Behavioral Economics: Take Engagement From Good to Great
Are your benefits communications driving the level of engagement your organization needs?
If not, consider applying some simple techniques inspired by behavioral science to get that added traction. Senior Consultant Lindsay Kohler draws on research from leading behavioral scientists as she walks you through several behavioral economics principles you can apply to your benefits communications strategy. She also provides a blueprint for incorporating them into your overall well-being strategy, so people will be compelled to take actions that are in their best interests.
During this webinar, you’ll:
- Review key behavioral economics principles for what motivates people to take action(s)
- Identify simple ways these tenets can be applied to your benefits communications
- Examine real-world examples of how these principles are being applied
This webinar was previously recorded. View the full transcript below.
Behavioral Economics: Take Engagement from Good to Great
Jen: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining. This is Behavioral Economics: Taking Engagement from Good to Great. I’m Jennifer Benz. I’m the founder and CEO of Benz Communications, and I’m joined today by Lindsay Kohler, one of our senior consultants. We’re going to take you through a ton of material about behavioral economics.
And before we get started, I’ll just share a little bit about our company. We are a marketing and communications agency solely focused on employee benefits communication. We absolutely love this work, and we spend our time helping great companies inspire people to improve their health, their finances, and their futures.
We work with a big selection of high-tech employers, as well as companies across industries, and absolutely love this work getting folks engaged in such important topics. A huge portion of that right now, and a lot of our thinking, have been going into how we really use behavioral economics to drive engagement and get the outcomes that your companies are striving for.
Now, I’m going to hand things over to Lindsay, one of the senior consultants on our team, who’s been spending a ton of her time digging into this topic, to walk us through this material. We’ll have time at the end for some questions and answers, and you absolutely will get the slides and a recording of this webinar after. Thanks so much for joining. Lindsay, want to take it away?
Lindsay: Thanks, Jen. I’m looking forward to sharing our ideas with everyone on the call, and here’s what we’re planning to cover today. First, we’ll talk about some of the barriers to engagement that you’re up against from a behavioral standpoint. Then, we’ll talk about how to help employees be more receptive to your communications. And finally, I will give you lots and lots of tactics on applying the behavioral science principles to your communications themselves, with a lot of examples of the actual campaigns that they were applied to, so you can see the finished pieces and have a really tangible takeaway on how to execute this in your own organization.
But first, I want to share a quick story about how I became convinced that everyone, regardless of your job or which field you are in, should be applying behavioral economics to their work. So, about a decade ago, a colleague of mine at Nordstrom gave me the book, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, which is a great introduction to this topic and I was working very closely with both the benefits team as well as the internal communication team. I started thinking about how little changes to what we were already doing can make a big impact.
For example, I read about a study regarding electric bills, that one of the pioneers in the field, Robert Cialdini, performed when he was the Chief Science Officer at an energy company called OPOWER. Now, in this experiment, consumers either got a row of smiley faces if they used less electricity than their neighbors, or no smiley faces at all if they used more electricity. And it worked. So, those people that got these statements that compared them to their neighbors reduced their energy consumption. And I know that this is one of the better-known studies out there, but when I first heard about it a decade ago, it was like a light bulb went off.
At Nordstrom, I wanted to start applying behavioral economics to our benefits communication. And so I convinced the retirement program manager to let us run a little experiment of our own, on our 401(k) match communications. If you’re anything like Nordstrom, each year we would typically run the same campaign, meet the match ... maybe we changed the color if we were feeling adventurous, but it was kind of status quo from year to year.
So this time around, we did two key things different. One, we told employees how many of their peers participated in the 401(k) plan, so we incorporated this idea of social proof, which we’ll talk about more later, and which you will see in this electric bill example.
We also included a personalized calculation with just how much money they left on the table by not meeting the match, because this is exercising this idea of loss aversion, which we’ll also touch on. So what do you think happened when we did that?
Almost 50% more employees than the year before decided to increase their contributions after that campaign. And then I was hooked, because I saw first-hand the power of strategically designed communications.
And so our firm applies these concepts to the work that we do for our clients, and we think of ourselves as a bridge, of sorts, between behavioral scientists and HR professionals. All right, so let’s get started.
You may be wondering why a company whose entire job and business is benefits communications would include a statement like, "Education is not enough." I mean, isn’t education what our entire business is based on?
But the answer to that question is actually no. Education and strategic communication are very separate things. Education in the HR world is often just about making the information available, usually with some promotional language. So, for example, with an HSA, you may explain what it does, and then go on to some of the benefits that it has, such as its triple tax advantage, there’s no use it or lose it, you can take it with you when you leave, and it is so important to have that foundation in place. Absolutely.
But that foundation is not enough to get most of us to use our benefits, because in general, we don’t need to be told why some things are good for us and others are bad, especially when it comes to our health and our finances. For example, take the idea of posting calorie counts on menus. The thinking was if people knew how many calories was in something, they would re-think their choices and order something healthier.
