The research arm of UK master trust NEST has said that new research it carried out challenges the commonly held view that talking to disengaged pension savers about responsible investment and environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues could be a widely effective way to prompt people to engage with their savings for the first time.

NEST Insight said that while findings from research surveys had concluded that such communication could be powerful, to date there had been limited real-world evidence of how people’s stated intentions translated into actual behaviours.

Using a behavioural email messaging trial, the research explored whether responsible investment communications can engage pension savers who have never logged into their pension account more effectively than standard approaches.

It found that a standard account activation email, with no mention of investment or responsible investing, resulted in higher open and click-through rates, and the strongest impact on member registrations, regardless of age, gender, salary or employment industry, when compared with emails talking about responsible investment in different ways.

“Our research findings suggest that there could be quite a wide gap between the pension industry’s interest in talking about ESG and the current appetite of some scheme members for hearing about it,” said Jo Phillips, director of research and innovation at Nest Insight.

“However, it’s important to remember that the emails tested in this trial were designed to prompt the very first engagement among an unengaged group of pension savers. It’s quite possible that we’d see different results among savers who are further along their retirement saving engagement journey.

“There are many outstanding questions around what role responsible investment could play as a motivator of pensions engagement. We need to better understand how the patterns we saw in this trial might vary in different settings, such as with different target audiences, in the context of different schemes and at different touchpoints.”

Stuart Murphy, co-head of DC at Legal & General Investment Management, which supported the research, added: “At a time when DC pensions need more voluntary contributions, more understanding and in general more interest from members – it is clear that we, as an industry, need to do better in tailoring the way we communicate to ensure that we encourage them to fully engage with their pensions.”

The research report is the second in a NEST Insight programme of research seeking to understand whether communicating with members of a pension scheme about the impact of their investments makes them more likely to engage with their retirement account, and whether doing so has any impact on behaviours.

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