COVID-19 has challenged the status quo and upended the way we’ve always done things. Working from home and social distancing have ushered in a new reality for benefits, and one of the more tangible questions right now is: “We’ve always held an in-person benefits fair, so what should we do now?” And the answer: “Let’s just move the benefits fair online.”
If you're considering making your benefits fair virtual this year, here are a few tips to help you plan.
It is easy to get caught up in going straight to a solution before fully defining the problem. Solutions are fun, cool, and shiny. But before you sink time, money, and resources into a sparkly new solution, pause your excitement for just a minute, and make sure you have an open and honest conversation about what you gained from past benefits fairs and what you’re hoping to achieve going forward.
Once you clarify the purpose of and mission for your benefits fair, it’s time to think through who your audience is and what communication channels you have at your disposal. Do you have an existing benefits website or web conferencing service that you can use? What about your email capability? Does your audience have any communication preferences? Are they tech savvy, or do they prefer personal 1-on-1 conversations? How will the channels you choose fit into your audiences’ lives, and how will that experience feel to them? Make a list of all the communication channels available to you and your audiences’ preferences, so that you can identify what you can use and where you might have gaps.
Also think through your short- and long-term needs. While traditional benefits fairs are typically in-person live events, what opportunities are there to rethink the information needs of people and transition to an on-demand, just-in-time format? While 2020 is top of mind, don’t forget to think through your strategic roadmap for where you want to be in 3 years and how you’ll want to reach your people going forward. For many organizations, COVID-19 has exposed missing channels for effective ongoing benefits communication.
Remember that all media channels—web, print, email, in-person—have pros and cons. It’s always a good idea to be thoughtful when adding a new channel to your communications mix to ensure you’re leveraging the strengths of each medium.
As you begin to think through transitioning your in-person benefits fair online, consider the pros and cons of each.
As you think through how to move your benefits fair online, you have a great opportunity to reframe the entire fair concept. When going virtual, the key is not to dwell on the losses of an in-person event but rather accentuate the positives of a virtual format.
Address any barriers to engagement head on, so you can turn them into positives. For example, we know that swag is a big draw. Highlight that, in lieu of swag offered at your live events, you’ll donate to a worthy cause. Tell your people, “For every X (online action), we’ll contribute Y (dollars) to a worthy cause that you can vote on at the virtual benefits fair.”
Also, be sure to create a sense of urgency when you move online to draw traffic to your event. Two practical ways to do that are by offering live webinars giving people a chance to ask questions as well as conducting a limited-time survey or raffle to drive engagement and participation.
Random connections and meetups between your people are difficult to duplicate online. Instead, focus your efforts elsewhere, where you’ll receive a greater return, such as spending time and money to create a library of short webinars on specific topics rather than creating an online social component simply to replicate an in-person experience. Remember, virtual is not the same as in-person, and that is okay.
You have a wide range of solutions and resources from which to choose when moving your benefits fair online. To help you navigate the landscape, answer two key questions:
Sometimes the simplest solution is the best solution. You can use technology that you already have access to, like Zoom, Webex, or Teams. The approach is simple: Create a series of webinars or office hours, so employees can meet each vendor. Record webinars and publish them for on-demand viewing on your benefits website, intranet, or custom microsite. This approach has less wow factor, and helpful content can get buried or overlooked. But it offers a simple, practical solution that uses existing channels and can be done relatively inexpensively.
There is a wide range of companies that provide virtual events online. It is a crowded market, and pricing ranges dramatically based on the platform and its functionality, the duration of the event, etc. Most of these platforms attempt to take a physical-world metaphor—physically creating a lobby or exhibit halls—to simulate what a conference or benefits fair would look like in real life. From the user experience, they are kind of like licorice; some people love it and some people hate it. These solutions are designed to have minimal customization—typically allowing you to add a logo, images, and choose colors to reflect your brand. They also allow you to add content, such as PDFs and webinar recordings, if it fits into their structure, and that’s about it. While they do offer one place to house content and a platform for people to engage with your vendors, there are drawbacks—many require annual subscriptions, they aren’t designed for single events, and the content isn’t evergreen, so it’s more difficult to reuse content outside of the benefits fair experience.
Many large organizations, like Adobe, HPE, and Salesforce, are moving their traditional in-person conferences online to create virtual experiences by building custom microsites dedicated specifically to an event. There are many ideas and concepts you can draw from when creating a robust, custom-branded online experience. These microsites can contain a mix of live and on-demand content and are tailored specifically for your organization’s needs. They can also be designed to support your benefits fair and be a resource for benefits information going forward.
It can be easy to get overwhelmed by all the things you could do. But have no fear. Stay grounded with your end goal in mind. Review all the communication channels available to you and your specific audiences’ preferences. See what you can use and what gaps might prevent you from reaching your people. Be mindful of the pros and cons of each approach, and make sure you address any perceived or real takeaways from not doing an in-person benefits fair. Remember that it is okay that certain aspects of a live event can’t be replicated online. There are many advantages to moving your benefits fair online, and your people may actually prefer it.
Finally, don’t forget that attending in-person benefits fairs often requires a major time and cost commitment from you and your vendors. Because they’re saving money, your vendors may be able to help offset the cost or contribute to your fair by developing materials in exchange for not attending in person.
Jon Stuckey, VP Creative Technology and Innovation, provides strategic vision, guidance, and solutions for our largest clients.