Opinion: Funds reading matter is still too academic

A year on from his first analysis, David Butcher of Communications and Content, says the readability of fund manager content is still often too academic and failing to connect with people – many of whom only have 20 minutes a day to read. Further, it poses a ‘reading reputation’ risk.

What do you enjoy reading? A good book? Social media? This magazine? The chances are you veer towards things that are easier to read. We all have favourite authors, columnists and tweeters.

Does investment content – the things you read for work or the things your clients read to educate themselves – enter into this list?

Evidence says it’s unlikely to. And this is because it’s rarely readable enough for the audience it’s intended to reach. It could be so much better – and with profound demographic change coming down the line it needs to be.

Yet some investment content is so complex it makes the UK Internal market bill – the Brexit document designed to break international law – seem clear and simple. In fact poor average readability is just one of a handful of issues posed by the 2020 crop of investment content.

Most of it’s too long for the time people have available to read it, little of it is actually aimed at the reader and it remains mislabelled. This is a risk to the reputation of both individual companies and the industry more broadly.

The time to change is now.

Not readable enough
But more on all this later – the main thing is readability. And not enough of it.

Readability is a measure of clarity. A readable piece of writing will deliver its message unequivocally. It is a courtesy to the reader. It may even entertain. But it will be memorable.

An unreadable piece of writing risks the opposite. It risks obscuring the message. And is a company’s hard-won reputation worth risking with all this jargon and complexity?

It’s easy to measure. You get an algorithm to look for instances of overly long words and sentences. These are the things that fatigue the reader – and which reduce concentration. They can turn readers into scanners, especially if they’re looking at a page online.

Readability_scores_tabel1

Our analysis shows that the investment content published by a group of UK-based, award-winning investment management businesses is pretty difficult to read. In 2020, as the chart below shows, it achieved a readability score of 12.5. This is ‘A’ level exam level complexity.

I don’t know about you but while I’m confident I could do a decent job of my ‘A’ levels again, I don’t want to read this type of material all the time.

Readability_scores_tabel2

Sadly, while Investment management businesses publish content and thought leadership materials to educate and inform clients, prospective clients and their advisers, the material has more in common with academic papers than the more accessible financial media.

We reached the same conclusion last year and nothing’s really changed. From long and convoluted sentences to archaic structures that place the conclusion at the end – when literally no readers ever make it to the end of an online article – investment content looks, feels and reads like academia.

It’s true that hardly anyone makes it to the end of articles they read on apps or the web.

Most people stop halfway or, if they comment underneath they stop (and don’t start again) when they find something they want to comment on. People zig-zag, they scan and a pull quote often breaks their concentration.

Supply fails to meet demand
They do this because they’re time poor. Locked down, fed up, lied to, furloughed, laid off, burned out and worried about their future … and bombarded with material.

Most people, according to a US Government survey, have just 20 minutes a day to read things.

The average investment content article is 1,825 words long and a good reader – consuming 300 words per minute at 80% concentration – will take about six minutes to wade through it.

This means they can fit in three or four investment content articles in a day – provided they don’t read anything else. No books, social media nor “Funds Europe”. None of the things they love to read.

Shorter articles would make things a lot easier for readers – irrespective of their job title.

It’s not you, it’s me
Most investment content ignores the reader. It’s almost as if the industry is talking to itself.

Just one in three of the articles in our research universe, namely 24 out of 72, uses the words “you” or “client”.

The overwhelming trope in investment content is the first person, usually plural: “we think” or the more compliance friendly (for some reason) “we believe”.

There’s a strong case that investment content isn’t created with the reader in mind. They simply get what they’re given – otherwise how do we explain one item in our analysis, 5,400 words long and published in February 2020 that analysed the performance of emerging markets debt in 2019? Would anyone read this piece word-for-word? If they did it’s an 18 minute read.

Don’t bother reading the label
Every item of content has a label. This shows the reader if it’s suitable or not. They tend to say things like, “professional investors only” or “suitable for private investors”.

None of these labels is correlated to the complexity of the underlying material.

They only have meaning to internal compliance departments – in another example of the industry talking to itself rather than its readers.

But this isn’t all.

If anything there’s an inverse correlation to article complexity. Consumers, the people who read investment content to inform and educate themselves, get more complex material than readers who pick funds for a living.

Readability_scores_tabel3Should consumers receive material that’s easier to read – and less complex or jargon-laden than investment professionals?

It would seem a reasonable thing to expect, especially when the industry could do with better engagement.

Many commentators have highlighted the “greatest wealth transfer in history” over the next few years. Estimates differ as to the sum but broad agreement is that it’s in the two-figure trillions.

Will newly wealthy millennials, used to making emotionally intelligent purchasing decisions, entrust their money to companies that talk about themselves all the time? That use jargon? That choose unreadability over readability?

When we first started looking at readability, in 2019, we said unreadable communications were a problem for the investment industry.

Now, one very long year later, it looks far more serious than that. Unreadable communications are a threat to reputations.

*David Butcher is managing director at Communications and Content.

© 2021 funds europe

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