Congratulations to the winners of the 2012 i-COMM Awards, an annual honor presented by Employee Benefit News to champion those employers who offer the best internal benefits communication.

It's not an easy task. Shrinking budgets, coupled with increased regulatory demands, makes communicating the value of benefits more challenging than ever. Still, this year's winning organizations tackled the job with creativity, passion and innovation, recognizing the importance of their most valuable asset: their employees.

Websites, emails, intranets, print and other communication vehicles were eligible to win one of four categories - Best Overall Communications Campaign, Best Use of Social Media, Best Intranet/Employee Portal Design & Usability and Best Print or Online Employee Newsletter.

The companies honored here advance the objectives of the benefits/HR department and the strategic goals of their organizations across all types of communication. These objectives include increasing employees' benefit participation, helping employees derive greater value from benefits, improving employee satisfaction and/or achieving cost savings.


Best Print or Online Employee Newsletter

Trish Neely, chief compliance officer at Tallahassee, Fl.-based FBMC, the country's largest independent benefits management firm, compares reading and deciphering complex language about benefit statues and regulations to having a root canal - painful, but necessary. FBMC's customers, she says, rely on the 150-employee company to translate their benefits information into meaningful, consumer-friendly terms, so it's critical that the company's employees not only understand what's being said in new regulations, but that they understand the application of new regulations.

FBMC's office culture is unique in that all employees, even down to the receptionist, must have a rudimentary knowledge of Internal Revenue Code Section 125, while its client/customer-facing employees must be proficient.

So for 22 years, more than a decade of which has been under Neely's leadership, the company has used the "Quarterly Review" newsletter to offer up a combination of practical employee information and learning tools to ensure employees remain up-to-date on changing rules and regulations. The newsletter supplements regular compliance training and complementing webinars and ongoing learning seminars for employee development.

The newsletter, as the name suggests, is sent via email quarterly to both employees and customers to educate parties about the regulations associated with benefit plan management, as well as to provide a venue to identify operational changes necessary to remain in compliance. A second newsletter, "Life at FBMC," educates employees about other internal topics.

A two-time i-COMM award recipient, Neely says she aims to keep each issue as practical as possible without weighing down employees with "one more thing" they need to read. "Everybody has their own approach to their employee newsletter. My goal and vision is to have the newsletter be a form of employee development so that ultimately we have 150 trained benefit professionals in our organization," she says.

Each issue is sent out via email and posted as a PDF on the company website. Tracking software indicates that each issue is read by about half of the population - a number Neely is constantly working to improve. She also hosts workshops after many issues, further expanding on topics covered in the newsletter and allowing employees the chance to ask further questions.

"I don't want employees to use Google to search for information when we have it right here [in the newsletter]," says Neely, adding that her ultimate goal is to "get people to say 'oh my gosh, I need to read this'."

Just how does she accomplish this? "I figure if I've got a question, other people are going to ask the same thing," she says. "If it's really meaty stuff, I use question-and-answer ... I've found that's the best way for our employees to learn." Neely will read a statute or list of requirements, highlight her own questions and work backwards to find an article suitable for the newsletter. Breaking the material into bite-sized chunks, she says, also adds to the readability. While she doesn't aim to "dumb down" content, she does work carefully to make it accessible for "the average layperson as well as benefit professionals."

She suggests that employers looking to beef up engagement with their own communications focus as much on the issue at hand as the "why now?" and "what does this mean for me?" questions to add a personal layer of relevance.

"It doesn't make any difference how large or small [your company is]. You may not see that ROI instantly, [but if you work to provide quality information to your employees] you'll have a better trained workforce and a happier one, too."


Best Use of Social Media

Intel's lofty mission is to extend computing technology to connect and enrich the lives of every person on earth this decade - along with strategic objectives to care for its people, the planet and inspire the next generation. So when the company realized that the technology issued to their own employees wasn't allowing them to engage with their benefits easily, the organization knew something needed to be done.

