Double-digit health care increases over the past several years caused many employers to hold off on expanding their employee benefits program. Now, however, as the economy continues to improve, many companies are rethinking their approach to employee benefits. In an effort to compete aggressively for talent, employers realize they can use their benefits program to their advantage in trying to distinguish themselves from their competition.

Companies also may be looking to rebuild benefits satisfaction, which unfortunately for many companies has dropped over the last several years. One reason for the dissatisfaction may lie in the ongoing struggle to communicate the large investment employers make in their company-funded benefits. According to MetLife’s Annual Employee Benefits Trend Study, over one-third (39%) of employees age 21-30, for example–and 28% of workers overall–believe their company spends less than $1,000 per employee annually on medical insurance. Nearly half (49%) believe their company spends less than $2,000. Nationally, companies spend an average of $7,289 per employee annually for family coverage and $3,137 for single coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust.

For most employers, the solution for attracting and retaining a high-performing workforce is a complement of traditional, employer-paid benefits, supplemented by a range of voluntary benefits for which employees pay most or all of the cost. By offering employees a combination of traditional and voluntary benefits, employers can enhance their companies’ benefits offerings without incurring additional expenses or administrative burden.

As employers gear up for this year’s open enrollment season–the time when most employers make changes to their benefits plans–some are taking a long, hard look at their employee benefits program. They also are consulting with their brokers and/or employee benefits providers about the range of new and innovative options available in the marketplace. This includes a new generation of benefits plans and education that are more flexible and convenient than their predecessors–designed to meet the needs of a disparate workforce. We also are beginning to see more portable benefits, which workers can manage and take with them even after they move on to a new job.

For insurance and financial services companies, which historically have been very product focused in their approach to marketing, this is a call to action. The most effective benefits providers recognize that they must offer a range of flexible benefits options to meet the specific life-stage needs of employees. Unfortunately, however, for most companies benefits communications is a one-size-fits-all package delivered only one time a year. In contrast, life-stage marketing takes an “evergreen” approach by promoting products throughout the year to employees depending on the stage of their life they are in. This approach recognizes that employees’ benefits needs change whenever they have a significant life event. Their needs also change as they age.

Young, single employees, for example, may favor disability income insurance and online banking over dependent life insurance. New families about to buy their first home may prefer legal services plans, which would typically cover their closing costs. Mid-lifers and pre-retirees may opt for financial planning, income annuity products and long term care insurance.

To increase employee satisfaction and loyalty, we believe employers need to prioritize their workers’ needs at each life stage and, then, tailor benefits communications and employee education materials to meet these diverse needs. Employees with dissimilar demographics and psychographics, for example, do not view their companies’ communications efforts through the same lens. Of the various employee groups surveyed by MetLife, affluent working moms report the greatest approval for their companies’ benefits communications programs (39%), while blue-collar male traditionalists (15%), struggling single parents (12%) and active seniors (7%) register the lowest levels of appreciation for such programs.

Employers and providers also should turn to a wide range of communications vehicles to reach different worker segments. Technologically sophisticated younger workers may appreciate communications via the Internet or e-mail, while older workers may still prefer in-person meetings or benefits information mailed to their home. A poll of employees quickly can help determine their communication preferences. When selecting a benefits provider, employers should look for one that understands the different life stages of employees and that can support a multi-dimensional communications strategy.

Today’s workforce is made up of a diverse group of individuals from multiple generations, life stages and ethnic backgrounds. The most successful benefits programs of the future will be those made available to a company’s entire workforce and then targeted to employees as they enter various life stages. This will enable employers to help meet their employees’ expectations at a time when a particular insurance or financial product is the most meaningful and relevant to them.

Ben Colvin is vice president, marketing, for MetLife’s Institutional Business.

The most successful benefits programs of the future will be those made available to a company’s entire workforce and then targeted to employees as they enter various life stages