign debrief worksheet. It may seem a little bit late to be debriefing your enrollment campaign from last year, but you can really use this as a tool to remind yourself of what worked in the past, what didn't, where there are areas to improve, and how can you really let that strategic thinking guide your strategy this year. So we encourage you to download that tool.

When it comes to strategy, we really think of this as a cyclical process. And ideally, this is a cyclical process that you’re following throughout the year where you’re starting on the left-hand side of asking questions about what you need to accomplish. Listening to the different audiences and their needs, then defining a very clear goal and what you want to accomplish. Then, defining your audiences and moving into mapping the campaign tactics and so forth.

We’ll talk a little bit more about this, but particularly with higher ed institutions that have such diverse audiences, really think about how you can best reach folks and what tactics to use to do so. From there we think about the creative content, what is our campaign going to look like? And then how do we measure the results? And then, kind of do it all over again.

So that’s what the planning process typically looks like. And this year, we’re going to have some different questions to ask.

Another key part, particularly with organizations that are as complex as most higher ed institutions are, is to think about pulling in and involving your stakeholders early—we’ll share some of the case studies towards the end of the presentation. This is a key to success with a lot of clients that we work with. We work really intentionally to make sure that all of the different stakeholders—perhaps there's a faculty advisory group or a staff advisory group—that we’re really getting feedback from all these different groups, pulling them into the process, and feeling that they have a voice in this, and that their feedback is being used to inform the best way to go forward.

In that process we can also recruit the right leadership to help deliver messaging. And as Megan mentioned earlier in the presentation, there’s a high expectation for the visibility of leaders right now, and the accessibility to leaders. So that stakeholder planning can be an opportunity to identify those folks and really pull in the right people. And then you can also think about what all the different groups are, whether it’s managers or leadership groups, that you’re going to need to equip and make them feel that they can understand what’s going on and be part of sharing the message.

Digging into that a bit more, as you analyze the audiences, you can look at all of the different groups, and really understand what the nuances between the different groups are that need to understand what’s happening. You may have HR leadership, you may have campus specific HR. A lot of the institutions we work with have many campuses that are spread throughout a state, and maybe even have a slightly different structure on each campus, depending on the resources there. So what do those folks need, and how are you going to reach them? Then, of course, all the different types of faculty, all the different staff, people who are managing others, and so forth.

So break down all of those audiences, and then map out what do you want them to do? What are their needs? And that question around their needs really gets back to what we were sharing around the stress of the current environment. What are folks really struggling with in their lives right now? And how do we match communications to meet them in this moment? And then what is the best way to reach all of the different audiences that you have. That’s going to be something where we need to change things up this year because annual enrollment channels are going to look very different.

And then finally, we can let the data really identify opportunities. So particularly with benefits and having such diverse workforces, the one-size-fits-all approach to communications may not work. You can look at different ways to make communications more relevant and focused by targeting to different audiences. It may be that you have different groups that are eligible for different benefits. You may have folks that are covering young children, others that are taking care of aging parents, so finding ways to make things more nuanced for those specific groups is really helpful. And it can help cut through the clutter of all of the complexity of messages that you’re trying to communicate. Okay, Megan, you want to tee up some channels of how we think about reaching folks?

Megan: Absolutely. So in the past, you may have had some go-to vehicles for reaching your faculty and staff. You may have relied upon in-person meetings to deliver a lot of messaging. The one thing you’re going to need to do this year is look through all the options that you have to reach people. What are those touch points? And what are the processes involved in reaching people? And how have you created awareness or shared details in the past, and how have you helped people make decisions? And then think about this year and what will need to change.

Additionally, you’ll want to think about integration with other systems or if there’s any initiatives happening on campus—transformation, technology, and so forth. How can you leverage these other platforms to get your message out or take advantage of any change that is happening at the moment.

So you really want to look at that list of channels that you can use to engage diverse audiences. And think about all of the different ways that you can access them. If you go to the next slide, Jen, you can see a visual of this. There's different ways, like the traditional ways, you may have reached people, online tools, interactive tools, and then unexpected ways to reach people as well. And so this year, you may have to get a little more creative, or you may have to try something new. It may feel a little bit uncomfortable, but that may prove to be perhaps even more engaging for your people than ever before.

