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Peter Turgeon December 11, 2018 9 min read

Borrow Tips from Consumer Marketing for Successful Benefits Engagement

Have you ever noticed how Amazon sends you an email for something, you click, and then 10 minutes later you’re looking for one more item—just so you can get free shipping? What the heck just happened?! Amazon and companies like it have huge teams of marketing experts who know how to drive your behavior and get you to make that extra purchase. We apply these same techniques to drive employee behaviors, and you can, too.

What can we learn from retail marketing?

Retail marketers have the same ultimate goal that we have: to achieve specific outcomes by driving individuals to take an action. That action might be enrolling, bumping up savings, choosing a new voluntary benefit, etc.

But we’re not selling products, are we?

Aren’t we? You may not be selling the same things online retailers offer, but anything you’re communicating—a health plan, an enrollment event, or a video about saving for the future—can be thought of as something tangible that you want employees to take advantage of. Think of these as your “products,” and then it will all start to make sense.

Can we really apply the same Amazon-like consumer marketing approach to our business? How would we do that?

Of course you can! It just takes a small shift in your approach—and some planning, of course.

Remember, marketing isn’t solely about content; at its heart, marketing is about defining a problem or a market need and then driving behaviors to resolve that problem or meet that need. In consumer retail marketing, this is often known as closing the sale. In the HR world, it means getting employees to take an action. One way to do this very effectively is to incorporate some basic tenets from design thinking into your strategy, which can be just a shift in perspective in the way we market to employees. Here’s how you can think (and act) like a marketer by applying design thinking to drive better results.

1. Define the Need or Problem

What problem are you trying to solve? What need are you trying to meet? For Amazon, it’s more sales. That extra item you added to your Amazon cart was carefully calculated in 2 ways. First, Amazon set a monetary goal for you to reach to be rewarded with free shipping. Then, they suggested items you already viewed, so it seemed like a practical option for you to add them to your cart to get free shipping. They identified a product that you were already thinking about and put it right in front of you. You can apply this same tactic when you’re communicating benefits to employees. You could do this by adding a “You May Also Like” feature on your benefits website that observes the user’s behavior and automatically suggests content based on the content and topics in which they’ve shown interest.

2. Conduct User Research Before Setting your Goals

People often think of user research—the process of talking to your employees about their needs—as something that’s done only for large projects. But for every campaign, big or small, you need to be 100% confident that what you’re proposing is what employees actually want or need, not just what you think they want or need.

For example, let’s say participation in your wellness program isn’t what you’d expected, as measured by clicks on the web page promoting it. You assume the solution is related to content, so you spend lots of time and resources rewriting, tweaking the steps, creating a snazzy promo video, and relaunching. And only then do you discover that it wasn’t the content or enrollment method that kept people from participating, but rather that the reward you were offering wasn’t enough of a motivation.

User research doesn’t have to be complicated. Employees love to be heard, so it’s usually easy to get a small group to provide feedback. Focus groups, interviews, observing employees trying to complete a task, and conducting surveys are all great ways to gather user research. Choose whichever method works best to validate the need for your campaign.

3. Brainstorm Solutions and Set Goals

The next step is to define your goals and identify the behaviors you’re trying to drive. One of the biggest challenges I’ve witnessed while working in both consumer marketing and benefits communication is honest conversation among communication team members about what they want people to do. It isn’t uncommon to be a little leery of setting a goal. People struggle with that for various reasons, but most commonly, it’s just challenging to prioritize what’s most important.

But, to think like a marketer, you’ll need to overcome that roadblock, because you need to. Even if we don’t talk about them, we always have goals for everything we do: We put articles on benefits sites for people to read, understand, and find useful; we post videos to watch; we create quizzes to take; and so on.

Let’s say you want to get as many people as possible to register for a new program. To do this, you create a page on your benefits website about the program. The goal of that page is to get people to click a button that takes them to the registration page. When you’ve identified the primary goal for the page, it will inform how you design and lay out the page, the words you choose, and the prominence and placement you give to the button or call to action.

