Over the course of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of interviews with consumers, conducted over twenty plus years, we’ve learned a great deal about optimising communications. We’ve heard people from all walks of life, including pensions customers, share the good, the bad and the ugly. We’ve witnessed first-hand some very visceral reactions to bad communications, involving waste bins, shredders and even fire! So, if your comms suck, here’s how to make them better…

Start with the person

Too often we see communications that start with an inside-out view from the organisation rather than thinking about the audience, and even more importantly, the individual reader.

When we think of individuals, we often assume ‘personalisation’ is an effective approach. But personalisation is tricky to do, especially for pensions, and there are more sincere and simpler approaches that focus on how people engage with information.

We put a heavy burden on machines to know what people need and when, but there is still room for humans to write intuitively and empathetically. Communications that acknowledge the different needs of individuals will be rewarded with increased receptiveness. For example, signposting further resourcing for the person who needs/wants to go further are well received, as are attempts to condense information; an approach that is increasingly adopted by news outlets like the BBC who now regularly feature 300-word, 800-word or extended articles around key issues.

Admittedly, it’s easier to write a captivating news article than a financial document full of compliance and important-but-stuffy information, but taking note of how individuals absorb information is equally important in both communications. Much like how a bank manager would speak to a customer face-to-face, a letter should form part of a continuous, coherent conversation, taking into consideration an individual’s thoughts and feelings.

Starting with your individual reader means understanding the factors at play throughout the journey of the communication. We believe the best communications are produced when the process begins with insight into where and when people go through the following episodes.

Acknowledge episodic consumption

When we ask people about the journey a piece of communication might take around their home, computer or other device, we ask how (in what context) they consume communications – is it a manic Monday or a slow Sunday? This context affects whether people are willing to ‘lean in’ and think about finance, or whether the communication will have to wait for another day. When the information is more technical or complex – a perception, and often reality, of pensions communications – people revert to episodic consumption. By this we mean that people will start with a quick scan, picking out key messages (is this urgent, is there a deadline, what will happen if I do nothing, what is involved in doing something?) and then mentally categorise what is in front of them.

When dealing with literature or other printed communications, the mental process is matched by a physical one. People often take a conveyor belt approach: there is typically an ‘inbox’ in each home (this could be a shelf in the hall or the kitchen table) where the mail is placed, unopened. A sorting exercise takes place whereby mail is assessed at face value and quickly evaluated in terms of urgency and intrigue. In our experience, communications from financial services providers mainly fall into the ‘boring but necessary’, ‘unwelcome surprise’ or ‘ineffective selling’ categories!

This initial categorisation is important because it informs what happens next. For many people, there is a break here… and the communication will be opened with this initial assessment in mind. What is immediately communicated in an initial scan can reassure or activate negative emotions but it can also decide whether it needs further deliberation. Following review, opening and an initial cursory scan, there will be a ‘filing’ moment… where the communication will be placed somewhere ready for disposal, further review or filed for information. The review process may take multiple re-reads before deciding a course of action.

Encourage action

More often than not, we see misalignment between the intent of the messenger and the interpretation of the recipient. It’s important to recognise that for many people the communication is the start of another journey, and those next steps are often unappreciated in the communications they receive. The communication is a doorway or bridge to next steps for individuals, but is often treated as the end product instead.

This shouldn’t be ‘The End’. To aid the next steps of the journey you should invite the individual to get in contact or make an enquiry – and make this feel reasonable and normal. Too often the tone and structure of communications is overly formal, when it should actually read as if someone at your organisation were sat face-to-face with a customer.

Focusing on financial capabilities is important, but the context for a happy ending is much simpler; how much mental capacity do people have for your brand, your product, your ask of them? How do you best guide them to a positive outcome for themselves and their families? How do you reduce friction, remove barriers and open the door to action?

In order to create great communications that help individuals to live happily ever after, your organisation must recognise the flow of a communication; the context in which communications are received (physical and psychological); and that often your communication will start rather than end a process for recipients

By Paul Child, Lead Commercial Director, Peter Latham, Culture & Trends Consultant, Join the Dots InSites Consulting

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