And one other thing to think about is how to reach not just your faculty and staff, but their spouses or their partners, the household. So they may not be the primary decision maker and you may want to reach individuals at home. And a great way to do that is to pair online content, virtual content, with print content. So sending postcards or enrollment guides or other resources to their home. And there’s really a lot of advantages to still using print even though that might feel a little antiquated in some ways. In some ways, it’s also kind of novel because fewer people use print, so it stands out more in the mailbox. It’s certainly helpful in a time when people are really oversaturated with email communications like they are right now. And it can be really helpful if you’re able to include any personalized statements that may drive home the cost or the analysis in a way that’s more relevant to individuals, as Jen mentioned before.

Here are some examples of some creative print campaigns—even though we’ve shown some examples already and later we’ll show you some examples of higher ed—we also want to show you some of our other work in other markets as well for other types of organizations. So you can see here how the envelope was used really creatively or how the actual material itself is new and kind of interesting and catches people’s attention. And that’s really important because our brain engages with print in a different way than it engages with content online. And we remember print content more than any other source that we read because of all of the touch points that our brain can engage with. So it’s really an important medium not to be discounted especially now.

And here's another example of a campaign where a client of ours was switching HSA and FSA vendors and the campaign used both print and online materials. So there was a lot of different channels that were used to reach people and it was super effective in helping drive change. 98% of the employees for this organization actually went to the new website, and enrolled with the new vendor. And so it was highly successful because there were so many different channels used, and it really reached people in a lot of different ways to best suit whatever their preference might be.

So a few tips here, and these are evergreen, these apply in any type of environment, whether it’s business as usual or business not as usual. The first is that whenever you’re communicating about benefits, whether it’s annual enrollment or anything else, you really want to focus on the benefit of your offering. So not just the nuts and bolts of how it works or some of the really nitty gritty details, but the higher-level stuff like what can this benefit do for your life, is something that's often overlooked, but super important to convey to your people.

Additionally, you want to have a clear call to action, which is often easier to do during annual enrollment because there’s often a deadline and a point by which people have to take action. And if you can make it relevant by age or family life stage, think about all of the different considerations that your people have that will help them engage with it even more. If you’re making changes that impacts people, like if you’re switching plans or asking them to reconsider other health plans, for example, and you can show the math and how that will impact them, that will also go a long way for helping them understand the day to day impact, and the cost to them over time.

And if you can employ behavioral science or good information design that can also really help your people take action, make it more relevant and meaningful to them. And use different tactics that behavioral scientists promote such as step-by-step lists or shortlists to make it easy to digest, easy to absorb, and less likely to overwhelm them when presenting complex information like benefits.

We’ve talked a little bit about making content meaningful and targeted and where possible to segment and target communications. A great way to do that is also to use decision support tools to help faculty and staff model the cost to them and potential decisions that they may be weighing. So that’s a great online tool, if it’s available to you or if it’s something you want to consider. If you’re making big changes this year, that can really help drive home how benefits may be relevant or useful in their lives and whether or not they should select them or not.

And then, as always, in any environment, you want to think about your compliance and legal responsibilities and also making your content accessible. If you’re using web and you haven’t done so before, you want to think about accessibility considerations as well as any language needs that you may have for your institution. If your people speak multiple languages, you need to translate your content and have more than one language available.

And one other consideration is just the timing, because so much is changing. Do you need to consider this year the timeframe of your enrollment and how long that may be? And if you need to make any adjustments because of the different circumstances that you’re experiencing this year. And do you need to get any approval from people to send disclosures electronically? And all of those considerations from a compliance perspective are really important. And you want to be talking really closely with your compliance and legal advisors and all of that.

So let’s talk about moving in-person events online or in-person conversations. That’s always a big part of the enrollment experience. Being able to ask questions in-person or having those lunch and learns or fairs where you can engage with vendors directly. Jen, do you want to talk us through how to think about that?

