Most People Have No Clue What Financial Marketers Are Talking About

Retail bankers keep trying to reach consumers but often they're not getting their messages through. Common communication faults, like using overly complex terms and putting things in a passive way, can undermine not only understanding but also trust. ROI on websites, marketing, and more will rise when financial marketers pick plain English.

Think Moby Dick is a tough read? For most consumers, a bank website can be much worse.

Research by VisibleThread analyzed almost 5,000 public pages from financial institutions’ websites and concluded that many miss the mark.

The typical U.S. consumer reads at an eighth-grade level. Yet the study found that most of the banks tested publish content that is rated higher. Even the few banks that came in at lower levels had other issues with their communications that reduced their content’s overall readability. Overall, 58% of the content tested doesn’t work for the average consumer. And according to VisibleThread, it’s an industry-wide issue.

Reality Check: People don’t trust what they don’t understand. When a consumer doesn’t understand what you’re saying, that’s seen as a lack of transparency. This is a real problem for an industry built on a bedrock of fiduciary trust.

Financial marketing increasingly relies on data analytics to determine who to target and how to target them. But then comes crafting of the actual message. And that message most often consists of written words.

The consulting firm suggests that the industry’s relatively poor performance with marketing communications undermines trust and loyalty among banking providers, an issue that continues to dog institutions even a decade after the financial crisis.

Read More: Google Says Financial Institutions Need Better Website Content

Where Financial Marketers Falter

While some institutions had a mix of strong and poor ratings in the study’s categories, even the leaders had weak spots. The bottom ten institutions scored poorly across the board.

VisibleThread’s analysis found five factors clogging financial marketers’ copy and communications:

1. Talking at a grade-level that’s too-high for most readers. The best performing banks averaged a 7.1 grade level. M&T Bank, Umpqua and Washington Federal came in at a sixth-grade level, which is better — particularly considering how distracted and busy today’s consumers are (not to mention their education levels).

The worst banks averaged a reading level around the 11th grade — nearly three grades beyond what researchers recommend. Some specialized institutions like Bank of New York Mellon and Northern Trust both had a 12th grade reading level, but so did Heartland Financial USA, a community banking company. JPMorgan Chase, with a huge consumer base, had an  11th grade rating.

2. Poor readability. Average sentence length and average syllables per word are two factors contributing to readability. Using a 100-point index, VisibleThread found that only 20 of the 50 banks scored higher than 50 for readability. (A score of 50 or above is considered desirable.) Only Umpqua Bank and Washington Federal broke 60.

By the readability measure, Moby Dick comes in at 57.9, according to the study. The popular Harry Potter books are even more readable, as you’d expect for their particular middle school audience. On the flip side, the bank ranked with the least readable content was Northern Trust. The bank’s public web pages are as dense and accessible as the Harvard Law Review, according to the report.

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3. Excessive use of passive voice. Weak phrasing is a big problem — not just for financial marketers, but for most Americans who write anything from email to website content. VisibileThread says a passive tone makes marketing communications sound stuffy and pedantic, like an academic treatise.

For example, saying “Quality is monitored” uses the passive verb “is.” Instead, you should be more direct and say “We monitor quality,” which uses a strong, active verb “monitor”. Experts consider active to be clearer. Researchers say a target ratio of 4% of passive sentences or less is ideal. The average among all banks studied was 9%. Only six out of the 50 banks performed well on this factor. M&T Bank came in least-passive at 2%.

4. Too many long sentences. Shorter sentences improve clarity, but sentence length is a major weakness for marketers writing copy for U.S. banks. Researchers say 95% of sentences in a financial marketing communications should have less than 25 words.

Only one bank — M&T again — met this standard. Indeed, M&T had no sentences over 25 words. On the other hand, 32 banks had bloated sentences in more than 15% of their communications. PacWest Bancorp hit a staggering 41%.

5. Too many complex words. The industry performed even worse here than in other categories. None achieved the ideal, where only 1% of all words used are considered complex. Most hit at least twice that. Influenced by all the jargon used in financial services, even M&T had a complexity rating of over 5%.

Read More: 10 Tips to Tighten Your Writing

Opaque Communications: A Legacy in the Banking Industry

The report suggests that the industry’s history of poor communications has been self-perpetuating — the more you tolerate, the more you’ll have. Financial marketers producing content see complexity, legality, and more in other institutions’ materials and in older content of their own institutions. This creates the impression that it is acceptable — the norm — so they produce even more at that low level of quality. And if the task of content creation is ever left to subject matter experts, they will infect the writing task with their own jargon.

“Financial information doesn’t need to be complex,” the report states. “Even compliance notifications can be written using simpler vocabulary. Website, product brochures, investment information, and other documentation must all be held to the same high readability standards.”

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