COVID-19 has challenged the status quo and upended the way we’ve always done things. Working from home and social distancing have ushered in a new reality for benefits, and one of the more tangible questions right now is: “We’ve always held an in-person benefits fair, so what should we do now?” And the answer: “Let’s just move the benefits fair online.”
If you're considering making your benefits fair virtual this year, here are a few tips to help you plan.
Start with the end goal in mind
It is easy to get caught up in going straight to a solution before fully defining the problem. Solutions are fun, cool, and shiny. But before you sink time, money, and resources into a sparkly new solution, pause your excitement for just a minute, and make sure you have an open and honest conversation about what you gained from past benefits fairs and what you’re hoping to achieve going forward.
- How have you measured a benefits fair’s success in the past?
- What is the most important outcome from holding a benefits fair? Why have you conducted them in the past, or what have you tried to achieve?
- In this new environment, what needs to stop, continue, and improve in terms of the benefits fair experience?
- What is most important for your people to know, do, and feel as it relates to the benefits fair?
- How will you measure success this year? Impact on your bottom line or your people? Reduction in call volume?
Short- and long-term strategy
Once you clarify the purpose of and mission for your benefits fair, it’s time to think through who your audience is and what communication channels you have at your disposal. Do you have an existing benefits website or web conferencing service that you can use? What about your email capability? Does your audience have any communication preferences? Are they tech savvy, or do they prefer personal 1-on-1 conversations? How will the channels you choose fit into your audiences’ lives, and how will that experience feel to them? Make a list of all the communication channels available to you and your audiences’ preferences, so that you can identify what you can use and where you might have gaps.
Also think through your short- and long-term needs. While traditional benefits fairs are typically in-person live events, what opportunities are there to rethink the information needs of people and transition to an on-demand, just-in-time format? While 2020 is top of mind, don’t forget to think through your strategic roadmap for where you want to be in 3 years and how you’ll want to reach your people going forward. For many organizations, COVID-19 has exposed missing channels for effective ongoing benefits communication.
Remember that all media channels—web, print, email, in-person—have pros and cons. It’s always a good idea to be thoughtful when adding a new channel to your communications mix to ensure you’re leveraging the strengths of each medium.
As you begin to think through transitioning your in-person benefits fair online, consider the pros and cons of each.
In-person benefits fairs
- Sense of urgency: One of the biggest advantages of an in-person event is the fact that if you don’t attend by a certain date and time, you miss out. Let’s face it, many of us procrastinate, and the fact that the benefits fair is going to be over by 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday is a motivating factor for many.
- Swag: The No. 1 reason why people attend in-person benefits fairs? Free stuff. Yes, swag is a big draw for many. Whether it’s the free snacks or the EAP provider’s cool new bottle opener, people like free stuff.
- Social event: For many people, in-person benefits fairs are a social event. Teams or friends can attend together to explore their benefits while breaking away from their workspaces for an hour.
- Limited availability: It can be hard to scale in-person fairs. They might not be practical to hold in all locations, so workers in smaller offices or who work remotely are often left out. Timing can also be a challenge for workforces, like hospital staff, where work schedules can be an issue.
- Point in time: In-person events are held on specific days at specific times. If you’re sick, busy, or on vacation, you simply miss out and don’t have an easy way to catch up on what you missed.
- Logistics and expense: If you have a large number of vendor partners that you want to present at the fair, determining locations and reserving the physical space across multiple locations adds logistical challenges as well as significant time and travel expenses.
Virtual benefits fairs
- Everyone has access: Virtual benefits fairs can allow you to have greater consistency in messaging while also extending your reach to all your audience—including remote workers, spouses, and family members.
- Evergreen resource: Moving to an on-demand model allows your people to access information when they need it, not just when vendor reps happen to be scheduled in the cafeteria once a year.
- Reimagined benefits fairs: Moving online is your opportunity to reimagine the benefits fair, do something different, or try something new. Plus, you can reuse any content you develop beyond a one-time event, so it’s available to new hires or seasoned employees as needed.
- Harder to distribute swag: Logistically, it becomes really challenging to physically distribute tchotchkes that most people love.
