Do financial education programs work? Plenty of well-informed people — from industry leaders to policymakers — are convinced you cannot turn a nation of consumers into a nation of intentional savers.
But there is ample evidence for the opposite view: that properly structured financial education programs can and do help people make wise decisions about their personal finances.
Take savings in 401(k)-type retirement plans as an example. For the past 30 years, many employees have had the opportunity to participate in employer-sponsored defined contribution plans. Today, 55% of all full-time workers ages 21-64 enroll in these programs. This never would have occurred if not for serious and successful financial education.
Interestingly, auto-enrollment — possible since 2006 for eligible employers — has boosted enrollment by only 2 percentage points. Effective education campaigns that clearly communicate the economic benefits of plan participation deserve the lion's share of the credit for the level of 401(k) enrollment prevailing today.
Well-crafted public education campaigns can change behavior even among hard-to-reach, hard-to-persuade audiences. Go Direct (www.GoDirect.org and www.DirectoASuCuenta.org), an integrated marketing campaign that is sponsored by the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve banks that Weber Shandwick has worked on since 2004, provides a telling example. Since the launch of this campaign nationally in September 2005, more than 3.6 million Americans — out of an initial 12 million who received Social Security, Supplemental Security Income and Veterans Administration benefits by paper check every month — have chosen to convert to direct deposit. Besides being considerably safer, more secure and convenient, direct deposit of federal payments has saved the federal government millions and millions of dollars. Hundreds of the nation's banks and credit unions continue to serve as active partners supporting this Treasury initiative.
Or consider Financially Fit Minnesota, a campaign that Weber Shandwick helped design and that it has supported for the past two years. In early 2008, a group of 26 major Minnesota-based employers, along with Minnesota's governor and the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, joined forces to create this workplace-run campaign. The goal is to improve the region's overall economic stability by ensuring that employees take advantage of financial benefits offered by their employers.
Despite launching as the economy lurched into a severe downturn, Financially Fit Minnesota has driven increased participation in retirement plans by employees earning moderate salaries of $30,000 to $50,000 annually, employees in their 20s, and those of Asian and Native American descent. Direct deposit participation rates among all Financially Fit Minnesota participating employers — already considerably higher in Minnesota than the U.S. national average — have increased by 2%.
So what makes for a successful campaign? Six components are key:
Research. Gain a thorough understanding of your audiences by conducting comprehensive research first. Marketers too often make assumptions about what matters most to their target audiences.
Targeting. Be very clear about the audience you're trying to reach. Far too many campaigns attempt to communicate with too many distinct audiences.
The message and the messenger. It's one thing to test your messages (a must!), but it's just as important to identify the most trusted messengers. Campaign messages are more apt to be heard when delivered by trusted voices in "surround sound" fashion — meaning surrounding your audiences with consistent, tested messages through a combination of many things such as publicity, advertising, social media, partners, materials, direct mail, events, search engine optimization and the like.
Inform first, sell later. Sponsoring organizations need to lighten up on the selling and branding of themselves. Let the education effort — and the partners and third parties engaged in the effort — naturally and credibly serve as a mission-critical extension of your marketing.
Sustained effort. Far too often, financial education campaigns are a flash in the pan: here today, gone tomorrow. Through our work on many national financial education campaigns during the past 12 years, we've concluded that financial behavior is ultimately changed one person at a time. There simply is no quick fix. But I would argue vigorously that sustained campaigns that mirror a political campaign model — in other words, those that are built on solid research, that are highly targeted, that rely on the most trusted voices to deliver the messages and that start with a clear "win" in mind — absolutely do work.
Measurement. There must be a way to measure results, essentially a quantifiable way to count people whose behavior has changed.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis it's clear we need to be much smarter about managing spending and saving, debt and investment, risk and reward. "Never waste a crisis" is an overused maxim, but it pertains here. With a harsh spotlight shining on the financial services industry, there has never been a better time for industry leaders to commit the resources, energy and intellectual capital of their organizations to thorough and effective financial education.