Consumers aren’t engaging with marketing and product literature

“Education is when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don’t.”

This quote from American folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger is accepted wisdom when it comes to the importance of reading the marketing and product information thoroughly before signing on the dotted line. 

Yet, whilst we all know it to be no more than common sense, many of us still don’t give the marketing and product literature that is made available to us more than a cursory glance before signing-up for the product or service we have decided upon.

Brandspeak’s own research shows that behaviour is most common in the area of Financial Services, where 57% of the UK’s consumers are self-confessed Information Avoiders, unwilling to engage with the detail of the mortgage, insurance or investment product they are considering. 

But why? Is it because we assume that detail isn’t going to be relevant? Could it be that we feel that we won’t understand it? Or is it that it is presented in a way that doesn’t enable us to engage with the subject matter?

The issue with marketing and product literature

It’s impossible to navigate life these days without taking out numerous paid-for services and financial products – and those products and services all come with paperwork.  

We know we should read it – there could be grave consequences if we don’t – yet all too often we just give it a cursory glance, or we put it to one side, telling ourselves we will look over it later

A pertinent example of this data myopia was provided by NameDrop – a fake social network set up as an experiment to see how much consumers really read T&Cs.

Students taking part in the research were asked to activate the “By Clicking Join,” button, agreeing to abide by NameDrop’s terms of service in doing so. 

Paragraph 2.3.1 of the terms of service required them to hand over their future first-born child. 534 students took part in the experiment.

Only a quarter actually “read” the T&Cs but all 534 still agreed to join, theoretically giving NameDrop ownership over their entire next generation!

A nation of marketing and product literature Avoiders

In Brandspeak’s own research, the 57% of UK consumers who identified as ‘Information Avoiders’ stated that they fail to assimilate the financial product information in detail, and focus primarily on the main features and benefits instead.

Of course, the features and benefits are little more than the product’s ‘good news soundbites’, but for a majority of consumers at the point of sign-up, they are enough to make them feel that they have exercised due diligence.

The problems arise when those consumers wish to make a claim, take a payment holiday or change the agreement’s status quo. It’s at this point that they find out that the agreement they have signed prohibits them from doing so, or that very exacting terms and conditions apply.

But why do Information Avoiders end up in this situation?

Barriers to marketing and product literature assimilation 

According to Brandspeak’s own research, the reasons include; 

  • “What’s the point?” 74% of us don’t expect to understand a financial product, so don’t bother trying
  • “I’m pushed for time.” 43% of us only allow 20 minutes for the assimilation of information in a key document where thousands or even hundreds of thousands of pounds may be at stake, whilst another 22% allow half that
  • “I focused on the important sections.” 85% read financial communication in a highly selective mannerHierarchy of information absorption starts with Key Features and CostsRisks and How the Product Works are much further down the list.

The fault isn’t just with the financial consumer

What about the role of presentation and content?

The Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) Treating Customers Fairly (TCF) initiative was set up in 2007 to look into the way financial product information was being presented to consumers.

Specifically, its purpose was to determine whether individual, financial providers were treating customers fairly in terms of the product information they provided and the way they presented it.

The premise was that if providers weren’t providing the right information in a way that was sufficiently easy to read and digest, then customers were disadvantaged at point of sign-up.

Although the FCA never actually defined the umbrella concept of fairness, Brandspeak did its own own research on this and found that, in the minds of consumers, fairness was tightly correlated with the notion of trust

Our research also showed that providers were best able to create trust by demonstrating simplicity, honesty, transparency and a willingness to put the customer first

In terms of fairness in financial literature, the research revealed that product communications (by whatever channel) that were regarded as fair were seen as clear, timely and succinct.

