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The future of pension communications

We talked to 32 pensions people about their hopes and fears for the future. Here’s what we learned.

The industry is divided on the most fundamental question of all: why do we communicate in the first place?

Some of the people we spoke to argued that communication must always be about driving action: causing members to do things that leave them better off. But others questioned whether that was even possible. Their argument was not that people wouldn’t engage. It was that once they had, they wouldn’t go on to do anything. They preferred to think of engagement as a way of building a base level of trust and consent for other interventions like default investment strategies or guided retirement pathways. Some of our interviewees went further still, suggesting that “[our] perfectly behaved members are the ones who do nothing.”

It’s possible – and indeed likely – that everyone is right. What matters most is case-by-case clarity. When we’re communicating today, what are we hoping to achieve?

We’re united in our desire to be member-led

Everyone we spoke to wanted the system to work better for the people it was set up to serve. One interviewee told us that “the big opportunity going forwards is to really step back and think…who is our audience? What matters most to them?”

One implication of this mindset is that we have to “stop thinking about pensions as a product category,” as one interviewee put it, and start thinking about where it sits in people’s wider lives. “If I was being truly member-centred, I wouldn’t only care about my bit of your life. If I was your friend, I’d care about your whole life, not just the bits you were with me.”

We’re united in our desire to give members a seamless experience

Imagine you’re a member of one of the few final salary schemes still open, and you have a question about your pension. Which of your scheme’s three websites do you think will hold the answer? If you want to speak to someone, will it be your employer’s people team, your scheme’s in-house technical team or the administrator’s helpline? If you get bounced from one to the next, would you rather explain your situation once, or every time you speak to a new person? Our interviewees recognised that this wasn’t good enough. “I feel very strongly,” said one, “that the journey should be easy for the customer. It’s about members being able to get information about their scheme in whichever way they want.”

We want to learn from mobile banking

Our interviewees thought the future of pensions might look a lot like the present of mobile banking. They drew some not very flattering comparisons between the clunky journeys we dish up in pensions and the hassle-free experience you get with the best of those mobile banks. They’re in a regulated industry too, so how do they manage to confirm people’s identity with a selfie, when we’re asking people to take a three-hour exam?

One person we spoke to quoted research they’d done suggesting that members want “online communication to give them instant access to their benefits.” Another described it as “real time information, with the ability to act on it.”

We want to be able to layer

We want to start with the high-level concepts that are easier to grasp, and only move on to more complex topics when we’re certain our audience understands. This makes sense. If you’re doing French A-Level, you don’t learn the whole syllabus in period 1. You do a topic at a time. You circle back to things you covered a few months ago to make sure they’ve stuck.

In pensions, one person told us, “We try to do every step on one page and it becomes overwhelming for members.”

We want to be pensions-positive

Perhaps it’s a hangover from the days when we had to disrupt people out of their non-saving inertia, but there is still a lot of ‘heating or eating’ style scaremongering when it comes to helping people envisage their future. What about the good news? As one interviewee put it: “Grazia wouldn’t sell many copies if instead of saying ‘30 Dresses For Autumn’ on the cover, they said ‘30 Dresses For Autumn Of Which You’ll Look Like A Marshmallow in 20’.

We want to push the boundaries of regulation

One person told us they felt constrained by regulation to the point of not being able to do their job very well, while another told us that not upsetting the regulator felt like a bigger priority than member outcomes sometimes. They described regulation as “the number one stumbling block” in the way of good communication.

We have a lot of sympathy with this viewpoint, but it’s also true that our clients take different views of regulation from one another. Is it the regulation that’s the problem, or each organisation’s interpretation of it?

We want to make better use of data

Everyone sees the value of getting the right message to the right person at the right time. But that job’s harder than it needs to be, our interviewees told us. For some, poor data is the root cause – we simply don’t know enough about our audience to be able to tailor the message they get. For others, it’s the volume of data and the lack of structure. One person described the task of cleaning and standardising vast amounts of data as “Herculean.”

We want to collaborate more

Our interviewees were hungry for more teamwork when it comes to communication. “I think that would be great,” said one, “because it feels like we’ve sat down as a pensions collective to talk about investment, and how we’re going to fix that. Maybe the next thing is, how do we collectively get people to engage?”

What would you like to discuss?

We’ll spend the next few months sharing our latest thinking with you to stimulate the conversation.

If there’s a topic you want us to discuss, whether that’s the role of AI in member engagement or whether emojis should be banned from professional discourse, then email me.