Timing can be critical when developing a benefits programme, and matching your offerings to the time of year is a good strategy, writes Sam Barrett

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Sunshine and longer days may make us think of spending more time outdoors or taking a holiday. But, for the smart reward manager, the summer months are all about promoting seasonal benefits such as cycle-to-work schemes, fitness deals and healthy eating initiatives. And getting the timing right can make a huge difference to the take-up on many benefits.

James Malia, director of employee benefits at Sodexo Benefits and Rewards Services, says: “Reward managers need to think more like retail managers. Although some benefits are relevant all year round, you need to be aware of the retail cycle, as this can dictate when people will be most interested in different types of reward. It’s about maximising the value you and your staff get from the benefits you offer.”

Timing matters

Cycle-to-work schemes are a perfect example of this. While the diehard cyclist will get in the saddle whatever the weather, it’s the sunshine that inspires most of us to jump on a bike.

“Most employees will take this benefit up between March and October, with the start of British Summer Time normally the key trigger,” says Stephen Holt, business development director at Cyclescheme. “If you’re an employer with a benefits enrolment window at the end of the year, this will affect take-up.”

As an example, figures from Reward Gateway indicate that 38% of bikes are bought between April and June, compared to just 10% in the previous three months.

There are other benefits that can also prove more popular in the summer months. Gym deals, travel insurance and passes for theme parks and other children’s activities can all have extra summer appeal.

Nick Patel, principal consultant in the flexible benefits team at JLT, adds: “Build a package around summer activities. If you’re promoting gym membership, flag up any discount deals you might have on relevant technology, active wear and gym bags. You can also complement this with any health and wellbeing promotions you run.”

Seasonal adjustment

The other seasons can also boost the appeal of certain benefits. Holt says sales of technology tend to rise in the winter, as people look for Christmas presents and also in line with new releases of phones and other devices. Likewise, although they’re popular all year round, the demand for childcare vouchers can spike around April to tie in with the new tax year.

Another benefit where the seasons will influence marketing is a discount programme. Debra Corey, group reward director at Reward Gateway, says the runup to Christmas is by far the busiest time of year for these programmes. “We offer a double discount for a week to help people stretch their money as far as possible on their Christmas shopping,” she explains. “We’re also trialling this for the summer as there’s more spending on seasonal items such as holidays, restaurants and clothes.”

Smart seasonal communications can also help you get extra mileage out of benefits that are traditionally linked to other times of the year. As an example, Holt recommends a push on cycle-to-work schemes in October: “Lights and reflective clothing are a must if you want to keep cycling to work after the clocks go back.”

Promotions calendar

While the seasons might offer a good hook for your benefits, Manesh Patel, senior benefits consultant at Aon Employee Benefits, says the one thing that will make this type of campaign work is effective communications.

“Employees are consumers, so you have to think like Amazon and concentrate on the marketing and communications around your benefits. It’s not a seasonal retailer: it just gets the marketing right.”

To do this, he recommends drawing up a calendar-based communications programme pulling in key benefit promotion triggers. These can include the seasons, the academic year, and key holidays such as Christmas and Easter, but also events such as the London Marathon and health awareness weeks that could tie into your promotions.

As well as getting the timing right, JLT’s Patel says the way these promotions are communicated will also affect take-up. “It’s not enough to offer a platform with a rich mix of benefits,” he says. “You need a continuous push using a range of different promotional materials from posters and emails to video, interactive PDFs and push messaging.”

Tips for success

There are also ways to supercharge your seasonal promotions. As an example, although the advent of anytime benefits allows staff to pick and choose whenever they want, Malia recommends using specific offer windows for some promotions.

He explains: “If you’re looking to drive take-up, a four-week window will help to drive urgency. For instance, if you decide to promote a cycle-to-work scheme for four weeks in May, chances are the sun will come out at some point.”

But, if you do opt for a short window for a benefit offer, make sure you get your timing right. Promoting discounted tickets to water parks might seem a great idea during a two-week heatwave in August but as it’s a popular holiday time, some employees might be annoyed they were away and unable to take advantage of it.

Working closely with your benefit providers can also make your seasonal promotions a success, especially if you’re pushing retail offers.

Holt explains: “If you’re doing a big October push on Apple’s new iPhone, make sure your provider has enough stock. There’s nothing worse than having to wait for the latest technology to turn up.”

It’s also important to make sure your systems are able to accommodate this level of marketing. Aon’s Patel says the amount of work involved is the biggest barrier he comes across when talking about adopting this type of campaign.

“Employers complain it’s too much work but this shouldn’t be the case,” he says. “By setting up systems and processes properly, a lively marketing campaign shouldn’t cause any extra work for benefits administration.”

Employer benefits

Indeed, while pulling together a seasonal benefits promotion can feel like extra work, the pluses more than outweigh the effort.

By offering benefits at the right time, take-up and usage rises. This can drive employee engagement and appreciation, leading to increased productivity, less sickness absence and improvements in staff recruitment and retention.

It can also improve employees’ physical, mental and financial health and wellbeing. As an example, a series of outdoor boot camp fitness sessions will be much better attended if promoted in the summer than in the November or December.

There can even be financial benefits for employers who get the timings right on benefits promotion. For instance, enrolling more staff in a cycle-to-work scheme will generate greater National Insurance savings.

So, while it may require a bit of imagination and forward planning, it’s a strategy well worth considering. “By helping employees take advantage of different benefits you can gain such a lot of goodwill,” says Corey. “Get creative and celebrate the summer while we have it.”