And I’m sure some of you can already see the problem with that. The problem is we don’t need someone to show us the calories in the Big Time Mexi-Burrito to know that it is a fat- and cholesterol-laden time bomb wrapped in a nice little tortilla. We’re not ordering it because it’s healthy. I mean, we walked into a TacoTime, right? We’re ordering it because we want it right now, and that immediate desire is extremely hard to override. And sure enough, when researchers checked in on the results of New York’s calorie posting mandate about five years after it was implemented, they found that it didn’t work.
But there is another reason why having just education alone doesn’t work to get people to engage in their benefits. In general, most people have way too much on their plates to just be spontaneously thinking about the benefits that your company offers. And every model that you’ll see out there on behavior change has something in common, and that’s how they start. So whether they call it a trigger, a cue, a prompt; what they’re describing is a large part of us moving from inaction to action is being prompted to act.
And your communications are the trigger to act. And that’s why it’s important to get it right, and where behavioral science can come in to help you create more effective benefits communications.
So let’s quickly define what we mean by behavioral economics. We had the pleasure of partnering with Dan Ariely, who is one of the leaders in the space, and the author of the book I mentioned earlier; and I feel this quote from him perfectly captures behavioral economics, in that it is a mixture of psychology and economics, and it examines the decisions people make. That includes decisions around the programs that you manage, so decisions around whether or not to save for retirement, whether to eat that second piece of cake, or sit on the couch watching TV instead of exercising.
I love this cartoon of the head and the heart, because it perfectly captures behavioral science, in that our heads and our heart do not often see eye to eye, and that disconnect explains a lot of our poor decision making. We know what’s good for us—we just aren’t always motivated to act, and making the best decisions for ourselves is hard— but we can be nudged and guided into making better choices.
And that is where you come in. You have this tremendous opportunity to positively impact your employees’ overall well-being through your benefits programs and your benefits communications. You can do this with your plan design, which is a very powerful lever—I’m actually going to say the most powerful lever— and we could spend hours talking about defaults, designing the easy choice, and incentive design.
But instead, we’re going to focus our time together on understanding what you can do with your benefits communications themselves to help employees make the right decisions. And that happens both by increasing people’s receptiveness to what you have to say, so we’ll explore the idea of priming, which is how exposure to one idea can influence our response to another idea, and then of course, how we can change up the communications themselves.
I want to reiterate that this is really not that much different than what you already do. You already know that you have to design programs and then communicate them. This is really just about applying a behavioral approach to the work you’re already doing to increase its effectiveness.
Part I: The Barriers to Engagement
Lindsay: So let’s dive into Part I: the barriers to engagement. I think it’s really important to get grounded in why it’s so hard to get people to engage in their benefits, because we have to really understand the problem before we can start to solve it.
I’ll go through these fairly quickly because I’d imagine that most of what I’m about to say won’t come as a surprise to any of you. First, you’re up against a status quo bias, which essentially means that people tend to do nothing. But, it’s actually a lot more than that. We have this emotional preference for the way things currently are, so any change from that baseline can be emotionally upsetting. And so along with deciding whether they should make a change, employees are also weighing the potential losses from the change against the potential benefits. And for them to actually then go ahead and make a change, those benefits have to vastly outnumber the risks.
A large barrier to action is also simply not understanding what’s being communicated, or how to decipher all the benefits and health plan information. Or, in the chance employees do know what’s being asked of them, we have these really complex systems, like health plan and retirement plan administrator websites that make it hard for employees to act, even if they want to.
By hedonistic tendencies, I just mean that we want to do the stuff that feels good now, not the stuff we know we need to do in the future. While we know we need to exercise more in the future, we’d rather cancel our workout class now and go out to happy hour with our friends, because we can work out tomorrow because future us is on top of it.
Finally, we are just bombarded with too many messages from too many sources. Competition for employees’ attention is really fierce. We need to find ways to make our communications more effective, so they both capture and focus attention, which we’ll talk about next.
Part II: 3 Tools to Help Employees Engage with Communication
Lindsay: I’m going to shift gears a little bit into the more tactical part of our time together today, by examining how we can help employees be more receptive to our communications. And regarding this, I have a question for those of you on the call. And just think about the answer, since I know we can’t shout it out or raise hands. But, do you consider yourself open to new ideas? If you thought “yes,” that’s going to make the rest of this webinar much easier.
Positive Test Strategy
Lindsay: The first of the three tools in our priming toolbox that I’ll share today is positive test strategy, which is also known as confirmation bias. It’s this idea that we only seek out information which confirms our opinions of what we think we know; or, we look for hits rather than misses.
So, when I asked if you were open to new ideas, I bet most of you only searched your brain for examples of when you were open to new things, and I was able to focus your attention on just one characteristic of yourself. Think about some of your encounters with recruiters or salespeople. How often do they lead with, "Are you unhappy with your current job or current service?" versus, "Are you happy with—?" Because, if you ask me if I’m unhappy, I’m going to search my brain for only those times when I was, and then I’ll probably conclude that, "You know, I am unhappy. It’s time for a change."
