Tweeting Health Benefits ... in 140 Characters or Fewer

Benefits managers are getting over their aversion to talking publicly about health benefit plans and using social media to cut through the clutter of information and connect with employees.

August 6, 2009
To many health care benefits managers, the social networking site Twitter seems like navel-gazing blather.

But that’s how millions of people get their information these days, communicating using 140 characters or fewer (like this sentence does).

Ikea looked at the Twitter phenomenon and said: If you want your employees to make good health care decisions, meet them where they’re at. Thirty-six percent of Ikea’s employees are millennials. No one expected them to read packets of information sent through snail mail. So on April 8, at 7 a.m., Ikea became one of the first companies to communicate the details of their health plans on Twitter.

The company tweeted, “If I don’t enroll in benefits now, can I do it later? Go here b4 it’s too late,” pointing workers to Ikea’s employee Web site.

“We wanted to talk to our co-workers in a way they are talking,” says Beth Gleba, corporate information manager for Ikea North America. “We wanted to use our resources in the smartest way possible.”

With each new technology or application, the way people communicate changes. Open enrollment used to be as simple as sending packets of information to someone’s home. Those days are over. To cut through today’s clutter of information, more companies are communicating to employees in ways that employees themselves communicate.

“Benefits communication needs to keep up or they are going to lose their audience altogether,” says Jennifer Benz, a communications consultant in San Francisco.

For those who are not tech savvy, trying to keep up with it can be overwhelming, says Larry Boress, president of the Midwestern Business Group on Health.

“People are saying, ‘Yeah, OK, but how do I do it?” he says.

Benz, who advised Ikea on how to roll out Twitter, says the technology can be automated. Ikea mapped out how it wanted to use Twitter, creating categories the company wanted to write about, such as open enrollment and wellness.

Then Ikea wrote 50 “tweets” in advance and used a Twitter “feed” to program the days and times when it wanted to send them out.

Tweeting forced Gleba to simplify the arcane world of health care into terms her employees could understand.

Each tweet, easily digestible, neatly linked to relevant information:

• “Choosing a medical plan? You pay more for a PPO but you have flexibility to the providers you want [URL provided].”

• “Choosing a medical plan? Costs are lower with an HMO, but you’re restricted on the providers you can see. [URL provided].”

Companies once viewed their health plans as top secret. Benz, a former Hewitt Associates consultant, says companies should get over that fear.

“There’s nothing proprietary about benefits design,” she says. “Benefits consultants design it that way.”

Social media can lead to more informed discussions about health benefits. Web sites like Twitter, Facebook and blogs allow employees to form communities where peers can ask and answer questions.

The beauty of social media is that spouses and other decision makers can easily access important information, Benz says. Twitter may be the Internet darling of the moment, but such micro-blogging technology can be applied to company intranets as well. offers Twitter-like posts that can be viewed only by members of the same company. Answers to the question “What are you working on?” create private feeds that other employees can comment on and share.

Twitter has also developed a business software tool called CoTweet that helps employers develop, manage and analyze their entries.

Some employers prefer company blogs, where posts are private and, for the verbose, not limited to the staccato of 140 characters. Last year, Sun Microsystems launched a blog during open enrollment to talk about benefits. The blog posts now supplement stories from the Santa Clara, California-based company’s monthly benefits newsletter.

Social media also helps engage employees in their health care benefits, while giving feedback to employers on their communication. Sun used the virtual world of Second Life to hold a forum on benefits during open enrollment that allowed employees to ask and answer questions online and over the phone. The company also developed an online focus group to gather employee feedback on the company’s wellness program as well as a “wiki” page that allows employees to collectively write, edit, update and publish information about the company’s health benefits, says company spokeswoman Dana Lengkeek.

Computer chip maker Intel, also in Santa Clara, California, has been blogging about benefits since 2007. Melanie Alquist, who works in the employee communications group and blogs about benefits, says open enrollment, when employees must decide which health plan to enroll in, is when most people visit the blog. Last November, the company’s vice president of HR made a video blog to explain why Intel made certain changes to its benefit plan. The blog allows employees to comment on subjects and answer one another’s questions.

“People often have better advice and better input than the official channels,” Alquist says. “People help each other with tips and tricks and ‘You know, this is what happened to me.’ ”

Comments tend to represent various viewpoints, not just the company line.

“If someone has a bad experience and puts it down on a post, almost 100 percent of the time someone else will weigh in with an opposite experience, to show the balance,” she says.

For these companies, blogging or Twittering is one new way, among many others, that employers are reaching employees. In the beginning, employers are most concerned with crossing boundaries that may get them into legal limbo. But once a company starts blogging, that fear subsides, Alquist says, as bloggers learn how to write for the public domain.

While companies have not measured whether social media succeeds in making employees better health care consumers, Intel, for one, has been able to collect and organize the comments people leave to get a better sense not only of how employees can find what they need, but how Intel can improve their health benefits communication.

“You post a blog,” Alquist says, “and then suddenly you’ve got 40,000 people who can potentially help you with something.”