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Social media is boosting communication between pension funds and members, and among members themselves, says Gail Moss

Social media - the web-based communication channels such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and national variants such as the Dutch website Hyves - have only been in existence for a handful of years.

Such sites enable groups of individuals to interact socially through exchanging user-generated content. Yet, already pension funds are planning to use them as new ways of disseminating information and advice to their members.

Last year, for example, Sampension, the Danish pension fund for administration, municipal and some postal workers, used Facebook as a part of a campaign to persuade its members to change from a scheme offering a guaranteed interest rate to a market-based scheme.

The pension fund also set up a dedicated website giving members basic information on the financial reasons for the new scheme, how it works, and the concept of risk that a market-based scheme would introduce. In addition, however, it invented Steen Allermand, a cartoon character starring in four short film clips which were posted on Facebook and YouTube.

Steen represented an ordinary person who, for example, had problems understanding pensions and investment terminology, so the videos explained the meaning of certain concepts. Sampension members were also able to sign up to become Steen's Facebook ‘friend' and suggest questions for him to ask. According to the number of hits on the dedicated website and on Facebook which Sampension tracked, the four films were what people watched the most.

The Facebook campaign was supplemented by the more traditional letter and leaflet to persuade members to switch schemes. In the end, a third of members made the change.

Another Danish pension provider, PKA, has been investigating the pros and cons of social media, after discovering that its members talk about its services online.

However, these sites have a limited application because they are "uncontrollable", says Claus Skadhauge, head of communications at PKA.

"Sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have a life of their own, and people use them as they will - that's the whole point," he says. "Your company may end up there for good or for bad, and you can't control it."

However, PKA is analysing how a mix of these media can be used to enhance its communication. It does not yet use social media for this purpose, but it does have a strategy to develop the web as the linchpin of its member communication.

"What pension funds can do via public social media like Facebook is to prime access to certain information," says Skadhauge. "In this context, social media just represents another way of distributing information." He also believes that pension funds should learn from their members by setting up their own social media in order to get a feel for their members' lives and attitudes. "Social media provides a possibility to send a certain information or profile in free circulation in cyberspace. It travels wide and fast, if the information is interesting enough." Skadhauge says.

He suggests that pension funds could dip a toe in the social media water by using a mix of such media in limited campaigns, for specific debate items and for only a certain length of time.

This could, for example, take the form of a debate forum, a chat room or blog where the pension fund engages in a direct dialogue with customers or members. From there, the fund could set up technical features, making it easy to spin off the dialogue into other media.

However, for providing access to basic information, Skadhauge says the scheme will still have to rely on a mix of channels like letters, magazines, SMS, and open and personalised websites.

This leads naturally on to the issue of how the different media should interact, in order to create more awareness among members.

"For PKA, the specific questions include: How can our magazine (a so-called ‘push' media, which members are sent without requesting it) support the use of our website, a ‘pull' media (one which members only visit if they choose) and create more traffic?" he asks. "And how can PKA use the different media for specific campaigns?"

In running specific campaigns, new facets can be added to well-known communication tools:
 

Web-TV uses the pension fund's own website to broadcast a TV-based clip; Video blogging is a blog which uses a video; Add-ons are features offering, for instance, additional information to members, such as the data on members' behaviour in the labour market which PKA shares not only with members, but also with institutions (on a group basis); RSS-feeds are links within, say, a newsletter to guide readers to information on websites.


Julian Webb, head of UK DC, Fidelity International, agrees that social media should only be used in a specific way. The company runs a number of DC plans for clients, including some IT companies. "The assumption was that these clients would be enthusiastic about using new media," says Webb. "But the opposite was true. If we are trying to put over a really important message to the workforce, we deliver it using other methods for the core communication - like paper or presentations - because that way it stands out from other employee communication."

But even old-fashioned methods should be analysed down to the tiniest detail to ensure maximum impact. For instance, hard copy messages can include a paper drop on the employee's desk, or a letter posted to their home address on Friday so that it arrives on Saturday. "For many employees, the only time when they get a chance to read anything is the weekend," explains Webb.

However, he says clients are keen to use their company's intranet, for instance in online meetings, which Fidelity has delivered as videocasts.

Although these meetings are posted over the intranet so that they can be watched later, Webb says the strength of the medium relies on having a live audience to e-mail in questions while the videocast is actually in progress. Again, small details make all the difference - such as holding these sessions at quiet times of day, avoiding early lunchtime, and mid-morning or afternoon.

And although Twitter places a 140-character restriction on messages, the site is used by the Fidelity press team to send a ‘tweet', such as the one alerting members to information it published on the Fidelity website about the UK Chancellor's pre-Budget review in December.

Webb says that transmitting alerts are probably the most effective way to use social media.

DMGT Pensions, the in-house pension team of the UK newspaper publisher Daily Mail & General Trust, is planning to launch a financial website next summer, incorporating short videos sourced from YouTube.

DMGT runs a number of DC schemes as well as a now-closed DB scheme, but membership is not compulsory. The new website will be aimed at all employees, and will include components on topics such as tax and savings, as well as retirement.

Each topic will have its own home page containing an explanation of the basics. The videos for the pensions section will cover issues such as ‘Reviewing your Pension' and ‘Living Longer', with financial guidance by independent financial advisory firm Hargreaves Lansdown through scenarios featuring fictitious employees.

DMGT Pensions also plans to set up an exclusive internet forum to enable employees to set up dialogues between themselves, as well as using an interactive ‘Ask the expert' facility. There will also be RSS feeds supplying general financial news.

"The switch to wholly DC schemes means that all the risk is with members, so they wanted us to design something putting pensions into context," says Teresa Berkengoff, manager, communications and policy, DMGT Pensions. A survey of employees revealed that 75% wanted an online facility for the purpose. "However, a major challenge for us will be reaching out to employees who are not in our pensions schemes, so we are currently assessing suitable communication channels around the group," says Berkengoff.

"The key feature of every social network is a common point at which people want to engage in a particular online relationship," says brand consultant Douwe Jippes. "So it is very much about attracting people together, and asking how you can get them to engage with your brand."

But he warns: "Social networks are more organic than other networks, and it is all about creating a dialogue with members. So pension funds shouldn't start with building a webpage, or sending an e-mail. Instead, they should use the site to build a positive identity. It's a two-way process, so they should be open in getting people to send them information.

"And don't use just one social network," counsels Jippes. "Meanwhile, there's no harm in using professionals to provide content, but use people who are enthusiastic about your product."

But while enthusiasm is a must, youth is not, says Skadhauge. "‘Young media' does not necessarily mean ‘young content'. If your core ‘readers' are 60 years old, you should provide them with information relevant to them, no matter what media you are using. It is pathetic when you see pension-related information styled ‘young' beyond all reasonable limits just to appeal to a younger audience, which probably doesn't care about pension savings at all."
 

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