Other unfair practices identified by consumers included;

  • Complex language. The use of jargon and technical phrases is problematic
  • Densely grouped text. 3% find this user-friendly but 97% of consumers see it as intimidating
  • Long documents. Research by Which? found that the small print used by some insurance companies runs to 38,000 words – that’s longer than the whole of Shakespeare’s Hamlet! As 43% are only willing to commit a maximum of 20 minutes to reading financial product documents, many are read selectively or just don’t get read at all
  • Vague or misleading language. “Might” or “could,” for example are identified by consumers as “weasel” words that are deliberately evasive. Many are also put off by vagueness, particularly when it comes to charges or commissions
  • Risks are difficult to digest. All too often this section of T&Cs is one of the longest and the risks are frequently presented without any relatable context.

Based on our original research, Brandspeak also identified a number of additional, presentation criteria that increase the level of disconnect from the consumers’ point of view. These include:

  • Individual words and phrases that confuse or create suspicion
  • Sentences or paragraphs that are felt to be too long and therefore prevent easy understanding
  • Page layouts that make the content tiring to read or assimilate
  • Issues relating to indexes, headings and other navigation devices that don’t help consumers identify the content that they are looking for
  • Images and graphs that create more questions than answers!

A wider issue

Of course, the barriers created by poor content and presentation aren’t just a problem in the Financial Services sector. 

The same issues exist in every industry, whether B2C or B2B. For example, consider the following and see if any ring true for you:

  • Holidays, hotels and flights – most of us are looking for the best deal on cost, not on T&Cs, and so we just don’t read them.
  • Price comparison websites – we’re happy to blindly buy energy or insurance online and hope that nothing goes wrong.
  • Signing up to “free” wifi – because we don’t read the T&Cs we often have no idea how much data we’re unwittingly handing over by making the connection.
  • Buying train tickets online. The purchase process includes accepting 36 pages of T&Cs, which most of us tick without any knowledge of details. For example, did you know that the T&Cs only entitle you to a seat if you’re a first-class passenger?
  • Click-to-agree contracts. Digital contracts that we click to sign online present a whole new set of issues. For example, we might be giving web-based services the right to sell our data or signing away essential rights, such as the option to go to court if it all goes wrong.
  • Trialling an online service. How often have you signed up for a “free trial period,” not read the T&Cs and then found yourself a regular subscriber?
  • Online shopping checkout. 91% of us don’t read the T&Cs during the checkout process when shopping online, hoping instead that if anything goes wrong we’ll be treated fairly.
  • Updating apps and software. The updates themselves take long enough so why waste time ploughing through the T&Cs too. For example, only 16% of people read the T&Cs when updating an online banking app, despite the access it provides to personal financial data.
  • Tenancy agreements. As these are often presented as non-negotiable documents, and there may be stiff competition for a property, few people go through the document line by line before signing.
  • Employment contracts. Do you know about the clause in your contract that entitles your employer to dismiss you if you don’t wear a long sleeved shirt? Of course, your contract probably doesn’t contain that but are you sure… few people familiarise themselves with all the details before taking the job.

What’s the solution?

There are some high tech solutions on the table that could prove useful in future.  

Aviva, for example, identifies AI as a possible option, using machine learning to generate answers to common questions to make T&Cs easier to assimilate. 

However, the most obvious solution is a fundamental overhaul of the way that brands communicate with consumers, not just when it comes to contracts and T&Cs but in relation to any marketing communication that imparts information that is important to the consumer’s decision making process. 

We believe that there is a way to establish trust and improve information assimilation – and that clear, concise communication is the way to do it.

Brandspeak

Brandpseak’s communications consultant are experts at researching and improving written communications, to ensure they achieve maximum engagement and impart maximum clarity.  If you need help with your own communications please contact us on +44 (0)203 858 0052 or at enquiries@brandspeak.co.uk

Jeremy Braune

View posts by Jeremy Braune
Jeremy specialises in delivering market research and consultancy programmes that enable organisations to maximise the impact of their brands, products and services, communications and customer experience delivery. His company, Brandspeak, has offices in London and Bristol and since 2004 it has been helping companies all over the UK and globally. Jeremy has also been a guest lecturer and speaker on London Business School's acclaimed MBA course, on the subject of Brands and Branding.

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