Jen: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is something that’s top of mind for a lot of folks right now. Because those in-person events can be such a part of bringing people together during annual enrollment. And someone actually just typed in a comment saying benefit fairs are cool, because they’re fun. It’s a break from your day, you get to go do something other than work. So if that’s the appeal of going to a benefits fair or going to an in-person event, how do you replicate that online? And so that’s what we’re going to talk about in this next section.

I think it’s an interesting time to really reevaluate all of the in-person touch points. So when we’re talking with our clients about this, a lot of times benefit fairs are top of mind because that might be a big event. That is typically planned, that has a lot of people coming together. But it’s also important to think about the formal and informal touch points that are happening in person. So do you have a benefits team that has office hours or an HR team that has office hours and folks can stop by and ask questions? Maybe you typically do small group meetings, or people come in casually to get information about retiring or how their retirement might work. We really need to think about all of those traditional in-person touch points, and how do we rethink them for a world where you’re going to want fewer people together at one time, and you might not have the same access to people in person.

So, our thoughts kind of gravitate towards the big stuff. Don’t overlook those one-on-one in-person interactions, and some of the smaller events as well. What we’re excited about with the opportunity of moving events and in-person interactions online is that we really have the ability to create greater access, and really extend the reach of your efforts. We’ve talked to a lot of clients that put a tremendous amount of time and energy into planning and orchestrating events that only 5% or 10% or 15% of their population show up to, or maybe even have access to, because they’re spread out around different campuses or different locations.

So when we think about doing things online, we can really extend that reach. And we can also include spouses and family members, as Megan mentioned. They’re an important decision maker and someone that you want to be able to really reach during annual enrollment, as well as throughout the year to really get them to engage with benefits.

There’s also a good opportunity to use your efforts around creating an in-person event to make it an evergreen resource. Most organizations struggle with new hire orientation and ongoing communication about benefits. So we can think about taking a benefits fair, turning that into an online event and then making that content readily available, accessible, and relevant for folks throughout the year. So it’s really about expanding that wealth of resources you have for ongoing education. And we can kind of reimagine what these look like in different ways. And the sky’s the limit in terms of the opportunity to do that. Finding ways to connect with people, get them excited about participating in things online, and help them still feel connected to the institution and really valuing their benefits.

So, when you want to start thinking about what’s right for your organization, start with those strategic questions again. How did you measure the success in the past of in-person events? Have you thought about or have you gathered any feedback from them? Have you measured participation? What has been your motivation? Or how you knew that those events were successful in the past. And then what is the most important outcome from holding those events? Is it about getting folks together in person to socialize? Is it about helping them connect with vendors? Is it about helping them see the breadth of resources, really think about what is that goal that you're trying to achieve? And then how do we translate that into a new format?

And then you can think about what is most important for folks to know, feel, and do when it comes to annual enrollment, as well as the benefits events. And then what is success going to feel like this year, as you transition things into an online environment, what is going to feel successful? Is it going to be about getting everyone there? Maybe it’s about helping them really engage with content. What is going to help your team feel like this has been worth the effort?

And what’s important is the technology should not drive the conversation for you. What we see with a lot of organizations is their first thought is, well, I need to pick a technology solution for my in-person event, or I need to pick a technology solution for my online benefits fair. But really, the strategy should drive your needs first. And once you have defined your needs and what you’re trying to do, then you can determine what is the right technology solution or the right technology approach. When you do it in the reverse, you may end up having a technology solution that either eats up too much of your budget or is more complex than what you need to really orchestrate what you want to accomplish.

I want to mention, too, that online there’s a screenshot of a virtual fair platform, and there are a lot of these out there. And I think it’s sometimes what folks think of when they first think of doing an online benefits fair or virtual benefits fair. And these are used for industry conferences, in many cases, and you might go into a virtual space that looks like a conference and you can go into different rooms and different booths and so forth. We think that that’s potentially a good solution for some cases, but it’s far more technology than needed for most organizations when it comes to doing the benefits fair.

So, again, really let your strategy determine your needs before you get swept down the path of evaluating the different technology solutions. And we’re going to share kind of the two approaches that we’re seeing most of our clients gravitate toward right now. First, starting with webinars paired with websites.

