Author: Maha Khan Phillips
There is far too much complexity in the written investment content that asset managers use to communicate with their clients, and not enough focus on the client themselves, argues David Butcher
Is there an introduction more unwelcome than, “let’s talk about me”?
When you meet a friend of a friend, or a work contact, you’d probably react quite badly to them focusing solely on themselves. And yet this is what UK-based investment management businesses do, time and again, with their written content.
When they publish materials for consultants, pension trustees, professional fund selectors, IFAs or the investing public, it seems they’re only interested in themselves. There’s little focus on the millions of people and thousands of organisations that entrust them with hard-won capital.
We know investment management businesses talk about themselves because new research says so. The 2020 Readability Report analysed the 72 most visible or promoted items of content published by 24 award-winning investment management businesses. In fact, the analysis highlights a number of challenges, and opportunities, but let’s stick with this introspection for now.
Just one article in three (24/72) uses the words “you” or “client”.
Many of these 24 examples are single mentions – namely the words “you” or “client” feature just once in an article – and hardly any in our sample used “you” or “client” together in the same article. The overwhelming trope in investment content is the first person, usually plural: “we think” or the more compliance friendly (for some reason) “we believe”.
It’s not clear whether the clients of, or website visitors to, each company asked for these articles. But it’s what they’ve been given. The portfolio managers apparently know best.
If you agree with the opening sentence of this article then you might also agree that it’s not helpful to introduce a company and its award-winning capabilities with introspection or, at worst, boasting. And perhaps if you’re an existing client of the company in question you might get tired of being airbrushed from the picture – or of being told what you “should” be thinking about.
So there’s a huge opportunity here to bring the clients back into investment story telling. To move the assets to one side, to make them bit-part players, and give the lead role to the people and organisations whose money is being invested. Writers of client-facing materials could start with more instances of “you” or “client” in articles or research papers. Even better would be to investigate about what readers want to read. It’s a good excuse to get to know clients better.
This theme of introspection might explain some of the other challenges posed by the 2020 crop of investment content. There are further issues.
Firstly, published material is too complex.
Our sample of 72 blogs, articles and research papers achieves a mean average readability score of 12.5. This number is quite a long way from the very readable financial media, such as the Financial Times or Economist, (average score = 11.1) and perilously close to peer-review academic papers (score = 13.0).
Also, a score of 12.5 is about the same level of complexity as school ‘A’ level or university undergraduate materials. If investment content is designed to inform, educate and even entertain then this level of complexity surely asks way too much of readers.
The chief causes of readability scores are too many long words and long, convoluted sentences. Even smart people lose concentration when they’re asked to focus on unusually protracted writing. It doesn’t have to be this way. Some of the most resonant writing in history achieves the lowest (and therefore best) readability scores in our survey. We’re talking here about the great speeches.
When Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address or Winston Churchill promised to “fight on the beaches” they used forms of English we might consider slightly archaic today. But the texts still achieved lower readability scores than UK investment content (10 and 12.5 for the two speeches respectively). Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and Greta Thunberg’s “you lied to us” score 6 and 7 respectively. Great speeches deliver big or complex ideas with simplicity. There can be no doubt of their meaning. Everyone remembers them. And there’s no reason why UK investment content can’t be the same.
Additionally, investment content is typically too long for the time people spend reading. The average piece of content is 1,825 words long. A ‘good’ reader reads at about 300 words per minute, at 80% comprehension, and would take about six minutes to read 1,825 words.
So far so good. But wait: according to the US government, middle-aged graduates spend just 20 minutes a day reading. This means that buyers of investment products and services have capacity to consume three or four pieces of investment content a day, provided they read nothing else. That means no news, no Facebook, no novels and no economic reports.
Would content achieve more if it was typically shorter?
Perhaps. It’s not lost on us that the financial media remains popular. The average Financial Times or Economist piece is 735 words long – just 40% of the investment content length – and is far easier to read.
Media articles are also laid out in a way that aids the reader. This matters because research shows that people read digital articles differently to analogue ones. They scan, they zig zag and they jump around. They tend to stop when they reach a “pull quote”. And literally no-one makes it to the end of an article.
You might not be surprised to hear that many investment content articles leave their conclusions to the end … where they remain unseen. And this is why a news article usually tells you everything you need to know in the first paragraph or two. All of the above represents opportunity. There’s nothing that can’t be changed about investment content. It can be readable and engaging and enjoyable.
Portfolio managers tend to be some of the brightest people. They’re paid to exercise curiosity and imagination. These skills can be deployed in how they communicate to their clients.
David Butcher is Managing Director at Communications and Content