Using Technology to Communicate to Participants

January 24, 2014 ( – There are many factors that can influence what method a plan sponsor uses to deliver retirement plan information or financial education to participants.

Jeanne Thompson, vice president of market insights for Fidelity Investments, tells PLANSPONSOR, “It depends on the nature of your work force population. For example, if the employer is a financial services company and its employees spend a good portion of the day sitting at their computer, then email delivery of plan information may be the way to go. But if the employer is a retail-based operation, with employees away from their desks all day or not having desks at all, then mobile technology may be a more appropriate delivery method.”

Plan sponsors definitely need to keep an open mind when it comes to the delivery of plan-related information to participants, Greg Ward of Financial Finesse, a provider of workplace financial wellness, tells PLANSPONSOR.

“There may be multiple channels of information delivery that are used,” says Ward, who is director of Financial Finesse’s think tank and based in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Different employees learn in different ways and the delivery of information needs to reflect that.” Delivery systems may include workshops, one-on-one meetings, webcasts, phone-based coaches or podcasts.

The type of delivery system used may depend on the culture of the company, says Ward. “Some white collar companies may be more cutting edge and rely more on delivery methods that reflect that culture, while blue collar companies may rely less on such methods.”

Generational and age considerations may also need to be factored into deciding what delivery systems to use. For example, says Ward, webcast have been found to be very popular with younger Millennial employees.

Electronic Communications More Popular

Email seems to be the most popular way to communicate to participants currently. “Most of the material we send out to participants is via email. Most people seem to prefer electronic delivery of plan-related information, rather than printed material, since electronic or online information is much more current,” Boston-based Thompson says.

She adds that when it comes to more direct communications with retirement plan participants, Fidelity is looking at greater use of texting and mobile messaging, as well as the possibilities of participants using mobile applications to carry out their plan account transactions.

In examining the use of email as a delivery system, Thompson says one big advantage is the interactive component. “It’s an easy way to get participants to take an action, with the ideal goal of them simply being able to click a link to carry out that action. Any way we can engage participants and drive them toward useful material or a helpful online tool is a positive thing.”

Even though participants may indicate a preference for receiving plan information electronically, Thompson reminds plan sponsors that government regulations require that certain regulatory materials intended for participants still need to be provided in paper form.

The Use of Podcasts

A 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center finds the number of Internet users who download or listen to podcasts is rising. Specifically, 27% of those age 18 or older favor podcasts, compared with 21% in 2010 and a mere 7% in 2006. The poll also reveals that podcast listeners are more concentrated in urban areas than in rural areas.

When it comes to podcasts, Fidelity has already made use of the medium. Thompson says one of its most popular podcasts is aimed at participants age 50 or older, making clear to these preretirees that it is not too late to start saving for retirement and offering helpful information to that end.

“Podcasts can be good for engaging people, especially those who are looking for information. It can be a valuable way of communicating with them,” says Thompson, adding that Fidelity has also created podcasts that offer more specific information about topics such as participating in a 401(k) plan and the importance of diversifying retirement-related investments.

In comparing podcasts to email as a plan information delivery system, Thompson sees podcasts as being less interactive than email, but participants value the podcast content as reference material they can refer back to later at their convenience. Financial Finesse’s Ward agrees that podcasts are indeed convenient for employees, but lack interactiveness.

“Podcasts are sort of an evolution of the books-on-tape concept,” Thompson says. “For example, people with long commutes can take their time and listen to the material.”

As to whether the increased figures for podcast listening foreshadow a corresponding rise in plan sponsors using it as a plan information delivery system, Thompson says, “It’s certainly possible. I think if the listening audience for podcasts continues to grow, more plan sponsors will begin to consider using them. When it comes to communicating plan information to participants, plan sponsors should explore every option.”