Ida Keeling probably never dreamed of breaking a world record at age 100. But, as recent headlines report, she now sets the pace for women in her age group of 80 years and older at the Penn Relays.Blog_Shoes1_05272016

Ms. Keeling and other inspirational people like her are living exceptional lives well into retirement. She proves that life should never be mediocre, even in retirement. And given her longevity, a retirement of mediocre savings wouldn’t be good enough either.

No one strives to be mediocre. Which is why constant learning is critical—both as humans and as companies. What I’m talking about is deliberate learning. The mindful trial of new ideas to prove or disprove distinct hypotheses.

As the head of Participant Strategy and Development, I take my job seriously. Every day, my team and I come to work trying to find new and better ways to help millions of Americans achieve better retirements. Which is why we create clear learning agendas across every channel. Our goal? To decipher, one experiment at a time, how to best get participants’ attention and to motivate them to take actions that will benefit them.

We don’t strive to simply create “stuff.” We want to solve actual retirement problems.

The challenge, of course, is that participants aren’t a single homogeneous group. They vary in age, in financial knowledge, and interest. They vary in terms of investing confidence and certainly in the time they are willing to devote to the topic. Some earn more, others less. There are those focused on only retirement, and those trying to juggle a variety of goals, from paying down debt to saving for a house or the education of a child.

And so we learn by testing messages, leveraging storytelling, trying different ways of framing, anchoring, and peer effects. We aim to determine the effect of channel and imagery, identify the impact of timing, and test location—even color.

Some of these experiments yield the kind of metrics we expect. Some don’t. All of them add to our knowledge base. And we keep building on it. Day after day. Year in and year out. Learning with each trial and error whether we should continue forward with our existing strategy or pivot, to best motivate each individual person.


Because all of this testing and experimentation can help yield better outcomes. And what good is something new and different if it doesn’t actually drive results for the participants we serve? It might attract attention, but to what end? To give marketing and PR something new to talk about? For sales to have something flashy for their next meeting? If it isn’t actually proven to drive better retirements, I would argue it has no value at all.

So what have we learned? Let me use a track-and-field metaphor in honor of Ms. Keeling.

First the gold medal. Recently, we were looking for participants to add a beneficiary to their retirement account. We know emotion can drive action, so we created one subject line focused on family. A second message was more logical and let participants know they’d missed a critical step. The prevailing hypothesis was that the emotional subject would outperform. It didn’t. The “missing step” email outperformed by three times. In fact, so many participants logged on to add a beneficiary, it triggered our teams to check and see if something was wrong with our website. There wasn’t!

This next experiment was on the right track but not universally successful. I’ll give it a bronze medal. Leveraging the concept of “anchoring,” we showed participants different savings nudges. Some received a nudge asking them to increase their savings rate to 15%; others received a rate of 10%. Participants who saw the 15% message did, in fact, save more than those shown the 10%. So good news there. What we also learned, though, was that these messages were not motivating to participants with savings rates in the low single digits. The targeted number was simply too far off. How big can the gap be and still be motivating? You can bet we’re testing to figure that out.

As with any experiment, learning involves failing occasionally. And we do, finding out that a particular approach doesn’t yield any significant improvement. Good to know! We don’t want to spend our time or your participants’ time on communications that don’t work.

The plan sponsors we partner with understand our drive for results. They know our ownership structure results in a crystal-clear mission. We work for the benefit of our clients. Period.

So we test. We experiment. And we quietly press forward with innovations that are improving retirement for millions. Because we want EVERY investor to have the retirement they dream of. And no one dreams of mediocre.


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