‘Harder to Read Than Moby Dick’: Shops Struggle With Unclear Sites

From FT Ignites with Jill Gregorie

September 20, 2019

Investors looking for information on shops’ websites may have an easier time understanding allegorical works of fiction from the 1850s than the content many fund shops post online, a new report shows.

The VisibleThread analysis examined more than 6,000 Web pages and 5.8 million words published by the 60 largest managers in the second quarter of 2019. The study reviewed word choice, sentence length, and whether the writers constructed text in a way that conveyed action.

The Dublin, Ireland-based software provider also assessed how much effort it takes readers to comprehend the website’s text. That metric is calculated using a test developed for the U.S. Navy that has since been incorporated into most word processors. It found that clients would need a college degree to easily grasp material featured on the average fund shop’s website.

The average American reads at an eighth-grade level, according to the federal government’s plain-language guidelines.

“Asset management firms’ websites are harder to read than Moby Dick,” the VisibleThread report says, noting that Melville’s novel has a better “plain English” score than the websites of all 60 shops included in the analysis.

The asset management industry’s average readability score has not improved in the past year, says Fergal McGovern, founder and CEO at VisibleThread.

“Websites are still pretty complex and inaccessible, which means you’re not addressing nearly as wide of an audience as you might want,” he says.

And firms cannot rationalize dense language by arguing that their clients are “sophisticated investors” who understand complex language, since “nobody, no matter how educated you are, wants to spend time trudging through turgid content,” McGovern says.

Vanguard’s sites required the least cognitive exertion of the 60 firms, VisibleThread’s report shows. The Malvern, Penn.-based shop says it makes significant efforts to keep its messaging “reassuring and understandable,” given that many clients lack confidence in personal finance.

The ideal website should be as seamless as a face-to-face meeting between the website’s content developer and the reader, says Shannon Nutter, Vanguard’s head of participant strategy and development.

That sense of dialogue can also aid investors who need to access services during times of distress, such as when taking hardship loans out of their 401(k) accounts or reporting the death of a spouse.

To keep text simple, Vanguard often A/B tests the language on its site to see what clients comprehended best, Nutter says. It also tracks which Web pages users call about most often seeking clarification and looks to revise the language on those sites until investors can glean information from them without obtaining further guidance.

The firm has an internal website with style guides and commentary, as well as tips that employees found helpful and wanted to share with colleagues, she says.

Some fund complexes have revamped their websites altogether.

Federated, for example, completed a roughly 18-month website redesign in January. The Pittsburgh-based shop had one driving force in mind — clarity — says Meghan McAndrew, the firm’s director of digital and corporate communications.

The new site divides information into “bites, snacks and meals.” The so-called bites represent succinct headlines, the snacks provide brief summaries and the meals are white papers and articles, she says.

The firm also broke up information into distinct sections so visitors can find what they need without wading through large chunks of text, McAndrew says.

Federated Investors topped VisibleThread’s clarity index in 2019, up 20 spots in the past year.

Putnam also takes a collaborative approach to developing content, says Andrew Lohmeier, the Boston-based firm’s director of content strategy.

Its writing team frequently sits in on meetings with sales professionals, investment personnel and other groups in order to learn their priorities and better understand complex topics and ideas. Having a deeper knowledge helps the writers communicate more effectively, Lohmeier says.

And since the team is composed almost entirely of former journalists and other professional communicators, they have “the ability to translate concepts or terms into language anyone can understand,” he says.

Writers also work hand in hand with designers who can suggest visual storytelling techniques or ways to keep graphics clear, he says.

Since Putnam rolled out its mobile-responsive website in 2013, the firm has worked to keep text concise and engaging, notes Mark McKenna, head of global marketing.

The Boston-based company also monitors what investors type into Google and other search engines before they land on Putnam’s page, and incorporates those words or phrases into headlines and articles. This exercise, for example, has pushed the firm to cut down on its use of the term “glide path,” Lohmeier says.

Another way fund shops can attract investors is to build up to complicated subjects, says Daryl McNutt, VP of marketing at TapClicks, a San Jose–based data and service provider. For example, instead of immediately presenting complex information about yield curves, they should first describe how money grows or demonstrate how everyday investors can benefit from participating in the market.

He recommends partnering with trusted brands, such as AARP, to help them build easy-to-read stories that elicit emotion and stoke interest, he says. Then they can delve into more detailed information or provide disclosures mandated by regulators, McNutt says.

“It’s the traffic-light style: Put the good stuff up front, get them hooked, and then put the boring, less exciting stuff at the end,” he says.

Contact the reporter on this story at or (212) 542-1281.

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