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Open Enrollment: Targeted Communications Address Differing Needs

Encourage better benefit selection—and better use of selected benefits

A man sitting on a stool in a coffee shop using a laptop.

updated on Sept. 28, 2017

This is the third article in a series about meeting open enrollment challenges. Below, we look at using different benefit messages based on different employee life experiences and needs.

In drafting open enrollment communications, HR benefit managers should consider whether they are "reaching people with information that's relevant to them, taking into consideration where they are in their lives and what their particular needs are," said Meredith Ryan-Reid, senior vice president at insurance provider MetLife's group benefits division in New York City.

"Just giving someone a big booklet and showing them everything that's available, and then asking them to go into a system and make an election, is not how people process information most effectively," Ryan-Reid said. "They need to be given information in digestible bites, and it has to resonate with them."

"A benefit guides has a lot of useful information, if you can get employees to open it and read it," said Mehul Jain, a Los Angeles-based solution consultant at Collective Health, a health benefits administration firm.

"Use short messages as stepping stones to get employees to more detailed information, making it personal," advised Jain, a former benefits analyst at SpaceX, an aviation and aerospace engineering firm in Hawthorne, Calif. "Encourage employees to think about what's happening in their lives and relate that to making the right benefit selection. Ask, 'Are you getting married this year? Is your family growing? Do you expect to have medical expenses? Click here.'"

Segmented Messages

Collective Health has posted A Marketer's Guide to Open Enrollment, which discusses tailoring open enrollment messages to address different employee types (office, home or "in the field" workers) and those with different family needs. Some examples are highlighted in the chart below.

Reaching Different Audiences

Employee Types

In-office and tech-savvy employees

Satellite office employees

Remote in-the-field employees and those who work from home

Employees with young children or family caregiving responsibilities


E-mails are so voluminous that many go unread.

Fewer HR resources for hands-on help.

Employees may be highly mobile and less engaged with office-based developments.

Have high-level family responsibilities, with extensive coverage needs.


Create a searchable open enrollment "wiki" page (an updatable webpage with hyperlinks to additional material, similar to Wikipedia content).

Live stream your benefits presentations to ensure all offices can participate. Follow up with a recording for those who couldn't participate.

Communicate in easily digestible e-mails that can be read on the go

Host one-on-one office hours to help employees with complex family issues.

Source: Collective Health.

"The key is to consider the best method of delivery for each group, leveraging different channels to meet people where they are," said Jain.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Organizational Communication]

Apply Marketing Practices

"Answer the No. 1 question employees have: what's in it for me?," advised Bob Armour, chief marketing officer at Jellyvision, an employee communication software provider based in Chicago. "Create a compelling, action-driven campaign message—appeal to their aspirations, and be aware of their fears.

Jellyvision's The Ultimate Open Enrollment Communications Playbook (2017 edition) presents another take on targeting messaging, as summarized in the table below.

Segmenting Employee Messages


Millennials/new to workforce

Parents with dependent children

Near retirees

Key concerns

Setting up a path to financial success.

Caring for a growing family.

Sufficient savings for post-employment health care.

Potential "what's in it for me" messages

Early savings in a tax-advantage 401(k) and an HSA can grow substantially over time.

Ensure life and disability insurance are adequate to your family's needs.

Final push for retirement and health care savings, including catch-up contributions.

Preferred communication channels

Text, social media, short videos, intranet.

E-mail, direct mail, text, social media.

E-mail, direct mail, face-to-face communication.

Source: Jellyvision.

"Develop core messages to all employees, then segment specific messages to targeted groups, leading them to their next steps," Armour advised.

The 2016 International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans' Benefits Communication Survey Results found that among the 40 percent of employers that used benefit communications based on employees' life stage, 81 percent reported their efforts were successful.

