To Reach Millennials, Speak Their (Largely Visual) Language

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Jun 20, 2016
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2016 Annual Conference & Exposition
2016 Annual Conference & Exposition
Photos · 2017 Conference Information

“Communicating with Millennials can be like learning a new language,” said Karl Ahlrichs, a consultant with Indianapolis-based insurance brokerage Gregory & Appel.

With a caveat that not all Millennials (or Baby Boomers, or Generation X workers) respond to communications in the same way, certain generalizations about age-based attitudes have shown themselves to be highly accurate, owing to the fact that each generation comes of age in an era marked by unique developments and circumstances.

For Millennials, their shared context includes growing up with social media saturation and entering the workforce burdened by student debt in the aftermath of the financial crisis and recession. When talking to them about benefits and pay, then, the conversation should be different from how you would address the topic with their older colleagues, Ahlrichs said during his presentation, “Communicating Total Compensation and Benefits to Millennials,” at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C.

“Communication only occurs when the message you send is received in the way you intended,” Ahlrichs noted. He referenced SHRM’s strategic benefits survey, which revealed that 58 percent of HR professionals “somewhat agree” that their employer’s communications around benefits are effective. “From a cash flow standpoint, compensation and benefits are the No. 1 employee expense,” Ahlrichs said. “ ‘Somewhat’ is not good enough.”

The SHRM findings also showed that only 4 percent of employers use social media for benefits communications, instead favoring paper or online documents and group meetings. Seventy-five percent of employers had no benefits communication budget. Significantly, other research has indicated that 88 percent of Millennials get their news from YouTube, and viewing content via mobile devices is increasing 25 percent year over year.

“Pay attention to the benefit channels Millennials are using and go there,” Ahlrichs advised.

Millennials—and, increasingly, older generations—“check their cellphones during presentations and they speak ‘emoji,’ ” those ideograms and smileys used when texting.

“Often, you’re explaining complex subjects to an audience with increasingly shorter attention spans, so speak their language and make them care,” he said.

Use Visuals—and Humor

Explain how benefit offerings and changes “will directly affect them, but don’t overwhelm them,” Ahlrichs advised. Avoid information that is factually accurate but of no practical value—“that is just a time-eater,” he said.

In online communications, “Keep it digestible—start off with three things employees need to know, and then let them click through for the details,” he said. Appeal to employees’ logic (by explaining what is changing for them) and to their emotions (by saying how they will benefit).

“Visuals pack a greater punch than text and are more likely to draw attention,” he noted. Humor gets people engaged. For example, to promote use of a gym membership benefit, one HR department created a faux workout music video featuring the HR team singing in workout garb.

“E-mail campaigns can be powerful if your message is direct and targeted to its audience, and postcards can serve as an excellent preview” in that they don’t have to be opened, though they also can be dismissed as junk mail unless they’re effectively branded as part of a communications campaign. Texting can provide reminders with links to videos for viewing on mobile devices, and the response rate can be measured and analyzed for effectiveness.

Benefit intranets are also playing a larger role, even though “intranets are often where employee information goes to die,” Ahlrichs noted. To avoid that fate, make your intranet communications user-friendly and visually appealing.

Streamline your messages and vary the formats,” he recommended. Consider making technological improvements, including by:

  • Optimizing content for mobile devices.
  • Using better formatting and graphics.
  • Offering selection-support software that provides a guided tour to making benefit choices.
  • Using data analytics to track effectiveness and make adjustments accordingly.

His parting recommendations were:

  • Be willing to spend money, time and effort.
  • Start early; don’t wait until a change is in force.
  • Write in everyday language.
  • Brand individual campaigns for recognition.
  • Have some fun with the process.

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him on Twitter @SHRMsmiller.

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