My current favorite book in behavioral science is called Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini, who I mentioned at the start. And there was one study around positive test strategy that he mentioned, which made me think about a lot of the work that we do.
In it, these researchers were in a mall with a clipboard, asking people if they could stop for a moment and answer a few questions. And about 29% said yes. They then made one simple change to their request. They first asked if the person considered themselves to be a helpful person, to which almost everybody did. With that group, 77% agreed to take the survey, because they had already been primed to think that they were helpful people.
What does that mean for our work? Well, it’s really important for us to get employee feedback. Feedback is how we gain insight and empathy into the people that we’re creating solutions for. It’s how we understand what’s important to employees, what motivates them, their goals, maybe where they’re getting stuck. There’s lots of ways to gather feedback, but surveys are usually the most common in the benefits and HR world because they are the easiest to deploy and they reach the largest amount of people.
We know that sometimes it’s hard to get employees to complete surveys, so outside of providing amazing incentives, one technique you can try is to weave a priming statement into the introduction, much like the researchers did in the example I just shared. With questions themselves in focus groups, this idea of priming can skew your responses if you’re not careful. So you have to be really mindful that you don’t ask leading questions, which again, they are questions that direct someone’s line of thinking down a certain path, and therefore to a certain answer.
A quick tip for knowing if your focus group or survey questions are leading questions is if it can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” So, for example, don’t ask, "Do you think HSAs are a good way to save money?" Instead, ask, "What’s your opinion about HSAs and saving money?"
Okay, so what else can we use positive test strategy for? When we are asking employees to try something new, when we want participation, and we want to focus employee attention on one aspect of our benefits program or plan design.
Here’s an example that I really, really like... It’s very beautiful; it’s simple. Ssomething that we could’ve done here is we could’ve added one simple sentence like, "Do you want to shake things up in the New Year," or "Are you feeling bold," to make this piece even more effective than it already was.
Lindsay: The second tool in our priming toolkit is novelty. When we notice something new in our environment, a natural human response is to focus in on it.
One of the most famous experiments of all time beautifully illustrates this. I think everyone is familiar with Pavlov’s dog, the idea that they were trained to eat in response to a bell. Well, there’s actually more to this story. So, Pavlov was really eager to show off the results of his classical conditioning experiment, but every time he invited visitors to see it, it usually didn’t work. What he realized then was that any time someone new entered the space to view the dogs, they became new stimuli, and therefore they got the dogs’ attention instead of the food and the bell.
So, what does this mean for us? It means we need to leverage the power of novelty in our communications, and since the communications you send out tend to be in static form, novelty is going to be your best friend to make sure that people stop and pay attention.
This could be the shape of a print item so it stands out in the mail. It could be something in the environment that is unexpected— like this benefits message embedded in the staircase— or even the message itself; Something that they don’t expect to hear from a benefits team. Again, your key is going to be to go for the original, the unexpected, and the surprising. That is how you’ll grab attention so that an employee stops and takes the time to read your communication.
And here’s an example of where a benefits message in an unexpected place— a coffee cup— can stand out. With this example, I know a poster is pretty standard benefits communication there, but the messaging here, "Eww. Is it the flu?" isn’t something that you would expect to hear from your benefits team. So it captures attention.
How and Where to Focus Attention
Lindsay: Okay, so the last technique in our priming toolbox that I want to share with you today is where to focus attention once we’ve got it. We have a tendency to believe that whatever we are focused on at the moment is extremely important. But, this tendency is so strong that often the only thing you need to change when you want to focus attention on a particular benefits program, or a feature of a plan that you’ve designed, is what’s prominent in someone’s mind at the time they are being asked to make a decision or take some sort of action.
There are lots of ways that you can do this. You can do it through words, like my lead-in to positive test strategy, when I asked if you considered yourself open-minded. You can do it through music or through the work environment. For example, customers in one shop were more likely to purchase a German wine if they heard a German song playing right before they made their purchase.
I think music and environment are really hard for us to control in our role as benefits communicators, so I want to talk about something that we do have the ability to influence, and that is the images that we use with our communications.
I’ve always wondered just how much images in communications and advertising actually affect our decision making, and I came across a really great study that I’ll share in a moment that answered that question for me. It also reminded me of those really cheesy motivational posters that used to be all the rage in the ’90s in offices. Here’s an example of one. It says, "Walk the talk. Take the initiative and lead the way. You can make a difference."
They became a parody because they were so cheesy, and so all of these anti-motivational posters cropped up. This one says, "Affirmation. Instill the self-confidence kids will need to carry them through all the failure they’ll experience because they weren’t taught competence instead."
But, all of those people who made those fake motivational posters were wrong, because multiple studies have shown that exposure to certain words and images actually influences our actions. Aggression-based words can make people more violent, but also exposure to achievement-oriented words and images like ‘succeed’ and ‘win’ can increase our performance. In fact, the study that made me think of these posters did just that.
They were in a call center, and at the beginning of each shift, one set of employees got their normal script. Another set got a script that also included a photo of a runner winning a race, and the group that got the script with the photo raised 60% more money than the group that just had the script.