4. Test Your Best Ideas by Implementing Your Marketing Strategy

Now that you’ve figured out your goal, you need a campaign and marketing strategy. There are 4 things you should think about as you develop your strategy:

  • First, how will you attract employees to your goal? Your initial challenge is to capture attention and interest. You can do that by delivering content where and how the audience prefers. Identify the channels you have available, then decide what’s appropriate for this campaign to drive employees to the goal. Subject lines, headlines, calls to action, and imagery are critical in this stage.
  • Second, how will you engage your audience once they’re there? Once you’ve got your employees where you want them, it’s time to build trust and make a connection. You can do that by relating to their problems or aspirations and creating content around topics relevant to them. Just be sure that whatever you do makes sense and helps drive them toward your goal. You don't want to create a distraction that leads them astray.
  • Third, how will you convince them to take the next step? Now that you’ve gotten employees engaged, this is your big opportunity to reach your goal. At this point, you should educate employees about the value of taking the next step and drive them to take the final action.
  • Fourth, how will you close the sale? It’s time to get employees to commit—to click the button, launch the video, use the decision tool, take the quiz, etc. Make it quick and easy for them to understand what needs to happen or to pick the best option if there’s more than one.
  • Bonus tip: People behave differently, so you can’t always expect that everyone will follow the exact path you so carefully lay out. So, make it easy for people to take the desired action at different points throughout the process. Someone may decide to take action in the first or second step. That’s still a win, assuming they can do that. If you only give them one shot and they bail before ever getting to a call to action, you’ll fail.

At this point, you should stop for a moment and check one thing: Are you leading people down a dead-end road? Does the flow from point A to B (or C or D) work and make sense? Or do employees get to the end and nothing is obvious? Are there too many choices? Quickly map out the flow of the campaign and the desired actions on paper, and if it doesn’t work, then it might mean you need to tweak your approach before moving forward.

5. Execute Your Strategy, Iterate, and Launch

You’re in the home stretch; it’s time to execute your strategy. Determine the tone and style you’ll use to write your content, if and how you’ll use visuals on the page and how prominent they’ll be, and if a big obvious button is going to be the best way to grab attention. If possible, conduct a small test of your strategy with a pilot group or a small focus group to validate your approach before launching for the masses.

While the most important piece of advice I can give about measuring success is to set clear measurable goals, my second recommendation is to regularly monitor your campaign and be prepared to adjust things in real time, as needed. Retailers and marketers continuously observe abandon rates at various points throughout a campaign so they can understand the behavior of the people dropping off. Then, they make changes on the fly to reduce the abandon rate.

A big misconception is that analytics are used only after a campaign has ended to get insight into what happened while it was running. But, just as retailers do, you should use your ongoing campaign data to inform the strategy and improve the outcome throughout the life of your campaign. For example, if your pageviews are high on your home page, but click-through on your campaign banner is low, that’s a red flag. It could point to any of the following: the call to action, the amount of copy, placement on the page, a broken link, or even a misleading message that wasn’t direct enough to connect with the audience (you thought it would be intriguing or cute, but users saw it as unimportant or not relevant to their needs). This is a problem you can easily identify, test new approaches, and quickly resolve.

As with the banner, if you’re not seeing actions being taken on your campaign landing page, take a second look at the call to action. Determine if it’s buried and needs to be repositioned, the urgency/importance of the content/message needs to be revised, the page is cluttered with too many other links, or the link is not working. Perhaps you’re asking employees to follow too many steps or to engage in a process that’s too complicated to follow. Find a way to simplify the path to the goal. These are all adjustments that can and should be made as soon as possible.

Making a change mid-campaign isn’t always easy, fast, or free, so plan for the unplanned, knowing that whatever you do is intended to improve the outcome. The important takeaway here is to always measure, analyze, and adjust what you can throughout your campaign.

Putting these 5 steps into practice can take some time to master. But it can also be incredibly satisfying when the results of your hard work pay off and continue to improve over time.

To learn how to incorporate design thinking into your benefits communications, download our white paper, Product Design for Employee Benefits: Creating Programs Your People Want to Use.

We're proud to work with large employers who recognize the business value of engaging employees in benefits. If you want to learn more, contact us

Peter Turgeon

Peter Turgeon, Director, Innovation, is an advocate for using technology to affect real business change and blends his skills and extensive knowledge of benefits communications to drive engagement.