Pensions communications: change the what, not the how

Pensions communications
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How can we improve our organisation’s pension communication?

The aim of this article is not about making a case for better pension communication. That shouldn’t be difficult. Put simply, from an employer perspective, poor pension communication will make it less likely that members will understand their company’s pension offering.

And without understanding, it is unlikely members will value what is provided. As a result, employers for whom pension provision is a significant cost, will see successful pension communication as an integral part of their business strategy.

Rather, if we take it as read that communication should be improved, how might we go about this?

No silver bullet

There is no single solution, no so called “silver bullet” (always an odd phrase: as if we treat our audience as vampires – perhaps that is where we are going wrong).

Any successful approach to communication needs to make full use of techniques such as audience segmentation to ensure messages are relevant and timely, and use a mix of media – some of which are sent out (“push” communication, like an email) and some of which can be accessed when needed (“pull” communication, like a website).

But if the communication genie granted only one wish, there is one approach we could take that would transform the way we communicate workforce pensions. It’s not a matter of media, or technique and it’s not new. Indeed, it is standard practice among our colleagues in the worlds of marketing and advertising.

“Benefits not features”

The key is to change what we communicate, rather than how, and concentrate on benefits and not features.

What is the difference? Think of it this way: a feature describes an attribute of the pension scheme. A benefit describes what that attribute does for you.

The benefit is how the feature makes you feel.

Too much of our current communication ignores this and concentrates on the technicalities of what is on offer.  We describe percentages, tax relief and fund choices.

Then we wonder why we have failed to engage or excite our audience. We should begin by applying the lessons that marketeers learned long ago: it's benefits, not features, that sell. It’s our emotions that drive our behaviour and our actions, and effective communication must address this.

Real engagement

To really engage, we need to deal not just in facts but show what these facts mean to people. To some, a pension may be about concepts such as security and independence or it may be about specifics such as holidays, buying presents for the grandchildren, or a particular lifestyle. What's critical is that we communicate more than just the “what/when/how” of pension schemes. 

We need to make the link between pensions and things that are important to people in their lives.

We aren’t interested in a car because it has a built in wi-fi hotspot. We’re interested in it because it will mean we can make skype calls on the way home, so we can leave the office early and get home each evening for baby’s bath time.

The “so what?” test

To test whether your message is focussing on a feature rather than a benefit, just ask yourself So what?

Take the concept of “pension drawdown”. How do you describe this?

You may start with something like:

Under income drawdown, whenever you wish, you can withdraw a retirement income from a pension arrangement and leave the rest invested. You need to transfer your money to a suitable alternative pension provider in order to do this.

So what? It means you can treat your pension savings like a bank account and draw on it when you wish.

So what? You can shape how you spend your money in retirement.

So what? You can take those holidays you’ve always dreamt of when you still have your health and energy, and cut back on your spending in later years when you are less inclined to travel.

Now that’s worth doing!

So, remember, the feature talks to your head. The benefit talks to your heart.

Remember...

As Maya Angelou's famously said: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Next time you are looking at your company’s pension communication, ask yourself how does it make you feel?

About Trevor Rutter

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