Persona-Based Communications

"We found persona-based messaging helps employees quickly gain interest" in benefits that address their specific circumstances, said Jackie Waller, senior research program manager at The Standard, a provider of voluntary insurance products. "Not all employees have the same benefits needs, whether it's due to lifestyle, age or personal buying preference, but assigning employees to a persona can help ensure benefits information is presented in a way that makes sense to them."

The Standard recently launched a decision support tool that assigns each employee one of five personas after completing a short survey, based on elements such as their level of engagement in the purchasing process, knowledge of available benefits and personal needs. The tool then generates a variety of personalized communications, including videos, claim examples and calculators, aimed at helping employees make informed decisions.

Addressing Different Needs

Beyond age-focused lifestage distinctions, employees with differing life experiences tend also to have different priorities and interests, said Kim Buckey, vice president of compliance communications at Birmingham, Ala.-based DirectPath, an employee engagement and health care compliance firm.

During open enrollment, employers can target their messages to encourage better benefit selection decisions, and even better use of benefits. For example, some employees use hospital emergency rooms as their source for primary care, "an expensive approach for employers, health plans and employees," Buckey said.

In response, one large employer created a targeted enrollment mailing to employees who were most likely to use health benefits inappropriately (based on factors such as income, job level, education and location), and included a list of three primary care physicians participating in the health plan that were closest to each employee's home. Depending on family makeup, some mailings also included the three closest participating pediatricians and OB/GYN practices.

"Using targeted marketing strategies can improve employee health and lower program costs," Buckey said. "The proof in this case was that primary care physician visits increased by 41 percent among employees who received the targeted communications."

"When communications to your employees is out of context, it's just noise," said Prashant Srivastava, president and CEO of Evive, a Chicago-based personalized benefits engagement company. "Engage them in ways that are personally meaningful and relevant, but more importantly, do so at the precise time the benefits can have the most impact."

Helping Employees to Choose a Health Plan

To help employees select among different health plans with varying out-of-pocket deductibles and monthly premiums, encourage them to look at what they spent on health care during the past year—including for prescribed drugs—and to consider if they have continuing or anticipated medical expenses, Fidelity Investments advises in its open enrollment communication tips. Messaging can be along these lines:

When choosing your plan, consider your personal situation—your finances, family health status, and proximity to frequently used medical services. 

How much did you pay in premiums last year and this year?
Start by looking at the YTD (year-to-date) section of last year's final pay stub and your current paycheck.

How many trips to the doctor, hospital, or emergency room did you or family members make?
Find the bills that you had to pay and tally up those costs.

What else did you spend out of pocket for health care last year?
Log in to your health insurer's website to see your health care claims and how much you spent out of pocket. 

Add up all of your health care dollars from this year, then estimate if you will spend more or less in 2018. Consider the type of care that is covered by each plan and at what level (percentage of costs), and the network of doctors. That should help you decide which plan can work best for you and your family.

Open Enrollment: Indifference and Angst

Roughly one in three U.S. workers report feeling "indifferent" about this fall's open enrollment season, according to Securian Financial Group, a provider of supplemental insurance products.

Securian-sponsored research found the most receptivity and eagerness toward open enrollment season is among lower-income Americans and Millennials, the latter of which had the greatest incidence of paying an out-of-pocket expense for an accident-related injury over the past year.

The survey, conducted in September 2017, polled U.S. adults who currently participate in a health insurance plan provided by an employer or spouse's employer.

Below is a breakdown of how employees feel (by emoji) about open enrollment:



















Source: Securian Financial Group.

This is the third article in a five-part series on meeting open enrollment challenges. The previous installment is Open Enrollment: Developing Your Game Plan. The fourth installment is Open Enrollment: Using Social Media and Decision-Support Tools.

Also in this series:

Part One: Open Enrollment: Active vs. Passive Benefits Election 

Part Five: Open Enrollment: Voluntary Benefits Emphasize Choice

Related SHRM Resources:

Open Enrollment Guide & Resources Page 

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