Despite having generally high enrollment levels and good overall benefits engagement, "we realized that certain population groups weren't as engaged as others," says Michelle James, health communication manager.

The company firewall, which kept information secure, was preventing a good portion of its workforce - who used company-issued mobile smartphones during the day - from accessing password-protected benefits communications. And thus, the company aimed to provide employees and their families a dedicated mobile website to connect them to health benefit information during annual enrollment.

The goals were lofty:

* At least 20% (about 15,400) of the population (employees and spouses/domestic partners) would use the mobile website during the three-week enrollment period.

* At least 5% of employees would switch to a lower-cost plan or enroll in a tax-saving plan.

* Employees would rate the mobile website as user-friendly and helpful in making informed enrollment decisions, demonstrated by 85% or higher satisfaction to the mobile website question on the annual enrollment survey.

The "GoMyBen" mobile site allowed Intel to reach employees and spouses/domestic partners year-round, allowing the firm to update, post-enrollment, information on topics such as coverage amounts, how the plans work and how to get help. So far, Intel has achieved its goals and has even created a separate, behind-the-firewall social media site, which allows plan members to engage further by asking questions to peers or benefits managers on discussion boards, reading employee blogs, and more.

In the three years since the social media site has launched, the company exceeded its 10% engagement goal - about 20% of the employee population is reading the material, and about 10% are actually posting on their own.

"It's really helped our benefits folks, too," James says, in that it has allowed for a two-way dialogue throughout the year.

The discussion forums have been particularly helpful in the company's push towards consumer-driven health plans. Now that the plans have been in place for several years, the focus has shifted toward maximizing effective use. "One of the big pushes that we have is for employees to understand what a health savings account is, how they can use it and how it can be a savings vessel for them. We've put a goal around enrollment around that account and also a savings goal," says James.

While having a custom-designed mobile benefits app or robust internal social media site may not be possible for employers of all sizes, James says that the principles can apply to almost any organization using software already available in the marketplace. Currently, the social site is available only to employees with firewall access. Intel is contemplating how to open up these forums to other family members as well.

Her biggest piece of advice? "Don't be scared of social media." Fears over not being able to handle the volume or combat negative posts have been unfounded. While the company originally "seeded" questions and posts to its discussion boards and blogs, employees maintain and continue to use the resources with little monitoring, showing 20% to 30% engagement during open enrollment and about 20% consistently year-round. Even incorrect information is taken care of at the employee level. "Employees correct each other before we even have a chance to respond," says James.


Best Overall Communications Campaign

There's no such thing as having "too many benefits" - or is there? Last year, American Express found itself in such a situation. The global company uses four separate benefits "brands" to communicate its robust employee offerings - Healthy Living, Smart Saving, Work-Life, and Reward Blue, the recognition program.

"We wanted to take the four benefits brands and be able to integrate one message into one place that tells a whole story ... it's about your overall health," says Jennifer Harvey, director, marketing and communications, in the global compensation and benefits department. "We wanted to do it in a fun and dynamic way."

The publication was aptly titled "For Your Benefit," and Harvey helped design a 12-page magazine that launched in the summer of 2011 and has introduced three quarterly issues since. It was a project that Harvey, a former film and entertainment publicist, was well-qualified to produce. A longtime fan of magazines like People and US Weekly that provide news in fun, easy-to-read nuggets, every article has a call to action.

Each issue starts off with a note from the company's senior vice president of global compensation and benefits (and former winner of EBN's Benefit Professional of the Year award). Each issue is designed around a theme based on the season, which allows the publication to focus on a variety of benefits throughout the four program areas that fit within the seasonal hook.

Each issue touches on programs that fit in with the season, as well as highlights programs that are currently underutilized.

For example, the summer issue touched on the popular Weight Watchers program, including recipes and point cards. Another article highlighted employees who had recently graduated and used American Express' robust programs for tuition reimbursement. Another article, this time with a playground theme, talked about how to find child care for kids who are out of school for the summer.