Megan: So once you have your requirements outlined, as Jen said, then you can think about what format or delivery mechanism works best for your institution. These solutions range from very simple to very, very complex. On the simple end, you can take your existing infrastructure, whether you use online tools like Zoom, WebEx, Teams, whatever they may be, and you can host webinars. And then if you have a benefits website or a microsite, you can post the recording of those videos, of those sessions, online so they can be accessed both live and on-demand. And that gives you flexibility, it gives your people the flexibility to attend and listen in as needed whenever they can fit their schedule.

You can also use Zoom or any other technology to have office hours or to host webinars. You can post videos to your website. So there’s a lot you can do if you have that existing infrastructure. The pros of this are that you’re leveraging existing channels, so it can be less expensive. The cons are that it could be less of a wow factor. And if you’re not strategic about where you place your content online, it might be hard for people to find. So you really want to think about how it’s placed and how you can incentivize people to attend online meetings. Just like when you go to an in-person fair, you’re incentivized to socialize, or you’re incentivized by the tchotchkes that you pick up at the various tables that you visit.

Now on the other side of the spectrum are really robust, customized online experiences. This can contain a mix of live and on-demand content, and it really mirrors the approach taken by high tech companies when you see them, their latest developer conferences, for example, and how they create these virtual events online. The pros of this are that they can really wow your people. And you can use the content for annual enrollment and on an ongoing basis. So you’ll have that content for new hires in the future, for example, and they need to access that enrollment content as well. The cons of this are it might be less customizable or less templated. So you can customize it, but you have to put in a lot of work and effort. So it’s a lot of a time resource as well as budget, because it could be more expensive for you to implement.

And then, on the next slide here, we’re talking about leveraging your vendors. So in the past, if you’ve had an in-person event, you may have called upon your vendors to participate, they may have traveled to host a booth and so forth. And so there’s a number of ways you can draw on their resources or their expertise to augment or supplement anything that you may be doing to post online. So for example, you could ask them to record really short snippet videos that you could post online. They can do this on their iPhone, you can record it over Zoom, and you can post them online. People are very okay with all types of video, even if it’s not a high quality, or if it’s something just produced on an iPhone, it can do just as well as something that’s really well produced. Everyone’s really accepting of all different types of things right now in this environment that we’re in.

You can also ask them to host a live webinar and have that recorded and made available later. You can have them do some Q&A, if you’re getting a lot of questions from people. And if you know what questions may be coming,  you can ask to facilitate a Q&A period online. And then you can ask them to contribute to the cost of developing a microsite or to any of these resources that you need to build. They have in the past invested in traveling to you and to creating these booths and so forth, so they may be willing to reallocate some of those dollars to your online virtual events.

Jen: And we already have seen really good support from different vendors that our clients are working with to support these events, participate in them, contribute funds to helping move things online. And we were talking just yesterday with a group of our colleagues about this. And something that they mentioned, too, is, when you’re doing the in-person events, you might only have access to the local team from one of your vendors, or providers. But if you’re doing a virtual event, you may be able to get access to their top expert in the country to talk about, say mental health, or talk about the way that their program works. So it’s an opportunity to pull in a lot of resources from the different vendors and partners that you’re working with, and help really showcase what they offer.

And we also have a couple of clients that are interested in doing live Q&A chat sessions with the vendors. So this would take the in-person talking across the booth to a vendor, while there are 10 or 15 onlookers into an online forum where people can chat and ask questions. And folks can see kind of how things are being answered for other people and learn along the way. There’s lots of different technology that you can pull in here. And it seems right now that the community of benefits vendors and providers are going to be really eager to participate and help their clients make these a success.

Megan, anything else you’d say on the in-person versus virtual events before we move on?

Megan: I would just add that any content is helpful. So it doesn’t have to be something really long, hour-long sessions, people are really strapped for time. So if you have 10 questions in 10 minutes and posted online that could be really valuable and meaningful to people. So don’t think that it just has to be something that is really long and formal. It can be something very informal, very short, and still really serve your people.