What does that mean for us? It means we can increase our chances of success if we focus employees’ attention to certain concepts at the time we’re asking them to make decisions. Let’s take Accountable Care Organizations, for example. While we think employees should be over the moon about higher quality healthcare, it turns out that that’s not really the case.
In surveys we did last year with employees who had the option to choose a new ACO plan, we found some interesting results. We surveyed those who had chosen not to enroll to understand why they didn’t pick the new plan, and the leading decision was essentially that their provider wasn’t in network. For those that did enroll, it tended to be a cost decision, and then also the fact that their provider was still in network. In both groups, quality didn’t come up, even when it was listed as one of the choices.
If we want people to start thinking about quality when they think about healthcare, which I know anybody who has a High-Deductible Health Plan does, we need to link those concepts for employees and elevate them in attention. Perhaps we can prime employees either with images of luxury care—think of concierge services or experiences like One Medical— or words that denote luxury.
There was actually a study with a furniture store that tested this exact concept. In it, one group saw images of coins in the background of the furniture website, and another group saw fluffy clouds. The group that got coins chose cheaper furniture. The group that got fluffy clouds optimized for quality.
I’m sure if you went back and asked them why they chose what they did, they’d all have a very logical explanation for it. It really came down to what image they saw at the time they were being asked to make a decision.
And with open enrollment, again, a large factor that determines someone’s choice is whatever is elevated in attention at the time we’re asking them to make that decision. We often display plans within plan charts with equal prominence, but there’s no rule that says we have to do that. What about using your real estate to really feature the plan you want to drive enrollment in with a footnote to go learn more about the others?
For financial wellness topics, let’s say retirement because it’s easy. Most of your efforts need to be focused on plan design and defaults, but there’s a lot you can do with your communications too. We can prime with images of ‘livin’ the good life’ if you want to get people excited about saving more, and that really taps into those hedonistic tendencies that I touched on.
I’d also encourage you to use photos of people that are in the age range you’re communicating with, because images of an older population, which is most commonly used in retirement communications, don’t resonate with those just starting out in their career— even their 30s through 50s, which is probably most of your workforce— because we have trouble envisioning our future selves. We actually think of future us as different people. So, the typical retirement communication images used don’t hit the mark.
Now that I’ve shared a few ways to make employees more receptive to your communications, let’s switch to the tactics of actually producing them. The principles that I’ve chosen to share today are the ones that I think are the easiest to implement and will create the quickest wins.
All right, so this one is fun. Apparently, rhyming language increases our processing fluency, which is a fancy way of saying that it helps make information easier to understand. So, try some rhymes in your lines, and I promise that’s the only rhyme that I have today. It turns out that Dr. Seuss was onto something after all.
This technique is most powerful when it’s applied to headlines, so focus your rhyming efforts on creating really powerful and catchy headlines for posters, postcards, and emails.
To further illustrate just how effective rhymes are, here’s a few examples in popular marketing that I’m sure you’ve all heard: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” This was a campaign that Ogilvy did back in the 1920s, so this is almost 100 years old, and everybody still knows it. With Folgers, I think we all know this jingle. Another thing that they did really great here was that they focused attention to just one part of the day— breakfast— to make their message even more powerful. And in the insurance industry, I think we’re all familiar with Nationwide’s jingle.
Here’s a few examples of some employee benefits communications that also used rhymes. We have "Be kind to your mind." This was introducing the mindfulness program. And then we have, "Say, ’Enough’ to the puff,” which I really love—is about smoking cessation.
Let’s talk about self-relevant messages and the power of targeting. We are big proponents of targeted messaging here at Benz because—here’s the deal: Consumer marketing is becoming increasingly advanced, targeted and relevant; and HR and benefits teams are often left playing catch-up for employees’ attention and delivering a good experience that lives up to what the big brands can do. I mean, think about the experience that you have when you visit Amazon. It knows you, it has personalized recommendations, there’s one-click buying.
While a portion of what employers send to employees is bound to break through the noise and reach some interested people who will then engage, it is impossible to connect with everyone when sending broad-based general messages. Targeting, however, allows you to reach the right person at the right time with the right message.
While I don’t think of targeted messaging as a behavioral science tactic per se, there is an element of targeting that does allow us to tap into behavioral science, and that is the power of self-relevance. So, information about ourselves, unsurprisingly, disproportionately captures our attention.
An example that I want you to think about is group photos. And think about how you view any group photo that you’re in, right? You probably scan it and you look for yourself first. You linger on your photo, make sure your hair’s okay, your outfit’s not messed up. And then you move on to the rest of the photo.
It turns out that this is even more true when it comes to health information. We cannot tap into this power of self-relevance without targeting our communication.
Okay, so how do we actually do this? Well, one idea is to target by attitudinal segments instead of traditional demographics. Attitudinal segments capture things such as which group of employees are risk takers, or which employees value their health, who needs help making changes, versus traditional demographics such as age, gender, and so on and so forth.
These attitudinal segments are a better fit when we’re trying to change behavior because they get to the heart of what motivates us and what holds us back. Therefore, they allow us to personalize messages in a much more direct and humanistic way.
