Guest post written by Jennifer Rolf
Financial services organizations’ websites are more difficult to read than Moby Dick. That’s according to Visible Thread’s 2019 Asset Management Website Clarity Index, which graded asset managers on the readability of their site content.
The industry’s use of complex language, long sentences and passive voice hurts credibility and damages trust among audiences, the study found. Visible Thread also noted that financial services is the least-trusted of the major industries, trailing energy, healthcare and transportation, to name a few.
One myth that’s not helping? Many asset managers operate on the notion that sophisticated investors prefer denser language than a general retail audience—but that’s a fallacy. In fact, investment-savvy readers appreciate simplicity too, as long as concepts aren’t too simplified. It takes more time and energy for most people to process complex language, and asset managers’ use of this type of writing may have negative effects on business relationships.
In an industry where clients are demanding more transparency, asset-management firms could benefit from revamping their web content to include clearer, more concise language in a tone that’s relatable to their audiences.
Three Cs to Ask When Writing
A quick rule of thumb that investment writers can use is to ask themselves if they are following the three Cs before publishing content.
1) Is it clear? Asset managers sometimes get caught up in the alphabet soup of the industry, using too many acronyms and too much jargon. Plus, academic-style writing with heavy doses of passive voice can significantly pull down the readability of a document. Using passive voice isn’t necessarily wrong, but it should be used infrequently and kept to a maximum of 4%, according to Visible Thread. The 60 firms measured in the study averaged 12%—three times the suggested limit.
Take a look at the sentences below. Active voice provides more clarity because it uses subject-verb-direct object sentence structure:
Passive Voice: The investment conference was attended by more than 500 people.
Active Voice: More than 500 people attended the investment conference.
Structure is crucial to clarity. It seems obvious to state, but outlining a topic first can improve a piece’s construction. This process aids clarity and flow considerably by ensuring that content is moving logically throughout the document or website.
It’s also important to check whether noncritical information has made its way into a piece. If any words or sentences are not sticking to the points that are essential to conveying the message, strike them. When writing about more convoluted topics, analogies can help explain ideas that are harder to digest—and audiences appreciate this approach. For example, when investors are first trying to understand the inverse relationship between a bond’s price and yield, the analogy of kids playing on a seesaw is often used: when interest rates/yields go up, bond prices go down, and vice versa.
2) Is it concise? In a world of short attention spans, multitasking and not enough time in the day, keeping content short and sweet is appreciated more than asset managers may realize. Why use a big word, sentence or paragraph when a small one will do? Long, complex sentences take more time and thought process to get through, notes Visible Thread.
Too long: Rereading a written document before publication can be beneficial when looking for areas that require tightening or trimming to make the piece more concise, and if it’s decided that more words are needed to explain a particular topic, breaking up long sentences into two can help with readability.
Tightened up and split into two: Rereading a piece before publication is key to finding areas that can be tightened or trimmed. Breaking up long sentences into two can also help with readability.
3) Is it conversational? Tone is important too. Although institutional audiences theoretically may be more sophisticated than retail readers, long-winded academic pieces that aren’t easily readable will get tossed into the wastebasket or filed into the “read later…much, much later” pile. Some investment writers shy away from a more personal tone because they think it makes a piece less professional, but this is far from true. If a topic can be explained in simpler terms that the reader can quickly absorb, you’ve just empowered your audience with knowledge.
Explore some of the asset management websites that rank high on Visible Thread’s readability index. These firms feature content that adheres to the rules above. And they’re not afraid to break the rules sometimes. For instance, starting sentences with conjunctions (see previous sentence) and ending with prepositions is no longer considered taboo—as long as this approach is not being overused. It’s also acceptable to use pronouns—it makes the content more personal and readable.
Don’t Forget the Graphics
Graphics can provide a much-needed break to a text-heavy piece. But they shouldn’t solely be used as a visually appealing pause in a string of words: graphics should make it immediately clear what the written point is trying to convey. Referencing illustrations, graphs or imagery where applicable in the piece and labeling them accordingly allows readers to make a quick visual connection. Also, if data-driven charts are being used, can the graphics be varied? Consider using different chart types (e.g., line, pie, bar) to break up the monotony and keep readers engaged longer.
Tech Can Help Too
Visible Thread’s study also suggested that asset managers use technology to measure content clarity. Services and software are available to analyze readability statistics, but word processing apps that most writers are already using also have tools that can help. Microsoft Word and Google Docs can scan a document and provide readability statistics through the Flesch Reading Ease and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests. While these tools are not often used among investment writers when they draft content, maybe it’s time they adopt this strategy—these are also the tests that Visible Thread employed when conducting its study.
With industry credibility at stake, isn’t it worth it to take strides to ensure clearer, more concise, conversational content? The steps mentioned here will go a long way in reaching the goal of more transparent writing—and ultimately help in the quest to gain more trust among investment audiences.
Jennifer Rolf is the marketing director for ACR Alpine Capital Research. She has more than 20 years of investment management experience, including stints at AllianceBernstein, L.P., and A.G. Edwards & Sons, where she served in writing and marketing roles.