Workplace Culture

Social Media Sites Still Emerging as Benefits Tools

By Joanne Wojcik

Jul. 13, 2010

Benefits consultants continue to encourage employers to integrate Internet-based social media tools into their benefits communications campaigns despite a survey finding that many workers are not yet ready to embrace the communications channel for that purpose.

The survey, released this month by the Washington-based National Business Group on Health, found that even though 47 percent of U.S. workers regularly use social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter daily for personal reasons, three-quarters said they were not interested in receiving benefits information from their employers via those websites.

“Because we hear so much about social media … we’re made to feel that we’re out of it if we’re doing the old-fashioned things like home mailings,” says Helen Darling, president of the Washington-based NBGH, a consortium of nearly 300 large U.S. employers. “But even the youngest employees prefer receiving communications the old-fashioned way.”

In fact, less than 20 percent of employees younger than 34 said they would like to receive information such as how to choose a health plan or diet and exercise tips via Facebook, according to the survey, which was conducted in March and included responses from some 1,500 employees 22 to 64.

Based on the survey, Darling recommended that employers test the use of social media before adopting it for their entire employee populations. She also warned against abandoning traditional methods of benefits communications, including print and e-mail correspondence.

Benefits communications specialists, however, said the survey’s findings may not accurately reflect employees’ attitudes toward the use of social media to deliver benefits information simply because they are not used to getting such information that way. Only recently have employers begun using social networking tools, and most of the communications thus far have been focused on external marketing and recruiting.

“I think a lot of people have less experience with these new channels in the context of getting benefits information. It would be like asking people if they wanted to get their news via television when television just came out. They’d probably say no; they prefer reading the newspaper,” says Jim Hoff, a principal and solutions and innovations leader at Hewitt Associates Inc. in Lincolnshire, Illinois. But “as new generations come into the workforce who are more comfortable with those tools, we are likely to see greater acceptance.”

Jennifer Benz, CEO and founder of San Francisco-based Benz Communications, says the findings demonstrate that social media should not be used to supplant other forms of benefits communications.

“It reinforces that social media is not a strategy in itself. You cannot replace other forms of communication with social media. It’s a new tool to communicate more frequently in a way that is cost-effective. So it supplements other communications activities,” Benz says.

For example, some of her clients have been using Twitter to link to their corporate intranet that houses their benefits information.

“So much of this has to be multichannel,” Hoff says. “If you ask employees, ‘Do you want to get something by Twitter or Facebook?’ they may say no, as opposed to if you ask if they would like it to be one of the channels in a broader communications campaign.”

Hoff suggested that employers continue to publish complicated information, such as summary plan descriptions or annual enrollment packages, in print or on a corporate intranet, but that they consider conveying brief, less-complicated messages, such as reminders that the enrollment deadline is approaching, via Twitter with a link to the corporate site.

Some employers, such as Armonk, New York-based IBM Corp. and Minneapolis-based Best Buy Co. Inc., have been using enterprise software products similar to Facebook and Twitter to communicate benefits and other business-related information on their corporate intranets. For example, Yammer functions very much like Twitter, while Jive acts like a corporate Facebook, allowing employees to create user profiles.

By using internal tools that mirror external tools, employers can take advantage of employees’ familiarity with them while still keeping the information private, Hoff says.

“It’s closed and within their firewalls,” he says.

It also enables employees to communicate with their co-workers without having to go to the Internet, access to which some companies have blocked to prevent distractions, Hoff adds.

Further interpreting the survey’s findings, Lisa O’Driscoll, senior communications consultant at Towers Watson & Co. in San Francisco, suggested that some employees may have an aversion to the use of social media for benefits communications because they want to keep their work and personal lives separate.

“There is a difference between what an individual does on their own time and what they do while at work,” O’Driscoll says. “If you’re stressed and you don’t feel you have work/life balance, do you really want to wake up in the morning and get a reminder from your employer to eat oatmeal for breakfast?”

Workforce Management Online, July 2010Register Now!

Joanne Wojcik writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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