You want to use you instead of people to create a stronger sense of self-identification. And finally, self-relevance is especially effective when communicating about health for lots of reasons, but especially in our world, because this tends to be the most diverse area we communicate about.
Everyone’s health status, goals, ability to make changes, desire to make changes, is vastly different, a one-size-fits-all message just won’t work. And that’s where those attitudinal segments can help you out. They let you craft these messages that are going to resonate without touching any personally identifiable health information, which I know you do not want your hands on.
Another technique that’s particularly effective with health and wellness messages is sending out a communication on someone’s birthday, which we’ve seen some vendors do. For a few months after somebody’s birthday, people are more willing to engage in health behaviors than they are at any other time of the year because of a concept called “the fresh start effect.”
Loss aversion is one of the more well-known behavioral science principles, and it’s the idea that losses have a more powerful psychological effect on us than gains. We’d rather not lose something we already have than gain something we don’t. In fact, studies show that the pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining.
This desire to hold on to what we already have, versus going after something new, is beautifully illustrated in one of the most commonly-cited studies on this concept from Daniel Kahneman, where participants were given a coffee mug and asked what the minimum price they would sell it for would be. Others were then asked what the maximum price was that they would be willing to pay for that same mug. And what do you think happened?
Buyers were willing to spend about $2.87. Sellers, however, were so averse to the idea of losing the mug that they had just been gifted, they were not willing to part with it for less than $7.12.
So how do we apply this to our communications? That requires us to break out of the box a little bit, and I know that positivity is the hallmark of traditional benefits communications. We’ve got the photo of the happy family, there’s this gentleman with balloons and a briefcase, we’ve got coordinated jumping in the air.
If you’re willing to try a more direct message, here are a few ways to apply loss aversion. So instead of, "Get the best deal on healthcare," you could try, "Are you paying too much for healthcare?" Instead of, "Our 10 most popular benefits," "10 often-missed benefits." "Earn $50," "Don’t lose out on $50."
And streaks. So streaks are a really fun way to leverage loss aversion as well. If you’re doing any health or financial challenges, weaving in this idea of a streak could be really fun because nobody wants their streak to end. And loss aversion— just one more thought here— is that it is a really excellent motivator in situations that require immediate action, like responding to health threats or the fear of missing an important enrollment deadline, so loss aversion helps explain why don’t miss out is really effective messaging.
The flip side of losing something is to gain something, so let’s talk about the power of free. The word free gives us such an emotional charge that we perceive it as being more valuable than it is, and not only do people love getting something for free, they much prefer it to getting something discounted, even if the discounted item is a better deal. This is partly because we’re just bad at math, but also because we really like free stuff.
One of the stories that illustrates this difference is about chocolate. In one trial, students were offered a Lindor truffle for 26 cents and a Hershey’s kiss for one cent. If you think about the difference in those two items, the truffle is a way better deal but about the same amount of people chose the kiss as chose truffle.
Next, they dropped the price by just one cent, but that made the Hershey’s kiss free. When they did that, suddenly 90% of participants opted for the free kiss, even though the relative price between the two was the same. Or, think about the lure of free shipping. How many times have you been willing to wait longer or spend more, just to get the free shipping?
So, in your communications, don’t be afraid to harness the emotional response employees have to the word free, and look to emphasize all of the free benefits you invest in. Your 401(k) or HSA match is free money, many of your reimbursement programs are technically free money; so, this is your education and your wellness. One company has a very unique reimbursement in their flex program, but to emphasize the free money aspect, they call it $500 for anything. When you have benefits or vendor fairs, one way to increase attendance is to advertise the free giveaways and swag that you’ll have there.
Gifts are especially powerful, too. Even if the dollar value of the gift is nominal, there’s something about receiving a gift that feels good. If you need to watch budgets for a program giveaway or raffle, focus on a meaningful item rather than a gift card or a small cash prize.
Let’s switch from the idea of losing and gaining things to the power of people. An identifiable victim is the idea that individuals evoke a deeper emotional response than anonymous groups. I heard Daniel Pink speak at South by Southwest a few years ago—for those of you who don’t know him, he’s a fairly popular author on business and behavior. And he told us an interesting story.
Citizens in a town were trying to decrease the amount of non-handicapped people parking in handicapped spots. They had an idea to take down the traditional handicapped parking signs that everyone sees and ignores, and instead posted signs featuring photos of disabled residents in their city with the words, "Think of me. Keep it free." And guess what? Nobody parked in the spots.
So, testimonials are the logical take on the concept of an identifiable victim, where we’re able to put a face to the story. This is a big reason why we advocate that employers use testimonials in their benefits communications. It’s especially effective with more emotional benefit topics, such as wellness or a leave of absence, where talking about how the time off given by the company was a game-changer in feeling supported and getting that precious time off to bond with their new child. Finding a champion to share their story will inspire more confidence in the program and connect a human face to it.