To keep the issue more personal, American Express did away with stock photography and uses only images of its own employees within the pages. "We feel that employees are the best speakers for our programs," Harvey says. "We wanted to keep all of our communications light and fun. That's the thing we keep in the back of our heads - thoughts like 'would I pick this up?' or 'would I look at this?'"

The team knew that it wanted to put all communications in one place, and had originally discussed a short newsletter, or even a postcard-like mailer, but felt that a magazine would generate higher engagement. To track ROI, the team includes a mail return card with each issue, often a survey that lets employees give feedback. To give reason to keep reading, the magazine also features coupons and giveaways with fun, seasonal prizes like blankets in winter and cookbooks in summer.

Harvey says that a year into the program, the company is beginning to track specific ROI metrics. She believes that this program is just one more way to portray American Express' robust benefit offerings to employees and to help ensure that spouses and other dependents have equal access to benefits information.

As the program grows, Harvey says that she's not afraid to take risks, and believes that others should as well. American Express' international offices are talking about adopting their own version of the communications platform. For her global colleagues and other employers, Harvey has the following advice: "If you start small, that's okay. Just start somewhere."


Best Employee Intranet/Employee Portal Design & Usability

As a leading car and equipment rental company, Hertz strives to be the most cost-efficient, highest-quality and most customer-focused provider in all markets it serves. In keeping with that mission, Hertz launched a Web portal, dubbed BenefitsPlus, in early 2012, in time for employees to use the tool for summer open enrollment.

"BenefitsPlus is fast, easy and provides a valuable experience that will enable our employees to take full advantage of all the benefits we offer," said Sheldon Wright, senior director of benefit and payroll programs for Hertz.

The portal allows employees to access benefits information from home or anywhere else they have Internet access, unlike Hertz's previous benefits site, which was available only to employees with company network access. The new site also integrated online enrollment for its core and voluntary benefits plans, with the goal of increasing appreciation and enrollment in these plans. Communications emphasized the site's "anytime, anywhere access."

Website branding, the consistent use of its new BenefitsPlus logo and incorporating "Horatio," the organization's corporate mascot, into the communications campaign were important components of the communication strategy.

The primary goal was to drive a minimum of 75% of benefit-eligible employees to visit the BenefitsPlus website and actively enroll, even though employees had the option to passively default to their previous benefit elections.

The portal was deemed a success, with 83% active enrollment, and with voluntary benefit enrollment jumping from 1% to an impressive 24%. Eighty percent of those who enrolled online updated their life insurance beneficiary designations as well. Group critical illness benefits also saw a 1,400% increase, and group legal plan enrollment saw an increase of 200%.

Hertz's multimedia communication campaign included e-cards, videos, an online tutorial, webinars, emails, postcards, printed brochures, posters, onsite employee presentations, slides for leaders to use in town hall meetings, and engaging location managers and local HR representatives to assist in promoting the new site.

Currently, Hertz is working with co-sourcing partner Xerox to enhance the website as well as a communications campaign to promote year-round use of the portal.

Twenty percent of employees who enrolled online also completed the optional post-enrollment survey-which in itself is positive. But most rewarding were their comments and ratings. On a scale of one to seven, with seven being the highest rating, the average score overall was six, with high marks in "ease of use," and "helped to understand benefits." When asked what they liked specifically, employee comments included:

* "Automated and easy."

* "Ease of use and it expedites the benefits process. I loved that I was able to do this on my iPad."

* "I love the smart, neat appearance of the Web pages and the ease with which I was able to navigate between choices."

* "It is fast and efficient."

Wright credits having a detailed communications plan carefully integrated into the overall project scope as part of its success, as well as "getting a consensus on the vision and goals for the portal." Smaller companies, he says, can achieve similar results if they set clear goals and develop actionable and comprehensive implementation and communication plans.

"I believe that communications strategy is the key to employee engagement," he says. Strategies "[need] to be 'right sized' to reflect the demographics of the workforce and the culture of the organization."

McLean Robbins is a former Associate Editor at Employee Benefit News and former Managing Editor of Employee Benefit Adviser. She can be reached at

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