What did someone with 13 million subscribers tell the pensions industry about engagement?

Jonathan Stapleton
clock • 4 min read

Martin Lewis founded Money Saving Expert, a website that has since built up an email following of 13 million people, after investing just £100 in a website at the beginning of the millennium. But how has Lewis achieved such cracking engagement? And what are the lessons he thinks the pensions industry can learn from his experience?

Speaking at the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association's annual conference this morning (13 October), Lewis modestly said some of his success was down to luck - being, as he put it, "the right person, in the right place at the right time".

But he also identified a couple of key factors that he believed help the website - and his email - become so well read.

First, he said having a personal relationship and the trust of his audience was key - noting that a friend of his in marketing had told him to remove his photo from the emails and to put banner ads on them, suggestions he had rejected.

Indeed, Lewis believes putting his face on the emails and rejecting banner advertising had been incredibly important to build his relationship and trust with his readers.

He said: "The idea that it should be depersonalised is completely wrong. What people need is that personal relationship and trust - which is why I always write in the first person. There is an impact on trust in knowing who it is who gives you that information."

Lewis also said that a key part of building trust was to prioritise giving people the right information above all else and added that, because people trusted his site and messages, they forgave its "slightly clunky" design.

You can't always get what you want

Perhaps surprisingly, Lewis felt that asking the audience about what they what they wanted was far less important than making an editorial judgement about what was most important to them.

He said: "I don't think it is important at all to give people the information they want - it is important to give them the information they need."

Lewis added: "People come to us to find out what they need, not what they want."

Indeed, Lewis noted that, when asked, his readers tell him what they want is information about pensions but the data shows this is one of the least read sections of the site. "People say pensions because they think it is what they need to know about," he explained.

He said giving people the right information irrespective of what they wanted was key - explaining it was important to help people understand the topic before presenting them with the providers.

Lewis explained: "We could put a table of best buys on the top of our articles but we don't as we want people to understand the topic before buying the product."

Lewis said this was why he avoided sectioning his emails - changing them from what is currently a bit of a jumble of different articles into nice themed clusters of similar content. He said, while this would make the emails look nicer and more structured it would also mean the people who, for instance, only wanted the restaurant vouchers would miss the other topics.

Pensions rebrand

While Lewis was clearly being a little diplomatic while speaking to a pensions audience, he did say "remedial action" was needed to get people engaged with their pension. He said the action was needed as the result of both years of mistrust born out of mis-selling, the poor performance of with-profits investments and scams, issues he felt had "tarnished" the pension brand.

He also noted that, while auto-enrolment (AE) has brought millions into pensions, it has done so through inertia and not by building engagement with members.

Lewis said: "We need to take remedial action - a lot of people don't understand what a pension is or what the benefit of a pension is. AE was almost like us admitting defeat - saying that we're never going to engage people with pensions so we will have to do it all for them. We now need to engage people with pensions."

He said behavioural science could help here also though - noting that there should perhaps be more pushes and interventions at different points in a member's savings journey, helping them make decisions through properly designed processes and design trees.

Lewis also railed against the "buttock-clenching" and "self-preserving" language in which pensions was communicated.

He said: "We get so many letters that are in this official complicated language written in a way that nobody understands and just get thrown in the bin."

Lewis' answer? He said: "Sell them the message, not the product - make them understand it in good communicative prose!"

But, tarnished though he thought the pensions brand to be, he felt the industry should not look to rename pensions, rather rebrand what it means to individuals.

Lewis said: "You have to keep the name pension but you have to communicate that it means something different and that is a very long process."

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