Want People To Care? Tell Them A Story

Note: The Wall Street Journal published a blog post earlier this week (“Are We All Braggarts Now?”) that I fear might apply to me vis-à-vis the bragging I do about the next generation of my family. If you indulge just one more post referring to the accomplishments of my nieces and nephews, I pledge to reform. 

Members of my family, me included, have been beating a path to our nation’s capital this summer for a once-in-a-life opportunity: To get a tour of the U.S. Capitol from none other than my nephew the congressional intern.

Those 2.5 hours were among the most fascinating I’ve ever spent, and not just because we were given VIP treatment. But because even when you’re learning and re-learning about the home of the legislative branch of the U.S. government—whose history ought to be riveting enough—the stories to be told trump the facts and figures every time. And, our Danny is just the showman to tell them. (OK, now that is absolutely the last brag for a while, I really mean it this time.)

I thought about you while I was away and I returned with a strengthened conviction: If the richness of Washington, D.C., and what it means to every American needs to rely on stories to continue to engage its visitors, of course the business of investment communications needs to be telling stories, too.

We can't pretend to be surprised that people don't respond to portfolio manager Q & As and the data accompanying them. People don't care because—just keeping it real now—this industry has tended to prioritize communications compliance and production expediency over providing insights. Today's cut and dried communications don’t begin to touch what’s needed today to truly connect with financial advisors and shareholders.

Louie The Loser, Anyone?

Storytelling, popular now among social media enthusiasts as a recommended form of content marketing, isn’t unheard of in the asset management industry. We have the home office-produced "Sales Ideas" and whatever stories that wholesalers make up and tell themselves while off the reservation.

Does anyone remember American Funds’ Louie the Loser? I first heard about this campaign more than 15 years ago and my impression then was that it was past its heyday. Wholesalers industry-wide had apparently loved it, for the simplicity of the story, the catchiness and for its novelty. Let’s face it—this approach would be novel today.

Notwithstanding the visuals and Facebook conversation starters that we are starting to see from some mutual fund and exchange-traded fund (ETF) firms, I think of storytelling as a competency that needs to be core to a communications culture. While graphics can be produced as one-hit wonders, a firm needs to commit the resources and have the patience for investment storytelling to be effective over time.

How To Enlighten?

Investment management staffs themselves get hooked on public companies’ stories and technologies. But to date how much have we shared with advisors and shareholders? Most reports provide only the minimum—the name of an equity, its percentage representation in a portfolio and subsequent changes to the portfolio and all of it made available on a delay that's intended to be beyond the point of anyone caring. There has been little differentiation in the typically stilted information provided.

I credit the availability of Twitter as a channel and the leadership of others as fueling a promising trend toward asset managers communicating in more natural, informative ways. In their content selection, tone and even construction, today's best asset manager tweets are more interesting and less predictable than firms' Websites.

And, now here come the long-form stories from a few asset managers, reflecting genuine effort in helping investors understand what's being invested in and how. Check out these recent examples and please feel free to suggest others in the Comments below:

  • Loomis Sayles’ A Day in the Life of an Equity Trader whitepaper (this link opens a PDF).
  • T. Rowe Price’s extended coverage of 3D Printing, one of three topics covered in the Connections section of its Website. Here's how the firm describes Connections: “At T. Rowe Price, we build knowledge every day about dynamic industries that are poised to have wide-ranging effects. Connections explores the companies, people, and innovations that are shaping our economy."

Let's hope these are the signs of more to come.

For more on storytelling, you might enjoy this Fast Company article "Why Storytelling Is the Ultimate Weapon" and comments. I liked this line from it: "When we read dry, factual arguments, we read with our dukes up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this seems to leave us defenseless."