While identifiable victim leverages the power of one, social proof leverages the power of many. Social proof is the idea that what our peers do and think matters to us, so people are more likely to follow group norms in an attempt to reflect the correct behavior for any given situation or context. It’s one of the most common forms of persuasion that we see in consumer marketing too, so think about celebrity endorsements, user reviews, etc.
There have been numerous studies on social proof but I particularly like the following story. A group of researchers were going door-to-door, and they were requesting money for charity. And after explaining the charity and what it did, they then showed residents a list of others from the neighborhood who had already donated. What they found was that the longer the list was, the more likely someone was to donate themselves. The idea of social proof in benefits communications is catching on, and it is one of the easiest principles to put into play, as well as one of the strongest motivators out there.
One way to apply social proof to your communications is by using your data to get very specific with targeted messages. For example, "75% of your peers participate in the employee stock purchase plan. Why don’t you?" I challenge you to get really creative with how you use your data here to create these communications. You can compare actions by location, department, age, etc.
Another incredibly strong example of social proof? Testimonials, again. Testimonials, as learned earlier, are a form of the identifiable victim principle. You really get a double bang for your buck here when you use testimonials.
If you can’t source testimonials, or you want something a bit more evergreen, try a people like me concept that gives employees to relate to. Here’s one that we did some time ago that was really successful. And one thing to note about social proof is that it is strongest at times of indecision, so when we’re not sure what to do, such as when we need to choose a new medical plan, that’s when we often look to others to see what they did.
I want to shift gears a bit into communication around goal setting, which we do a lot of in our line of work. Implementation intention is the act of writing down the actions you need to take to reach a goal, in very concrete terms, to increase the likelihood of you actually following through on achieving your goal because creating specific intentions of when and how to act can help people overcome barriers to action.
It takes classic goal setting a step further by adding a lot of extra clarity and context to your goals. While goals specify what you intend to achieve, say, get a flu shot, implementation intentions go further by also specifying when you’re going to take it and the context in which you’re going to do so. For example, "I’m going to get a flu shot on June 5th at 10:30 in Conference Room A."
And researchers were curious just how big a difference implementation intentions actually make in whether someone is successful or not in meeting their goals. So they studied some of their students. They asked them to commit to a goal that they hoped to achieve over the winter break, such as writing a seminar paper, or settling an ongoing family conflict, or engaging in sports activities.
When they checked back in with participants after the break, two-thirds of them who had formed implementation intentions had carried them out. Those who had not mostly failed to complete their project. So what they found is that implementation intentions really do help people achieve goals because they make the act of getting started much easier and they remove ambiguity, which we know is one of the largest barriers for people to take action.
Another way to structure implementation intentions is to think of them in terms of if-then statements. So, if I want to run in the morning, then I’ll put sneakers by my bed. Or, you can be like this person and just simply sleep in your sneakers, I suppose.
In your communications, you can use implementation intentions to help people think through the details of not only what specific action they will take, but when and how they’re going to do it. Shown here are examples of how you can elevate some common messages we see when encouraging employees to set benefits-related goals. Instead of, "Enroll in benefits," we have, "I will visit, this is where you insert your website, on such and such date to make sure I know what’s new and complete my enrollment." Here’s an example of an employer that did just that, and this was in their open enrollment communications.
Speaking of goal setting, the goal gradient effect is the idea that the closer someone is to achieving the goal, the more inspired they feel to continue on and work harder to complete it. This can work nicely with implementation intentions, and it can often be used to help someone get over the finish line, or show encouragement. In fact, one study found that a 10-space coffee card pre-stamped twice will be completed faster than an eight-space coffee card with no pre-stamps, even though it is the same amount of work effort.
So, how can you use the goal gradient effect in your communications? Well, a quick win for benefits teams is to give new life to standard benefits checklists, such as those commonly prepared for open enrollment or for new hires, by adding a few easy items that you can have pre-checked.
For example, you could have an item that says, "Read this checklist," which I know seems silly, but you can have it on there and you can have it pre-checked. This is also a great way to make your targeted communications more effective. You can give people just the information they need based on the actions they have already taken, so they see the simple next steps to take. If there aren’t logical steps or tasks for you to pre-check, providing a way for employees to measure and see the progress they’ve already made is also motivating. In one communication we did recently to promote a daily challenge, we provided check boxes so employees could mark off when they did the task each day, and feel inspired and reminded to participate each morning.
Jen: That’s a great example on the check marks, and we use that a lot with wellness communication that, especially in the case of where there are multiple steps in a process. You can send out targeted messages and tell people, "You’ve completed steps one and two. Here’s what to do for step three." Or, "You’ve completed step one. Here’s steps two and three." Or, "You haven’t gotten started yet. Here’s your next step." So, there’s so many ways to break this down and make it easy for folks to see what that next action is, and to make something that has maybe several parts to it seem less daunting.
Lindsay: Thanks, Jen, that’s a great point. Our last principle to share today is hyperbolic discounting, which helps to explain why people tend to value immediate rewards, or how we discount the value of a reward that we’re going to receive far in the future versus one we would receive today.
