The discussion around millennials is often a frustrating one, albeit one that mutual fund and ETF executives should take note of. Older generations may look down upon them and criticize their work ethic and attitude, while millennials often blame older generations for many of the problems they're burdened with, such as high student loans and a poor job market.
Fund executives who pick a side in this conversation are losing sight of the bigger picture, and in the process might end up missing out on a massive growth opportunity for their firms.
Targeting the next generation of investors is certainly not a new theme, but the current generational shift taking place in the country is one the investment community hasn't seen in quite some time, if ever.
For most of the past 30 years, Baby Boomers have been front in center. Born between 1946-1964, this generation came into their own right around the time that individual investors' interest in the stock market was gaining steam. Now that Boomers are starting to retire and exiting the investment world, they've created a void that mutual fund and ETF firms need to address.
So, how should fund firms market themselves to this next generation of investors?
* Know your audience: the world has changed dramatically over the last 30 years and today's young investors are much different from their parents. There's no silver bullet to marketing to this group, but a good place to start is to understand that what used to work in the past likely won't work moving forward.
* Focus on trust: many millennials graduated college right as the financial crisis was taking place, leaving them with high student loans, zero job prospects to pay them off and forcing many of them to move back home with Mom and Dad. As such, their feelings toward Wall Street were, and to a large extent remain, extremely negative. Because of this it's absolutely imperative that fund firms work to earn back their trust. This generation isn't as wowed by Wall Street as Boomers were and are very cynical--firms must address this issue head on and tailor their marketing messages appropriately.
* Stop ignoring digital: it may drive parents nuts when their kids are texting at the dinner table, but marketing professionals should be doing backflips at the opportunities in this space. Stop ignoring this area and hiding behind your compliance departments. Are there concerns with embracing digital? Absolutely. Fund firms need to understand the rules and restrictions when marketing themselves online. While regulators haven't always been crystal clear with establishing dos and don'ts in this area, far too many firms have sat back when it comes to digital and they're losing ground, quickly. Not convinced? The next time you're on a subway or at a restaurant, look around you. What is everyone doing? They're looking at their phones or reading a tablet.
* More brand, less product: want to make a 24 year old fall asleep? Toss out some Morningstar stats at them and keep using boring stock photos. Millennials care as much about 5 star funds as they do with owning a yacht or a vineyard 35 years down the road, so change things up. If you want to get their attention now and possibly their business for life, put the intimidating performance data down for a moment and connect with them. Talk about your legacy and history, your involvement with the community and various philanthropic efforts. There are thousands of mutual funds and ETFs for people to choose from and every competitor has similar products, so rely less on product and tell a different story. It may sound counterintuitive but if you're able to sell investors on your brand, the product part will be a slam dunk.
* Focus on fees: Having little disposable income to speak of it should come as no surprise that millennials are highly focused on costs, and as a result many of them are avoiding individual brokerage accounts and instead pursuing the comfort of low cost index funds and ETFs. In many ways they care as much about fees and expenses as they do with performance, so make sure you incorporate this into your marketing and advertising campaigns.
* Go back to school: many kids start investing when they're still in college, yet fund companies almost never market themselves to this audience. It's true, most college kids can barely afford a grilled cheese sandwich, let alone a mutual fund, but soon enough they'll be in the workforce and before you know it they'll be making enough money to become a legitimate client. As such they represent future revenue to you, and if you've been reaching out to this group for the last five years you'll have a strong chance of winning their business once they're ready to invest.
* Embrace sponsored content: as discussed, millennials don't have much income to devote to investments. But just because they can't buy your products now doesn't mean you can't give them something they want. Several financial brands have branched into sponsored content, also known as native advertising, and the results have been incredible. What type of content can a mutual fund company offer to a millennial? Since millennials are entering the workforce and are early in their careers, start by making a short video clip about the top emerging job sectors for young graduates, a slideshow of the best cities for young employees or something around the benefits of 401(k) investing. There are thousands of ways you can connect with this generation that have nothing to do with your products, per se, and by doing so you have the potential to promote your brand on a much deeper level.
None of this is to say you should throw out your marketing plan. Hardly. After all, a strong message that resonates with investors and is delivered in the right way is still one of the most effective ways to raise new assets and grow your firm, regardless of which generation you're targeting. Marketing and public relations are not going anywhere, but they are adapting to the times, and several financial brands have taken advantage in this area and emerged as early winners in the millennials game. It's time for the rest of the ETF and mutual fund industry to follow suit.
Andrew Healy is co-founder of Water & Wall Group, an agency focusing on business-to-business financial and corporate communications.