In an historic town hall held this week in Atlanta, all five Commissioners from the Securities and Exchange Commission sat mere feet from the general public and spent more than the planned two hours educating through a mix of prepared content and Q&A. The same commitment to investor protection that leads to the SEC being well-known for regulation also drives its emphasis on teaching. Though our work at Market Strategies and that of our clients largely rests in the private for-profit sector, we all share the same goal of communicating so that the target audience will listen and understand. From that perspective, we can take away a number of lessons from the way the SEC’s message was delivered…
1. Repeat and repeat. Then repeat again.
If you didn’t walk out of the town hall knowing that investor.gov is a treasure trove of educational material then you must have plugged your ears. I recall hesitating to repeat content in a Market Strategies newsletter years ago, and a former boss pointed out that we should be so lucky as to have someone recognize it. Commit to your message and don’t let up. We have a suite of Cogent syndicated “cutting through the clutter” products dedicated to helping clients maximize the reach and impact of marketing efforts precisely because there is so much clutter. Commissioner Kara Stein quoted a statistic at the town hall that 90% of all of the data in the world has been created over the past two years. If we think about how the speed and quantity of information flow is impacting our daily lives, message repetition is necessary to break through.
2. Meet them where they are.
The audience doesn’t always want to hear your message, but you still must find a way to deliver it. After the main session, during which each Commissioner spoke briefly on a current relevant subject, there were five breakout sessions, each dedicated to a single topic. While some of these topics were fundamental to achieving healthy financial lives and are arguably unparalleled in their importance to mainstream investors—such as tips for savers and stopping fraud—the most popular breakout session by far was on Bitcoin and ICOs. While there is no doubt about the importance of understanding the blockchain technology underlying these offerings due to its potential to change the industry, it’s clear from the questions posed by audience members that much appeal came from the dazzle of the buzzword and thoughts of easy money. Within this setting, the panel managed to reiterate key points that carried over from the main session:
- Be wary if something cannot be simply-explained
- The rules still apply
- The opportunity is there if you follow the guidelines and seek help when needed
3. Encourage feedback to get better.
The existence of the town hall itself is its own proof point for this, though the Commissioners, panelists and other speakers regularly encouraged investor feedback during and after the event. The SEC backs up the request with multiple outlets for providing it. For example, a Saving and Investing for Students pamphlet handed out at the event has a “Keep in Touch With Us” page to ask readers to “let us know how it can be improved.” It provides an address, a phone number and, of course, investor.gov. Another handout asks for a response to a questionnaire and notes that “we want investors to help us get it right.” Of course, research is an obvious way to obtain this feedback—my researcher heart warms at the SEC’s use of a questionnaire. A key component of the feedback, though, is making sure it happens before, during and after. Often as researchers we’re asked to test drafts of existing content, but there are many opportunities to leverage research for building the right inputs to lead to those drafts, as well as to have ongoing in-market testing to seek out refinement opportunities.
4. It is a continuous challenge.
Despite the well-practiced efforts to speak in a broadly approachable way at the town hall, there were still mentions of “tracking error” and “distributed ledgers.” The SEC’s own mission includes three often-repeated parts: protecting investors, maintaining market stability and capital formation—I’ve never heard the latter in the lexicon of Main Street investors. Transitioning from industry lingo to plain speak is a challenge and a skill that takes regular practice. The ability to do both is a key part of our own Market Strategies story, and how to do both is often a component of the findings and recommendations we deliver because it’s so hard to get right.
Disclosure: my husband works at the SEC and spoke during the town hall, but all opinions here are purely my own.