Jen: Absolutely. And someone has asked if we have vendor recommendations for the specific platforms that are supporting webinars and the virtual events and so forth. And we have been doing quite a bit of research and analysis on them and we’d be happy to chat with anyone after to kind of hone-in on your needs. The world of vendors is very, very large. And they can be anything from those that can host a huge online event for 150,000 or 200,000 people to those that are really tailored for small group discussion. So we would be happy to share more with any of you that are interested in understanding more of the vendor environment. But again, we think it’s really important to define what you need before you start looking at the technology because there are just so many different options that are out there.

Okay, great. Well, let’s walk through a few case studies quickly and then we can wrap up on our comments here and move to Q&A. There are quite a few questions coming in. So please, any questions that are top of mind pop them into the Q&A box. We’ll either answer them as we go through the case studies or towards the end. We will share the slides so don't worry about that, and also the recording after this.

So let’s talk about enrollment case studies and what really makes annual enrollment successful with higher ed institutions. The first case study I want to share is a private university that we worked with a couple of years ago to make just enormous benefit changes. And this was the first time that the university had made a big change to their benefits in over 10 years. And a big piece of the campaign was to make sure that folks really understood that this year is different, you’ve got to take action, you’ve got to really pay attention and do things differently this year. So everything about the campaign had the big messaging. And we use a lot of playful photography that showed this concept of something as different this year. What was also really interesting about this is the campaign was happening at the same time as the university was moving their HRIS under work day.

So while we were working through this big benefit change, the workday system was being customized. And all of that had to be synced up to create the proper user experience to really help people navigate through the different resources. So if your organization is moving more processes online right now, really think about how you can connect into that and make sure that things are not going to be a disconnect from what you’re doing with benefits or annual enrollment. In the case of this organization, we actually synced up the enrollment process and all of the elections to match what was happening with the benefit changes. So it was a cohesive experience in both cases. And that type of thought going into how the administration processes put together, can really save your team a lot of headache, when it comes to actually getting people to do what you want them to do and not having them run into roadblocks.

So again, this is what some of the messaging looked like, lots of fun photography that kind of played on this concept of this year’s different, make the right choice for you, and so forth. We also did all of their materials in Spanish because they have a large Spanish speaking population.

Megan: Jen before you move on to the next one, can you talk a little bit about the stakeholder engagement with that last case study because that was a big component of the campaign and the process in rolling out the annual enrollment for that year?

Jen: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for reminding me of that. So as I mentioned, this university hadn’t made any significant benefit change in over 10 years. So getting folks to really buy in to why they were making a change now and what that meant was so important. We really worked with them to align all of the different stakeholders in the university, to think about how to get those groups on board, and to get them brought into the process. They reviewed the communication planning, they reviewed the timing, all of the different aspects of what was going on, so that their support was a big part of the process. And that allowed a big change to happen without any real negative backlash from the faculty and staff population.

All right, a couple of examples from the University of Arkansas system. We’ve worked with them the last several years. We create a variety of materials for them that support enrollment, such as their decision guide and different benefits newsletters and so forth. And a big piece of what has really helped them enhance their enrollment process is a website that was created for the whole system. And with this site you can select your campus so that everything is tailored to the specific campus you work at, the resources that are available there, and exactly what you need to do to access things both on site and online.

So this has really created a consistent experience across the different campuses when it comes to the benefits information, and how folks access the different resources. What we were also able to do with this website is take some really complicated stuff and make it simple and this is really important for annual moments. I think even more important this year because folks are so overwhelmed and stressed. So you might have a very complex salary tier and medical plan structure that looks like a really overwhelming Excel spreadsheet shown on the left-hand side. But that can be translated into a format where people just pick their plan and pick their coverage level and see what the costs are. And that type of simple functionality that can help improve the user experience is really important. We call those lightweight decision support tools in cases where you ask people a few questions, and then show them how the benefits map out and how their costs would map out.

There’s a lot of things that you can do in that way to get a lot of complex information distilled down easily into an online format. The other piece that’s been really helpful for the Arkansas system is the HR portal, and this is a password protected part of the website that’s only available to HR staff at the system office and the different campuses. So this is the place that they can go to get a preview of communications to know what they need to do, to get more of a deep dive on what they should be sharing with the other HR staff at their campus and how they’re supporting the overall benefits enrollment.