I like this principle a lot and it actually reminds me of the famous Stanford marshmallow study on delayed gratification, where children were offered an immediate treat, but then told, "If you can wait until I get back, you can have two treats." Now, I know that they were studying self-control in children, but this applies to adults too, especially when it comes to making good health and money choices. Those decisions are often a trade-off between doing something that feels good now and doing something good for yourself in the long term.
For example, if you were offered a choice between receiving $100 today and $120 in a month, most of you would probably choose to receive the $100 today. However, should the question change to having $100 today or $200 in a month, I bet most of you would likely choose to wait and receive the $200 in a month.
That tells us something really important. It tells us that the question people are weighing in their mind is, what size of a reward, if given to me today, would make me indifferent to a larger reward given to me in the future.
Okay, so what does this mean for us? It means that our messaging is going to be so much stronger when we focus on today’s benefits. You need to expand the idea of what’s in it for me to become what’s in it for me now. You have to take these abstract future concepts and find a hook to bring them into the present to get people to engage, so instead of promoting the value of an HSA during retirement to your 20-something employees, your messaging could instead focus on the immediate benefit of saving on your taxes right now so that you have more spending money for the weekend.
There is a reason that we are talking about this principle last, and that’s because it explains why making good choices right now with health and money is extremely difficult. Yes, we want immediate gratification, but future me is in the mix, and future me is going to be great. They’re going to do everything right, so it’s okay for me to cheat today and do what feels good in the moment, because future me is on it.
But, unfortunately, future me drops the ball a lot. I know that you still want employees to save for their retirement, you want them to take the actions to get healthier, you want them to do these things that are in their best interests for the long term, but they are fighting all of these other impulses for immediate rewards. You’ll need to deploy some of the other tactics we talked about today to help overcome this tendency.
Let’s quickly recap what we talked about today. You’re up against some pretty strong cognitive biases that can be barriers to engagement, you have three tools in your priming toolkit to capture and focus attention, and you learned nine principles that you can start applying to your communications today.
What do these nine things look like in the messages you might send? They might look something like this. "Say, ’Enough’ to the puff." "Participate, and get free money from us." "Here is Kristen’s story." "You’re over halfway there. Now, take the next step."
Again, you have this tremendous opportunity to help employees make better choices, and these are really strong levers, so use your newfound powers for good. And whether you communicate for the right behavior or not at all, people are listening. We understand that there’s a strong desire to be neutral, but you need to have a strong point of view on what you want employees to feel, and what you want them to do.
When you’re trying to drive behaviors, drive them. Use all of the tools at your disposal to help get people to the right decision for them.
Here’s the reading list that I recommend to get started if you want to dive a little bit deeper. Thank you. Jen, I think we have some time for a few questions.
Jen: Great! Yes, we absolutely have time for questions, and I think I might pull back up the slide with all the examples so folks can see those while we’re looking up questions.
So, Lindsay, the first question that’s come in is, "How do you get a benefits leader to believe in this stuff? You know, we’ve always done communication the same way. How do we get our leadership to believe in doing something different?"
Lindsay: What’s really excellent about this topic is that there is so much peer-reviewed research out there. So, you don’t have to say, "We think this works," or "We’re going to experiment." You can point to the actual studies, the actual examples, that show the real results. It takes this very qualitative idea and it makes it really quantitative, right? It’s science, it’s facts, and there’s so many examples of how this has worked in so many fields.
Jen: That’s great. Absolutely, I think that’s one area where there’s a ton of research to point to, and it always helps to have the scientists on your side.
The next question is, "Can you take this too far? If you deploy all of these at once, is it going to feel too much to employees?"
Lindsay: Yes, it is going to feel like too much, and you’ll start sending some conflicting messages. So, I think when you want to drive behavior, choose your top two or three, and deploy a few tactics to start. Right? It doesn’t take much to move the needle, so you don’t need to go crazy on this. And you can actually do too much, and there is a backlash that could happen when people feel like they’re being manipulated.
Jen: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s just important too, to think about, with communication overall, it’s really important to prioritize what you want people to do. And take a few areas where you want to make progress and show some results, rather than trying to do everything all at once. Because there’s just too many topics to cover to try to get employees to improve their actions in all aspects of health and wellness and financial benefits all at the same time.
So you’ve got to start one piece at a time, and have very clear goals. What we’ve seen with behavioral science, what’s really nice is you can really set things up so that you’re measuring progress in a way that is really going to be meaningful.
The next question is around the fresh start effect. "I love the idea of people being more motivated after a birthday or after a milestone. Can you talk a little bit more about how that could be deployed?"
Lindsay: Sure. So, health plans are great at this because they’ve got employees’ birthdays, but you have that too, in your HRIS system. You could set up automated communications that go out on somebody’s birthday, and it could say something like, "Hey, congratulations. Another year older, another year wiser. Why don’t you pick one thing that you want to focus on in the next month to kick off your new year on the right foot?"
Jen: The next question is, "In terms of helping employees understand how to use benefits like the high-deductible plan with HSA, do you see year-round communication as effective? And how do you apply some of these ideas to year-round communication?"
