The same advice applies when setting out to create a communication strategy, except you’re slightly less likely to lose your head. If you don’t know where the scheme is trying to get to, it doesn’t really matter in which direction your communications go.
Too many strategy conversations begin with talking about making the website easier to navigate or letters a bit more friendly. They begin with the assumption that shinier communication materials are what’s needed, and the strategy will simply turn that need into a detailed to-do list. But, like the cat says, outputs don’t matter until you know where you’re trying to get to.
So, before you reach for the Gantt chart, here are some things I’ve learnt, working with schemes that want to improve things for members and not just tinker with their website.
Make sure you have a clear picture of what you’re trying to achieve.
Completely forget about the communications you may or may not produce. Think instead about the outcomes you want. What would that success look like? Your scheme may already have its overarching strategy. Or, you could kick things off by asking your trustees to write a letter - dated May 2024 - that describes all the ways the scheme has improved over three years. Ask for lots of details about what the scheme looks like and what members are doing. Then ask trustees to swap letters and agree what the most important changes are. You might do this with your administration team too. What mistakes have members stopped making? What’s running quicker? How are changes helping members? All of this is about the destination, not how you’ve got there. Now you know the destination, you can work out how communications can help you get there. Maybe you want a future where trustees never spend time working out how to pay death benefits? Perhaps you want members to feel more confident about their retirement choices or proud of how their pension savings are building a better planet while they grow? Maybe it’s a mix of things. It probably is.
Now you know what you want to achieve, you can think about how member behaviour needs to change if you’re going to get there.
And that’s what communication is for - to change how people behave. What do members need to do more of and what do they need to do less of - or stop doing altogether? What new things do they need to do? Is there a particular group that needs to do these things more than another? Answering these questions will give you a lovely list of behaviours you want to inspire.
Take a look at how you’re communicating at the moment
Don’t just look at the usual suspects - the annual statements, newsletters and retirement packs. Put together member journeys that look at everything that members and their partners might experience over the years - forms, letters, portals. Examine what you’re saying, when you’re saying it, and where you’re saying it. Are there gaps, contradictions or inconsistencies? Could what you’re saying or not saying be getting in the way of members behaving in a way that gets you to your destination?
Ask members what they want
People marketing chocolate bars or shampoo would give all their teeth to have the kind of access to customers that we have. Your members are right there for you to talk to. Try putting some of this stuff in front of them to find out what they like and don’t like. What makes sense and what confuses them? Do different groups have different opinions and needs? Really listen to the questions they have and the language they use.
How will you know if you’re moving in the right direction?
Make sure you know how you’ll monitor behaviour change and measure success. If you want more people to actively choose an investment pathway, how many more people would you like to be doing that? Sharp measures will show you what’s working, so you can do more of it, and what’s not working, so you can change it. Constantly review, refine and improve, because this is a strategy, not a one-shot newsletter.
Changing behaviours is like getting a rocket off the ground
To get a rocket off the ground you increase fuel and reduce friction. There are no mushroom-shaped rockets because no amount of fuel will overcome that amount of friction. Similarly, even the pointiest rocket is going nowhere on half a gallon of unleaded. Communication works the same way. You have to make people want to change and you have to make it easy for them to change. If you add loads of fuel, making people desperate to update their contact details, they still won’t do it if it takes them forty minutes, three phone calls and two handwritten forms. Too much friction. And it’s no good building an app that lets people log on in two clicks, if no one knows why they’d want to. Not enough fuel.
So, before you set off down any communication road, check in with the cat and make sure you really know where you’re trying to get to.
This article was featured in Pensions Aspects magazine June 2021 edition.
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