A recent Freakonomics episode, appropriately titled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Money (But Were Afraid to Ask)” took a closer look at financial literacy both in the United States and abroad. They interviewed Annamaria Lusardi, an expert in financial education at George Washington University, who shared 3 basic questions that have been adopted throughout the world to gauge financial literacy. The 3 questions measure a basic understanding of compound interest, inflation, and diversification; on average just 30 percent of Americans get all three questions correct. In Lusardi’s own words, “Americans are not financially literate.”
Perhaps this is unsurprising. After all, most Americans will pass through elementary, middle, and high school without taking a single class that teaches them how to balance a checkbook, save money responsibly, or use a credit card, much less how to properly evaluate an ETF or mutual fund. With this in mind, it’s important to revisit a critical pillar of financial marketing: addressing your audience.
Before you dive into crafting your marketing message, it’s important to identify who the audience will be at the receiving end of your materials and communications. This is important for two reasons: 1.) different audiences will have varying levels of financial literacy 2.) different audiences will bring different goals and concerns to the table. An effective piece of marketing addresses the target audience at their level of financial literacy, and speaks to their specific hopes and fears.
Putting yourself in the audience’s shoes can be a challenging exercise for financial professionals. As in many other industries, investment professionals have a tendency to revert to “inside baseball” and utilize arcane jargon when addressing one another, and this is all well-and-good so long as this same vocabulary doesn’t make it into the wrong marketing communications. As you’re thinking about your target audience, it’s crucial to remind oneself of just how specialized your knowledge on a given topic is, and put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Remember: many retail investors may not even have a firm grasp on the real meaning of diversification, or even what “ETF” stands for.
When you start venturing into more sophisticated territory that might lean heavily on terms such as “smart beta,” “risk-adjusted returns,” or “volatility,” it’s important to be sure the audience is familiar with the terms in question. If possible, always at least define less-familiar terms with a footnote, even if it’s just as a “reminder” for sophisticated investors. It’s very likely some readers will appreciate the refresher, even if they’d be loath to admit they don’t completely understand. Analogies can also go a long way towards explaining complex concepts using less-intimidating language.
After you’ve done the hard work of identifying your target audience and their sophistication level, that’s when you can roll up your sleeves and begin producing the marketing communications that are appropriate for this particular slice of the market. The end audience should never be far from your mind, however. You may have narrowed down their sophistication level, but now your materials should speak to their individual concerns. Ideally, you are setting your firm’s products up as potential solutions to investor’s problems. Perhaps the investors are unaware of this specific problem, which is where more in-depth educational materials come into play.
Try to remember, as the financial literacy expert Annamaria Lusardi reminded us, that most Americans are financially illiterate. With this in mind, it’s best to start from a basic, solid foundation and build towards more complex topics. In doing so, you’ll become a trusted educational resource, and will be that much closer to turning prospective customers into valued, satisfied investors.