Lindsay: Sure. So, yes, year-round communication is not only effective, but I feel it’s mandatory if you want people engaging in any of your programs on any topic. It’s incredibly effective.
One of the reasons why brings us back to what I was saying about people having too much on their plates to be spontaneously thinking about their benefits. If you only communicate at OE, or at a certain milestone, you’re missing out on 364 days where people might actually need to use it.
Your communications, again, are a trigger to act, and if you only send them one time a year, people are only asking one time a year. When you want that ongoing engagement, it is so important to use a mix of channels and use it year-round.
I think the second part of that question was, "How do you actually then do that?" For that, every organization’s going to be different, but it really comes down to identifying what the most effective channels are in your organization, and then working with your internal communication team to get a coordinated editorial calendar out there that uses a mix of channels. Jen, would you add anything?
Jen: The only thing I would add is to really think about the difference between the behaviors that you’re asking for folks to do at a short moment in time like annual enrollment, versus the ways you want them to engage throughout the year. And, you’re going to have to use very different nudges and very different tactics to get to them and help push them in the right direction.
What we see too often is that the messages of what you need to understand and do during enrollment, as well as the messages of all of the ways you can use the benefits throughout the rest of the year are all delivered in a very short window around annual enrollment. That is just going to quickly overwhelm people, and they’re going to miss the stuff that’s time-sensitive in the short term, and they’re definitely not going to remember the things that need to be done over the long term.
So, the next question is around how to target the attitudinal segments, and this is a topic that’s come up more and more. The question is, "Where do you get the attitudinal segments, and then how do you store that information and use it?"
Lindsay: Yeah, that’s a terrific question. There are a few companies out there that have access to these consumer databases, and it’s very easy for them to match up your employee data with the consumer data, and it comes back to you anonymized. So you get people’s segments, and then you can communicate out on that.
In terms of storing, you can do that in your email distribution system. If you’re going to mail, it’s just how you do your standard print communications. There’s a couple of great companies out there that we partner with to do that, and we’ve found it really effective.
Jen: Yeah, and that also gets to another question, which I know is top of mind for a lot of benefits leaders, which is just how to deploy more sophisticated, targeted messaging, and how do use all of the data that we know about employees to help them get to the right information at the right time. And there are some really impressive engagement platforms that are coming out. There’s some impressive targeting that’s built into some of the benefits administrators and some of the wellness platforms.
For each organization, it’s good to understand the capabilities across your vendors, and how you can use that data in the powerful ways to slice and dice the messages. We have a whole webinar on targeting and segmenting. It’s a component of our 10 keys framework as well. It’s a big part of how you take a marketing approach to benefits communication, and it’s a topic we could definitely talk about for the next couple of hours. So I’ll just leave it at that, but we’d be happy to follow up with more questions and point to more resources.
We just have a couple minutes left. The next question, Lindsay, I’d love for you to speak to this, is just that the research around behavioral science and the literature and the books ... There’s just a ton of it. So how should benefit leaders keep up on that, and what do they need to do to stay on top of what’s going on in the field?
Lindsay: You know, I think that gets back to what you were saying just a moment ago, about leaning on your vendors and the people around you. There’s not an expectation that you stay up-to-date with the latest and greatest on all of these different fields, but find a few thought leaders that you like, or if there’s a certain author that you like, subscribe to their blog. Find a publication that does it really well. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated or time consuming. It’s really about focusing your effort, again, to one or two things that you know that you can take the time to review and check out, and that really removes, I think, the onus on you to stay up-to-date because somebody else is doing it for you.
Jen: Yeah, and I would just add that this topic has definitely made its way into benefits in a big way. A lot of technology tools are being built with these principles right in the products and it’s very powerful how this can be used. So there’s a lot going on in the field. I think as a benefits leader, you don’t need to know this inside and out, but you can lean on the different providers that you work with and so forth to help you dissect things.
Looks like we have time for one more question. This is around what are our thoughts on decision support logic, asking the right questions. "How does it work to ask employees questions to present optimal benefit options? When asking questions, is it an effective way? Can you ask employees too many questions?"
This is a complicated topic. There’s a lot of different ways to drive people to the right answers for them, and we have built some very simple decision support tools that ask just a couple of questions and then frame things in the concepts that Lindsay was talking about, around, "You said this. People like you do this. Here’s what it means in terms of the pluses and minuses."
Simple is better when it comes to anything you design around decision support or surveys or complicated modeling tools. That’s why some tools get a lot of traction and others kind of sit on a shelf. You need to really focus on things that people can engage with in a simple way.
Giving people a few different options for how to view information can be very effective. One of the things that we’ve seen on a lot of our clients’ sites is even just the simplicity of showing how benefits relate to different life scenarios or different goals, whether it’s losing weight or saving more money, can be effective in helping people connect the dots and then know where they want to take action.
So with that, we will wrap things up. Thank you all for joining us. This topic is one that is incredibly valuable, and we’ll be spending more time on it. We really appreciate everyone for joining. Thank you so much.