I recently told my family that if I should ever go missing, the first place they should look for me is under a pile of email newsletters.
After years of casually signing up for a newsletter here, an email list there, I’ve gotten to the point where I just become exhausted from reading marketing content. It can help to break up the flow by visiting some of my more favorite content sites, but some days I just want something more exciting. Some interactive content to engage my brain, a video that asks me to sit still for a couple minutes, anything.
Marketers have gotten so good at cranking out SEO material that we forget there are people on the other side of our search engine results, and this is potentially damaging for how the Internet community interacts with what we make. If we’re going to keep moving forward in content marketing we need something with more pizzazz. We need exciting brands. We need sexier content. We need . . . financial services brands.
It may sound absurd, but your friendly neighborhood financial brands have actually been doing an amazing job of creating interactive content that not only sticks but doesn’t even come off to people as marketing. Here’s how they’re doing it.
Image attribution: Negative Space
Really excellent content should always do three things: provide useful information for the user, provide an engaging experience for the user, and push the user towards a closer relationship with your brand.
With brands all trying to keep up with Internet attention spans, the content race has quickly divided into two camps: entertainers who put more weight into clickability and engagement than substance, and content that so dearly loves its subject matter that it carries on for far longer than its welcome. Forging a space in the middle is the sweet spot for successful brands, but many financial brands struggle to grab interest from older audiences set in their ways and millennials who largely distrust financial institutions.
This presents a bind for financial services marketing: To pull audiences in, they need to tend towards engagement rather than utility, but patronizing audiences who don’t think they need financial help (when they really do) doesn’t bring in business. To win, marketers need to break the cycle of apathy while simultaneously providing useful information that fundamentally changes their audience’s worldview—effectively the content marketing equivalent of a home run.
A few financial services brands have proven themselves up to the challenge by taking the most direct route for encouraging their audience to interact with new ideas: They made their content interactive.
Back in the day, managing personal finance meant handwritten budgets, keeping massive folders of receipts, and being on a first-name basis with your accountant.
But today, you probably have at least one personal finance nerd friend. That guy who is really into budgeting, tracking their savings, and even making tweaks to their retirement accounts. They’ve tried every finance app there is and will engage in impassioned debate with anyone who disagrees. They are often known to wax poetic about how much the one dollar they saved at lunch will grow with compound interest.
Has your friend secretly gone to accounting school overnight? Probably not. Have they gotten excited about a budgeting app from a financial services company and maybe read a couple articles on Investopedia? Far more likely.
Founded in 2006, Mint.com is among the most popular examples of these sorts of sites. Though it started as a small web app, Mint’s growth since being acquired by Intuit in 2009 has resulted in more than ten million unique users today. That’s a pretty penny for a financial services company that charges even just a few dollars for their app, but Mint remains free, helping users track spending, savings goals, and other metrics to keep their personal finances in check. It’s an example that’s made an impression as well, with other services like Personal Capital entering the space in a similar way (though Personal Capital puts an emphasis on net worth and investing, where Mint is primarily concerned with your saving and spending habits).
In both of these cases—and in the cases of similar apps that continue to crop up each year—each brand built an interactive experience that encouraged users to engage with ideas that they might have otherwise been resistant to in other content forms. The content itself succeeds on a number of levels: The interfaces are clean and accessible, reward and reminder systems are built in to react to user behavior (were you over or under budget this month?), and ample opportunity is given to the user to link off to other traditional content.
But most importantly, the entire experience is tailored to the user. No more telling people what percentile they fall into for savings, no more chiding people in aggregate for the behavior of their peers. These content experiences take in any data the user is willing to provide, and then give truly personalized feedback.
From the business side, let’s think about that data for a second. Mint is owned by the same company that sells TurboTax and QuickBooks, among other financial planning products. Personal Capital offers investment portfolio management for the digital age. If I wanted to design a lead gen form for either company, I might be lucky to get some general demographic information and maybe a handful of specific questions from people for free. With these apps, however, these brands have gotten their audience to literally hook up their bank accounts to their servers. There is a huge amount of useful data there for the brands to employ, and each company does so: Mint will remind you about TurboTax and offer to import data come tax season, and Personal Capital is always looking to make small notes and suggestions on your portfolio allocation that might encourage you to commit all of your planning with their brand. The whole dynamic results in a win-win for all involved.
Particularly with finance, a sense of scale is often something learned by doing. I remember being paid five dollars to do a household chore when I was eight years old and thinking I was rich. The same happened again when I made a couple hundred dollars shoveling snow at sixteen. The last time I really felt that way was landing my first job after college.
Financial services companies inhabit the unenviable position of having to explain to people, as soon as possible, that life is a bit more chaotic and expensive than people like to think. A foundational need for driving business comes from changing people’s sense of scale, even when they don’t want to.
For brands that don’t have the time, resources, or desire to build a robust, fully functioning app to help their audience do this, there is a much simpler path that many financial brands have begun using: calculators.
Not just any calculators, but specialized tools that help users visualize their financial future by only proffering up little bits of information. Questions like “How much of a mortgage can I afford with my current salary?” or “How much should I have saved up to retire early?” can be taken from 5,000-word blog articles and turned into a simple web tool that lets users play around. Popular financial services web network Bankrate has excelled in this space, building out an extensive list of tools to help users tackle most questions regarding personal finance.
At the end of the day, when you strip away all of the user interfaces and bank integration goodness of budgeting apps, space to play with the numbers and test things out is really what users are looking for from financial services marketing. Users don’t just want to hear more promises or see more pictures of nuclear families in a pristine home. A safe place for direct answers that specifically relate to each user is a powerful way to build trust while also changing mindsets and gathering information. This is the real content marketing sweet spot that financial services marketing should strive for.
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