- Less sense of urgency: While moving to an on-demand model is ultimately more convenient for people, it is important to realize that virtual benefits fairs, by themselves, don’t create the same sense of urgency that in-person events do.
- Harder to make informal connections: One of the best things about live conferences and events is the chance encounters of the people you bump into at the event. It isn’t planned, but instead happens when people grab for a stress ball at the same time and spark a conversation.
Redesigning benefits fairs
As you think through how to move your benefits fair online, you have a great opportunity to reframe the entire fair concept. When going virtual, the key is not to dwell on the losses of an in-person event but rather accentuate the positives of a virtual format.
Address any barriers to engagement head on, so you can turn them into positives. For example, we know that swag is a big draw. Highlight that, in lieu of swag offered at your live events, you’ll donate to a worthy cause. Tell your people, “For every X (online action), we’ll contribute Y (dollars) to a worthy cause that you can vote on at the virtual benefits fair.”
Also, be sure to create a sense of urgency when you move online to draw traffic to your event. Two practical ways to do that are by offering live webinars giving people a chance to ask questions as well as conducting a limited-time survey or raffle to drive engagement and participation.
Random connections and meetups between your people are difficult to duplicate online. Instead, focus your efforts elsewhere, where you’ll receive a greater return, such as spending time and money to create a library of short webinars on specific topics rather than creating an online social component simply to replicate an in-person experience. Remember, virtual is not the same as in-person, and that is okay.
Wide range of possibilities
You have a wide range of solutions and resources from which to choose when moving your benefits fair online. To help you navigate the landscape, answer two key questions:
- Do you want to view this as a point-in-time event, an ongoing resource, or both?
- Do you prefer an off-the-shelf product that might meet some of your needs, or do you prefer a customized solution tailored around your unique situation and needs?
Webinars paired with websites
Sometimes the simplest solution is the best solution. You can use technology that you already have access to, like Zoom, Webex, or Teams. The approach is simple: Create a series of webinars or office hours, so employees can meet each vendor. Record webinars and publish them for on-demand viewing on your benefits website, intranet, or custom microsite. This approach has less wow factor, and helpful content can get buried or overlooked. But it offers a simple, practical solution that uses existing channels and can be done relatively inexpensively.
Virtual conference spaces
There is a wide range of companies that provide virtual events online. It is a crowded market, and pricing ranges dramatically based on the platform and its functionality, the duration of the event, etc. Most of these platforms attempt to take a physical-world metaphor—physically creating a lobby or exhibit halls—to simulate what a conference or benefits fair would look like in real life. From the user experience, they are kind of like licorice; some people love it and some people hate it. These solutions are designed to have minimal customization—typically allowing you to add a logo, images, and choose colors to reflect your brand. They also allow you to add content, such as PDFs and webinar recordings, if it fits into their structure, and that’s about it. While they do offer one place to house content and a platform for people to engage with your vendors, there are drawbacks—many require annual subscriptions, they aren’t designed for single events, and the content isn’t evergreen, so it’s more difficult to reuse content outside of the benefits fair experience.
Custom online experiences
Many large organizations, like Adobe, HPE, and Salesforce, are moving their traditional in-person conferences online to create virtual experiences by building custom microsites dedicated specifically to an event. There are many ideas and concepts you can draw from when creating a robust, custom-branded online experience. These microsites can contain a mix of live and on-demand content and are tailored specifically for your organization’s needs. They can also be designed to support your benefits fair and be a resource for benefits information going forward.
The best solution is what works best for your people—and your budget
It can be easy to get overwhelmed by all the things you could do. But have no fear. Stay grounded with your end goal in mind. Review all the communication channels available to you and your specific audiences’ preferences. See what you can use and what gaps might prevent you from reaching your people. Be mindful of the pros and cons of each approach, and make sure you address any perceived or real takeaways from not doing an in-person benefits fair. Remember that it is okay that certain aspects of a live event can’t be replicated online. There are many advantages to moving your benefits fair online, and your people may actually prefer it.
Finally, don’t forget that attending in-person benefits fairs often requires a major time and cost commitment from you and your vendors. Because they’re saving money, your vendors may be able to help offset the cost or contribute to your fair by developing materials in exchange for not attending in person.
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