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VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Remember the consumer in 'consumer-driven' plans

June 9, 2008

While many businesses have made the phrase "consumerdirected health care" a standard part of benefits conversations, too many have failed to do the one thing that will make this approach successful: treat employees like consumers.

Instead, employers have "communicat ed" this new benefit trend the same old way, with jargon-laced handouts, uninformative brochures and dry presentations. No wonder all employees aren't embracing consumer-directed health care.

Researchers wouldn't be surprised by employees' slow adoption. Studies show that employees typically are more satisfied with even sub-par benefits they understand than with better benefits that are less wellexplained.

To combat this problem, benefits professionals must take a page from Marketing 101, defining their "consumers" more clearly and targeting their communications more strategically. How do you start? The same way as any marketer-by understanding your consumer.

A concept known as the Everett Rogers Diffusion of Innovations theory helps here. Basically, it classifies consumers by when in the marketing cycle they purchase products or services. First up are the "innovators," those folks who are always ready to try something new, even if it's unproven or radically different. This category represents about 3 percent of consumers.

About 14 percent of consumers are considered "early adopters." Of greatest interest to marketers, these consumers not only are open to new ideas but usually can influence "early majority" and "late majority" consumers who together make up almost 70 percent of the market.

The final 16 percent are "laggards," who often accept new products only when there is no other option.

Target 'segments'

While innovators and early adopters are a relatively small segment of the consumer population, they are crucial to the successful introduction of consumer-directed plans such as high-deductible health plans and health savings accounts. Adventurous and well-educated, they'll seek information from a variety of sources.

HR teams should reach out to this group in specific ways. This might include selfselection-asking for volunteers to be included in focus groups on new health care options, for example, or to help identify opinion leaders. Communications should include information on consumerdirected health care adoption trends, research from independent third parties and key messages that innovators and adopters can use when discussing plans with their peers.

Through this process, HR teams can help innovators and early adopters become "evangelists" for the program, equipping them to be resources and featuring them in short articles in the employee newsletter.

Basically, benefit professionals should use this group to help move others into program acceptance; failing to do so can lead to lower and slower acceptance.

Early- and late-majority employees often take a wait-and-see attitude. Communications to them should include clear reasoning, language about "proven solutions" and statistics on plan adoption.

Early-majority individuals typically are deliberate and pragmatic, and they look to innovators and early adopters for information. They have many social contacts, but they're not as influential as early adopters. Late-majority employees typically are not as educated or aware as the early majority. Reach them with simple solutions and traditional communications.

Communicate in phases

Does all of this mean you have to create different communications for innovators, early adopters, early- majority and latemajority employees? No, but it does mean you have to include messages crafted to each group in all communications. And this can be done by returning to Rogers' marketing model, which highlights a fivestage adoption process.

Knowledge phase: This is when the innovators and early adopters become most engaged and when you can lay the groundwork for them to influence others. You'll have the greatest impact with information from a variety of sources, including thirdparty endorsements, business-media coverage, objective statistics and case studies.

Persuasion phase: In this phase, use comparison charts, testimonials and clear product benefits to reach early adopters and early-majority employees. Once they're convinced, they'll help you communicate with the late-majority and laggards. For them, use persuasive communications such as benchmark studies, product reviews, cost analyses and seminars.

Decision phase: Innovators and early adopters can be counted on to sign up once they receive appropriate information. You can help early-majority and late-majority employees decide by providing Web-based information, simplified descriptions, and pros and cons of the different options. To close the deal with early- and late-majority employees, stress proof, widespread acceptance and clear-cut benefits. Traditional tools such as brochures are effective.

Implementation phase: Communication doesn't stop after sign-up-in fact, it becomes more important. Satisfaction is ensured by explaining the best utilization of services, benefits and tax-advantages.

Confirmation phase: Renewal periods will prove the ultimate acceptance of the program. You can rely on reenrollments and new enrollees to affirm your strategy.

Introducing consumer-driven benefits in this way can be laborious, but it pays off in easier enrollments, greater satisfaction and more effective utilization-exactly what consumers want.



Brenner is CEO of Indianapolis-based Benefit Associates Inc. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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