appreciate the value their organizations are delivering in terms of
their ability to lower costs in their retirement plans and provide
higher-quality investments in their portfolios. We’ve also found
that control is a huge issue. Anytime participants feel they’re losing control of their choices, you have to be super-sensitive to that
because you can shut down a conversation by using the wrong
language. Also, participants still want face-to-face meetings.
They aren’t satisfied by telephone help—who can blame them?
Instead, they seem to prefer receiving help online, in person, or
preferably both ways. The last issue I’d mention is clarity on the
term “financial wellness.” We’ve found that participants like the
phrase, but in fact have no idea what it means—which indicates
we still have a lot of work to do to explain it.
Jenkins: One of our hunches, which we’re trying to test, is that
wellness doesn’t have a lot of value, as a program, to participants.
What people really want is help with things. They want help with
budgets, with student loans, with a lot of things around the edges
of personal finance that are really tough to deal with. Employers
are worried about taking on a big program, but we think, from
what we’ve learned so far, that providing the actual tools and the
help is more important.
I should also mention that we’re looking at white-label funds and
what to call them. A lot of large employers have gone to a three-tiered structure for their retirement plan’s investment menu,
with target-date funds in one tier, customized white-label core
options such as equity and fixed income as another, and a brokerage option as the third. We’re working on what to call those
white-label options—what names seem to resonate best with
As for what we might research next, one of the things that we’re
going to get to is ESG (environmental, social and governance)
issues, and how participants feel about those issues when it
comes to investing. We think there’s a lot of work be done there.
And we already mentioned the confusion around target-date
funds; that is something that we are going to really put our shoulder into in terms of what are some of the best ways to describe
them so people have clarity.
CIO: After 10 years and counting, how would you sum up what
you’ve learned—and what plan sponsors ought to know—about
how they use language to communicate to plan participants?
DeMoss: We’ve learned there are four universal language princi-
ples plan sponsors need to consider as they communicate. First,
we know that participants and investors want positive and hope-
ful messages. They’re tired of being pointed to the retirement
calculator, putting in all of the numbers, pushing the button and
hearing that they’re only 5% of the way toward where they need
to be. They understand that, but they are looking for hopeful, pos-
itive messages about how they can achieve their financial goals.
Second, what you’re saying has to be plausible. The benefits
you’re talking about have to be believable in today’s world. Third,
use plain English. Some words are more difficult than others, but
95% of the language we use is confusing. Fourth, be personal.
Make your communications feel like they’re about the participant
who’s reading or hearing them. That person doesn’t want to feel
like they’re one of 10,000 employees. Make it about them and
CIO: Are you suggesting that every participant should receive
customized communications? That sounds a little expensive.
DeMoss: It’s more about the language. People want to hear “you”
and “your” versus “the company’s participants.” The more studies we do, the more the power of that personal pronoun comes
through. You just can’t ignore it. Complete customization is probably not realistic. It’s more about making people feel like the message is for them.
Jenkins: We’ve also learned that no matter how much work
you’ve done as a plan sponsor to bring better value to your participants, you can really undermine it all if you don’t use the right
language to talk about it.
DeMoss: It’s not what you’re saying that matters; it’s what people
are hearing. This is the eye-opener, and it’s reinforced every single time we do a focus group.