Still Basing Communications Strategies on Age?

Experts convened for a webinar about retirement planning suggested a DC plan participant’s age should impact the content of communications, but not necessarily the form.

Retirement plan communications have come a long way in the last decade, according to experts featured during a webinar sponsored by Broadridge—and they have a lot further to go in the coming years to meet lofty client expectations.

Michelle Jackson, a Broadridge vice president of business strategy and development, who led the webinar on provider innovation and retirement investor communication strategies, outlined ongoing trends in digital plan communications and highlighted opportunities presented to plan advisers and their sponsor clients through more robust communications programs.

“Just to set the stage, we all know we are facing a fundamental issue in the form of the retirement income gap,” she said. “Pressure is being applied across the retirement planning industry value chain to close the income gap, and this in turn is leading to substantial change in the way we think of plan-related communications.”

Jackson said an emerging lesson is that improved communications are a dependable pathway to improved plan performance, but “firms need to be great across channels, whether we are talking about paper mailings, email or any other traditional or digital channels.” In other words, Jackson said, being effective in one communication channel is not enough to ensure success or plan metric improvements.

“Retirement providers are increasingly squeezed between the need to reduce cost and the pressure to improve participant outcomes,” she explained. “The convergence of several trends provides an opportunity to address these challenges. The growth of Millennials in the workforce, the evolution of cloud computing and the always-on digital consumer give retirement providers a chance to break through the clutter and deliver powerful new communication experiences.”

NEXT: Gong beyond age-based preferences 

Perhaps the first step in building out a better communication strategy, Jackson noted, is coming to a deeper understanding of how demographics do and do not impact communication preferences. “The classic example we hear about is that Millennials like digital and Boomers still like paper,” she said.

While it’s true Millennials have been exposed to technology from an early age and have a more intuitive relationship with in digital communication, Jackson cited recent research showing 87% of people see themselves as “early” or “mainstream” adopters of technology. It’s a vast majority of consumers that cuts across age groups and other demographic divides: after all, nobody really relishes the idea of being left behind the times.

“So it’s really not just the Millennials or younger Gen Xers who want to go all in on digital communications,” Jackson said. “Digitally based relationships are a major secular trend not focused on one industry or one particular age group.”

Jackson suggested the retirement advisory industry must keep in mind that Boomers and Gen Xers are every bit as interested in technology as Millennials are. Another point to keep in mind is just how cluttered a given individual’s digital life has become, Jackson said.  

“From the consumer perspective, on average, households in the U.S. have about 55 important digital relationships, which require a person to take ongoing and regular action,” she said. “It’s a pretty substantial number to deal with during the year. We’re talking about everything from your electricity bills to your personal banking. Multiply everything that goes into maintaining one of these relationships by 50 or 60 and you’ll see why people occasionally miss emails.”

NEXT: Is email working well enough? 

Jackson explained that digital plan communications are appealing to sponsors from a cost and ease-of-use perspective, “but we are learning that email is less engaging than we all probably hoped.”

“To this day, emails and apps are still missing the majority of retirement plan participants,” she noted. “Email alone is not good enough. Part of the problem is that it is, frankly, challenging to keep track of all the user names and passwords and deadlines and service providers a given American has to deal with through email. And there is just the huge volume of email that people receive in a given day.”

To win even a small share of plan participants’ digital attention, plan communications of the future will incorporate more interactive and responsive elements, Jackson predicted.

“Today even our digitally based communications generally take the form of a static PDF document that is not all that different from what you would have gotten in the snail mail,” Jackson said. “In fact, the digital mailing might even be less appealing than the paper version. More and more we are seeing a focus on bringing a different approach and creating a true interaction with the participant.”

Jackson pointed to innovation at companies such as Dropbox and Amazon as a possible guidepost for where the retirement planning industry will move in coming years, vis-a-vis cutting edge communications.

“There is a lot of emerging research showing how people are interested in cloud-storage and consolidation solutions,” she concluded. “It is companies like Amazon, which builds up a fully responsive digital experience for its users, who will show the path forward.”