This has been a big change and a big improvement for them because in the past there wasn’t a consistent communication channel to reach those HR folks who were spread out in all the different campuses. So another example of how you can really use a channel and in a way to improve the online experience for all the different audiences that you’re trying to engage.

Okay, the university system of New Hampshire—we wanted to share this with you just as another example of the variety of channels that can used. What’s fun about the postcard that goes out to folks in New Hampshire is we have little sticky notes that you see on the lower left of the page, where the postcard actually has those little reminders that folks can put on their desks or bring home and put on their refrigerator. So it’s a fun way to use print material to be a reminder or a nudge to do what you need folks to do.

We also have detailed materials that go out to retirees and the different audiences. And that’s another thing to think about this year. If you have either retiree populations or folks who have had their benefits eligibility impacted because of furlough or any other changes, they might be a separate audience to call out that are going to need a different enrollment experience. And you can use different versions of materials to get them answers to their top questions.

We were talking about that with a client just a few days ago, an organization that has had to furlough folks, a group of folks as well as move others from full time to part time. So we’re going to create a different enrollment mailer for both of those audiences that really speaks specifically to their situation, and exactly how benefits are impacted.

For the University of Idaho, I like the simplicity of these materials. This is the newsletter that goes out. Very simple and clean mailers and postcards, very simple information. It goes to show that effective materials do not need to be complex if you can slim them down and get simple clean content that’s going to get right to the point, you’re going to help people understand more of what exactly what they need to do and how changes impact them.

We also do PDFs and digital versions of all of their materials so that they’re easy to access and easy to send out.

And here’s an example of what their retiree packet looks like—more detailed information for this audience because they don't get as much material throughout the year. And we want to make sure that it’s very easy for them to understand exactly what’s changing and how the different areas of coverage work for them.

Finally, one final case study with the University of California. We’ve worked with them for many years on their health care plans as well as the student health plans and some different groups within the university. Last year, we helped them launch some new voluntary benefits that were a supplement to the rest of their health plans. And oftentimes, voluntary benefits can be lost in the shuffle. Even though they’ve been very, very valuable. And so this was really a big splash to introduce these new plans and help people really see how they fit with the other benefits that were offered and the coverage that folks had had for a long time.

So if you’re going to do something like that, maybe rolling out a new set of voluntary benefits or some new programs, perhaps that are designed to support a specific area of well-being or mental health, make sure that it’s a big splash and that it doesn't get lost in the mix of enrollment.

And I will also mention that one of the things we do that’s very effective is we don’t stop communicating after enrollment. We always welcome people into their new plans, and remind them how to take the best advantage of the plans that are out there, and the elections that they just made. So these are a couple of examples of mailers that folks would get right around the start of the plan year, so that they understand how to access resources and really take advantage of the great benefits they just enrolled in.

Great. I’ll hand things back over to Megan to wrap up with some last thoughts and then we can move over to the Q&A.

Megan: So some key takeaways, if you think about what you heard here from us today, is that be comfortable with the discomfort of the uncertainty that we’re experiencing right now. Everyone is going through change and we’re all rethinking processes, particularly with annual enrollment, and that’s no exception to everything else that’s changing around us right now. But even so with all of that going on in the background, ground your process and your approach and strategy. Think about your requirements, what you need to do, what you need to convey, and then use that to select channels to inform your messaging and create a cohesive ecosystem of materials to reach people whenever they need to access that information.

Embrace new channels. Make sure you have a mix of live and on-demand resources, understanding that people will need to access it at different times based on the things that they’re juggling in their lives. And remember, that mindset plays a big role in the decisions that faculty and staff will be making during annual enrollment. So keep in mind, they’re overwhelmed and the stress that they’re experiencing, and how you can help reduce that rather than make them feel even more anxious. So use your communications to reassure them and to reinforce the value of the benefits that you offer to them.

So let’s talk some Q&A now. Jen, do we have any questions that have been coming in? I’ve seen there’s a lot here on the panel.

