What you can learn from using (and testing!) behavioral science principles in your benefits communications

As mentioned in a previous blog post, determining an individual employee’s specific mode of preference when it comes to receiving communications (and being able to deliver the message on all modes) is crucial to making sure messages are received and read.

Once you’ve found out how your employees like to be reached, add the second part of the equation: use behavioral science message framing techniques and A/B testing to learn what truly inspires them to take action. When you employ and measure these techniques, the effectiveness of your communication improves dramatically.

A few years ago, we teamed up with Dr. Katherine Milkman of The Wharton School to test a “planning/write-in” behavioral framework against a control group to see which tactic increased flu vaccination rates. The employees who received a mailer that contained a space to write in the date (and for a third group, the date and time) they planned to get their vaccine increased vaccination rates in both of the write-in groups over the control group, especially for those prompted to write the date and time of their planned flu shot. The write in group, with both date and time, was 12.7% more likely to get the shot than the control.

We saw similar findings in a colonoscopy reminder experiment, where half of the group received a blank sticky note attached to their mailer and the other half received a sticky note with prompts to write in the time and date of their colonoscopy appointment. The more we asked people to plan, the higher their rate of screening. Since planning prompts can logically be theorized to help more forgetful populations, this type of behavioral message framing could be used for those in your population that 54 MTurk survey respondents unanimously characterized as “forgetful”: male, older, parent. Thus, this may be effective message framing for males in the Baby Boomer and Silent Generations.

The process of developing messages starts with studying consumers that you want to influence. Then, it quickly moves to identifying possible heuristics (or cognitive biases they create) that can form the basis of message framing. In a recent survey we conducted about mammogram adherence and perception, we found that normal-risk women over age 50 had the highest rates of adherence, followed by high-risk women over age 50. High-risk woman under age 50 had the lowest rate of adherence. We also found that as women get older, they report finding mammograms less “scary,” “painful,” or “embarrassing,” and that women under 50 were more likely to describe the screening as “scary” and less likely to describe them as “affordable.”

Given this, it may be wise to frame mammogram messaging using the persuasion principles of Dr. Robert Cialdini—for women over 50 who have had at least one mammogram using the consistency behavioral principle (emphasizing and praising their prior healthy actions and encouraging them to “keep it up” by getting the next screening they’re due for), and to frame messaging for high risk women under 50 around social proof (how others like them have already gotten mammograms, to reduce fear).

No matter which behavioral principle you test, one of the most important things to do is to record and learn from the results. You may find interesting generational trends—or not, in some cases. But this information you gather can help you tailor your messaging accordingly going forward. 

Have you tried any behavioral science principles in your messaging? If so, have you noticed that certain generations respond better to some prompts than others?