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To tweet or not to tweet about employee benefits

Michelle Hicks

Michelle Hicks

As employers prepare for benefits open enrollment this fall, they know there is greater interest than ever from employees. Health care reform continues to make headlines in news cycles. And, those public conversations are raising employee awareness about the benefits they receive now and what they can expect to receive in the future.

Many of my clients are asking about incorporating social media elements into this fall’s campaigns as a tool to reach, especially younger workers, in a familiar medium. To tweet or not to tweet about benefits is a popular question.

I know my clients are not alone in asking this. A quick Google search of “social media” + “benefit communication” turns up almost a thousand results. The problem is that for as many articles as you can find supporting social media tools for benefits communication, you can find just as many negating those claims.

In trying to come up with answers to this dilemma, I found myself turning the pages again of my worn out copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point.

In the late 1990s Gladwell began this book because of his own curiosity about how ideas travel and ignite via word of mouth. In the process of asking this question, he discovered a lot of truths about how we communicate effectively and what contributes to ineffective communication, or what he calls “the problem of immunity.”

To explain this problem, Gladwell used the example of telemarketing, which really hit its stride in the late 1980s. The telephone network was large and cheap but, “As a network grows in size…it is also the case that the time and nuisance costs borne by each member of the network grow as well.” The result is that we started to employ caller ID to screen out telemarketers and it stopped being an effective advertising tool.

I suspect this “problem of immunity” may be what fed responses about social media in a recent study by the National Business Group on Health. It found that while 47 percent of U.S. employees surveyed are on Facebook, only 7 percent want their employer to use Facebook to tell them about their benefits.

Facebook started out as a popular tool for connecting college students and then reached its tipping point a couple of years ago as middle-aged men and women started using it to catch up with old friends, and grandparents discovered it to keep up with their grandchildren thousands of miles away.

But as people found their number of “friends” exploding into a network connecting them with mere acquaintances, the “nuisance costs” also grew. Users started hearing about what someone they hardly knew had for breakfast. They started “unfriending” people. They became immune.

So what is the antidote to immunity? Gladwell suggests it is face-to-face communication from people we already trust and respect. In the world of work, that translates into our HR professionals when discussing benefit information. But does this mean there is no role at all for social media in communicating about benefits? Not necessarily.

If a message is informational-only, such as communicating open enrollment deadlines, social media may be very effective for employees, like salespeople, who work out in the field and don’t see break room posters like people would who work in a manufacturing environment. In this situation, a tweet to nudge an employee to enroll is considerably different than using a tweet to explain insurance premium changes.

In that case, a description of the change, the reason for it and its practical application may be more appropriate in a traditional newsletter mailed to the home and followed up with a Q&A session with an HR professional.

Evaluating social media truly is an exercise in basic communication planning strategies. It starts with understanding your audience, the message you need to deliver and what you need your audience to do with that information. Once you have those answers, you can determine the best medium for delivery.

The problem with the social media questions many employers ask is that they are framed as wondering whether social media is the silver bullet for all benefits communication. It is not. Benefits communication is more complex than that. But social media is an exciting and interesting set of tools employers can consider adding to their communication arsenal for reaching unique audiences who are not served by traditional tools.

So, in my opinion, employers should give tweeting at open enrollment some thought – but they should only use it if it is the most effective solution to reach their employee audiences.

Michelle Hicks is a communications consultant with Buck Consultants. Contact her at michelle.hicks@buckconsultants.com.

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