Jen: Yeah, there are quite a few questions that have come in. So if you have a question, pop it into the Q&A box and we will spend the next few minutes on them. The first question that came in says, retirees are a large challenge for us because they usually like in-person appointments to go over their questions. We have some who elect paper only because they don’t have online access. And we’re struggling with how to help them since Zoom doesn’t really seem to be an option, and in-person is not ideal. Any thoughts on that, Megan?

Megan: Yeah, you don’t have to necessarily use computers to speak with people remotely. So I think one of our clients has a telephone call where they share their updates with all of their participants. And they do this regularly and have a Q&A at the end. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be something that’s online, it can be a conference call that people can participate in, where they can ask general questions. And then they can take more personal questions offline, if you will. And maybe have access like telephone hours to call certain resources or counselors to address more specific individual questions, if they need to fill out forms in that manner where they have some more specific, personalized questions.

Jen: I even spoke with a client a couple weeks ago that does ongoing telephone events for retirees. So they really host a telephone event that is kind of like a radio show about their benefits. And it’s just specifically for that retiree audience that they have found doesn’t want to really do things online. They’re not that interested in the video platforms and so forth. But they want to hear from this organization frequently. So they’ve turned that into a radio show type format, and they get really good participation with their retiree population. So that’s something to always think about, too, if it’s a really big group.

I would say the papers, things that are happening in offices, are some of the most challenging things to recreate right now. And in some cases, moving some forms online needs to happen, or really thinking about how you take a process that happened in-person and make it a combination of online and by phone. But as Megan said, it doesn’t have to be sophisticated technology to meet folks needs. A combination of emailing things or mailing out paper forms with telephone might be a helpful approach. There’s another question Megan just around how to plan when benefit decisions aren't made yet. And we’ve been talking about this a lot of to the team, it seems that this is going to be a year where a lot of benefit design decisions are made quite late. So what’s your advice for making sure that the communication doesn’t suffer if the plan design decisions are made later on?

Megan: I think it would be great if you can find out as much information about what might change so you could start to think through what the impact of those changes could be. So you don't have to write your communications or get into any of that detail, but have a sense for where directionally you may be going. Because that will give you a sense of the tone and the approach that you may need to take. So any of that intelligence you can gather up front would be really helpful.

And then mapping out what the channels may be in all of the tactics you may want to take. And you can fill in some of that messaging later. But just as much as you can do to pre-plan, to make the process easier later, once you do get those final decisions, and then you can add that information in, as much planning you can do up front, the easier will make when you need to go and execute and create the materials and launch the enrollment window and so forth.

Jen: And a final question, how do you measure the effectiveness of different online channels? How do we know that folks are properly accessing websites and email and so forth?

Megan: The great thing about online resources is that it’s so much more measurable than anything else. So even if you’re not using online resources, whenever you send out a communication, whether it’s a mailer or an email, you can look at your website and the traffic that then goes to the website and see how effective any of those pieces are. See, when something is deployed, you can look the next day or that day and try to match up the impact and how much traffic then came to the site.

And typically for our sites, whenever we send any communication, we push it out during annual enrollment, you can see the spikes in traffic on those dates when communications were sent. So you can take a look at that. Similarly, with analytics, if you’re sending email through a provider, an administrator, or through internal communication, you can ask those that are sending the information if they have any insight into the metrics in terms of how many people opened the email, how many people clicked on a link on the email. And then you can try it again or coordinate that and see on your website how much traffic was going.

I think it’s always good at any point to look at the data that you have available to yourself. So if you can talk to your providers, your vendors, your administrators, and get a sense for the traffic on a general basis, and how often people go to the site. And then how does that compare to enrollment and how does that compare to previous enrollments. That all gives you a sense for the activity that’s happening, and is always good to know.

Jen: All right. Well, we are right at the top of the hour. We so appreciate everyone for joining us today. We’ll share the materials online after we wrap up and we wish everyone the best of luck with your annual enrollment planning and look forward to talking again soon. Megan, thanks so much for joining today.

Megan: Thank you, everyone, for participating.