How Aon prioritizes storytelling in benefit communications

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A career HR professional, Kate Sanderson briefly deviated to underwrite health plans at Cigna before committing to professional services firm Aon for the past 13 years. Now, the 42-year-old communicates with 24,500 U.S. employees as the global head of total rewards and HR shared services at Aon. She spoke to Employee Benefit News about how the global company uses its partnership with Aon Hewitt — one of its business segments that focuses on talent, retirement and health— to keep employees engaged and the types of targeting communications she sends out. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Employee Benefit News: You’ve been with Aon for 13 years. Have you seen a change in the way your company interacts with employees?

Sanderson: Oh absolutely. I think the digital world that we’re living in right now has really transformed and dramatically improved the way that we are communicating with our colleagues. I think we’ve been able to make a number of changes where we just made it a lot easier for our colleagues to be educated, to make the right choices for them and for their families. We’ve been able to make things that are complex a lot simpler. Certainly technology has become a big piece of this, but we transformed from being more transaction-focused in the past to really focusing our benefit communication around motivating and educating our colleagues. It’s changed a great deal over the past few years.

EBN: Where have you focused your efforts in benefit communications? What kinds of technology do you use?

Sanderson: We really have a team approach here. It’s our total rewards and benefits team, then we also partner with our HR communications team; we also have a strong partnership with Aon Hewitt and their external client basing practice around employee benefit communications. We are in fact a client of that practice. So those three groups partner very closely together. One of the major trends that we’ve seen or changes that relate to new technology that we’ve been able to deploy is using much more of a multichannel approach to our employee communications. We’ve been able to use a lot more segmentation to understand our colleagues. We have diverse colleagues in terms of their demographic information. Also, it’s not just colleagues we’re speaking to, but it’s also their families that are also important decision makers.

One of the things we’ve been focused on is more of a multichannel approach. In some ways, there are brand new technologies that we are using, things like texting and messaging capabilities. We are observing trends that are out there right now, and we don’t have to look that far to know that nearly everyone is attached to their smartphone, and that’s the way we want to consume information. We also know that we have very little time in order to make an impact with our colleagues.

The interesting thing is even in this high tech-kind of world, you might think paper was going to be dead. But for us, we’ve actually continued with some of the high-impact mailers to people’s homes because we realized that the population that we’re trying to target is not just the colleagues but also a spouse or a partner. The multichannel approach is definitely something that’s been new for us.

EBN: Would a 55-year-old employee get the same communications as a 22-year-old who works for you?

Sanderson: Across the vast majority of our channels, we’re applying multi-channels to all of our colleagues. But for something like text messaging, which we know for some people could be viewed as very positive but for other people could be viewed as very annoying, we are allowing people to opt in – to let us know how they would prefer to receive that communication. That is a best practice that our partners at Aon Hewitt shared with us that they’re doing with a number of other clients as well. So for some of these channels, we’re using an opt-in method. Likewise, webinars, things like that; we’re giving people the option.

EBN: How often are you contacting your employees?

Sanderson: It depends on the time of year. Obviously during open enrollment we are contacting employees more. There are spikes based on important activities where we do reach out to colleagues more. On text messaging, you’re probably going to get one or two per month. We’re certainly not inundating people with them.

EBN: What’s your biggest challenge with benefits communication?

Sanderson: One of the challenges we’ve had to deal with around sharing information with people is the fact that in today’s digital age, people really expect one-stop shopping. One of the things we found in terms of getting information to people is that we really need to have it embedded in whatever the action or activity is that we’re asking them to do. A really good example of that is annual enrollment where, as a colleague, you wouldn’t need to have any other information. You could just go, with no reading in advance, through decision support and communication and information that’s integrated and embedded in our annual enrollment process; you would still be able to make informed decisions and choices in a short window of time but you wouldn’t need to collect information first. The challenge that we have around information is more around getting it to people when they need it and in the format that they would expect it in today’s digital age. When we buy shoes on Zappos, we want all that information right there and to get that transition done quickly.

EBN: Have you seen a change about how people want their benefits communication?

Sanderson: We have decision support built in where you would be asked certain questions like How much are you comfortable having taken out of your paycheck? Do you have a nest egg available for healthcare costs? We have data showing us how many of our colleagues, once they got that information, made those choices – how many followed the decision support recommendation. It definitely gives us a lot more information. Another example around communications we have. We realized it’s most appealing to our colleagues to see an email not with a ton of text but with a graphic and then the opportunity to link through on that topic.

EBN: How does overseeing benefits service Aon Hewitt affect your communications?

Sanderson: The great thing for us is that we have such a good partnership with Aon Hewitt. We tend to be an early adopter around trying out new offerings, and we take a lot of pride in that. As we have some of these more advanced tools that we’re actually using them ourselves.

EBN: Do you have any tips for employers looking to improve their benefits communication?

Sanderson: Whenever possible, ensure that you’re being participant-centric and that you’re viewing things through the eyes of the colleague, and how and when they are going to be using the information. Oftentimes, as HR professionals may be excited about sharing the attributes of a specific benefit or a specific offering, but in fact what’s most important is to think about when your colleague is going to need that information and taking much more of a participant-centric approach. An example of that is thinking about communicating and having information available to colleagues based on what they’re experiencing in their life, like “I had a child” or “I’m retiring.” That cuts across many benefit plans and sharing it in a more participant-centric manner is much more effective.

If you can include an element of storytelling and an element that allows people to relate on benefit issues, I think that’s very motivational for people. You may not just share information about a specific plan, but when you first share information about a specific persona or specific person — been at the company for a number of years, wanting to retire, thinking about buying a home somewhere sunny —you kind of draw people in to something they can relate to and it’s more engaging for them.

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