Copywriting within the financial sector is notoriously difficult to get right. 

According to a recent study by Edelman, even the top ranked websites are failing to reach expected standards of readability. This means many websites are made up of convoluted sentences in the passive voice and overly complex language.

Edelman also suggests that this leads to a lack of consumer confidence in financial brands. On the contrary, ‘easily understood terms and conditions’ is said to be the number one way services can increase trust.

So, what can financial services do to improve clarity? Here are just a few tips, and examples to illustrate the benefits.

Be active

While some argue that the passive voice isn’t always the wrong choice, it certainly does nothing to improve clarity – something that financial brands in particular need to pay attention to.

In contrast, active language tends to be much more direct, lively, and easy to understand. Exactly what financial services should be striving for.

Passive language can often be identified using the ‘by monkeys’ rule. This means that if you can add ‘by monkeys’ to the end of a sentence and it makes sense – it is passive.

Surprisingly, a number of big financial brands fall in to this trap. Edelman found that Standard Life Investments uses the passive voice a whopping six times more than the recommended levels, making its copy overly convoluted and unclear. In contrast, Putnam Investments ranked first for readability and achieved target passive voice levels.

This is particularly evident when you compare both company’s ‘About Us’ pages. Standard Life attempts to explain what it does – i.e. the services it offers – with a fairly wordy effort.

Example text: our wide range of investment solutions is backed by our distinctive 'focus on change' investment philosophy, disciplined risk management and shared commitment to a culture of excellence.

Meanwhile, Putnam Investments focuses on the benefits of its service for consumers, outlining its aim in a single sentence.

putnam has helped individuals and institutions pursue successful investment strategies for 80 years

Similarly, the latter also speaks in the first-person (“our clients”), using short and snappy language that is easy to understand. This sounds far more appealing than Standard Life’s stuffy use of the third-person, along with jargon-filled sentences.

Say what you mean

Speaking of jargon. ‘Buzzwords’ are hard to avoid in financial services, with brands resorting to often meaningless and arbitrary phrases in an attempt to explain their offering.

The word ‘solutions’ is a particular bugbear, and widely used in place of the company’s product or service itself – usually to make it sound fancier or more impressive than it actually is. It’s so widespread, that it’s not always related to the financial sector either. Companies that offer “desk solutions”, for example, are typically just companies that sell small desks to save space.

Meanwhile, though showing empathy with consumers is a positive trait, financial brands can run the risk of sounding disingenuous if they try to be overly empathetic or friendly. The phrase “we understand…” is often used, however it can often come across as patronising and redundant in relation to fairly obvious statements. 

Instead of saying things like “we know/understand how much your family means to you”, brands should instead aim to show consumers how they understand, using testimonials and other tangible proof that they help customers to feel safe and secure. 

Direct Line is a good example of a brand that does this. It even incorporates social proof in its H1 tag, telling users how hard it works to satisfy customers even before they land on its website.

h1 tag - "99% of customers would buy again"

Similarly, its copywriting is fuss-free and straight to the point, outlining why consumers need its services and what the benefits are.

There’s no fluffy language or false promises, meaning it is likely to instil high levels of trust in potential customers. 

"why do i need home insurance?"

Take a unified approach

For a lot of financial services, a ‘brand voice’ doesn’t just extend to external communication, but internal too. As a result, tone of voice can often be disjointed depending on the department, with HR sounding entirely different to marketing, for example.

You might be questioning whether this really matters, as long as the consumer-facing voice is consistent. However, research by LinkedIn suggests that having a unified brand messaging across the entirety of an organisation can be hugely beneficial. It found those that closely align their internal and external brands (to resonate with both consumers and talent) produce a five-year cumulative growth in shareholder value of 36%.

Barclays has a comprehensive careers website, with many elements aligning with its consumer-facing site. One of the most notable is its testimonials, including blog posts written by former and current employees or interns. This brings a really personal touch to what could otherwise sound corporate and scary to new prospects.

"my summer job at barclays might be about to launch my postgrad career"

Bring content to life

It might sound ironic to talk about video in the context of copywriting, but the medium can be a sure-fire way to bring clarity to otherwise dull and confusing copy.

It doesn’t mean you have to get rid of the words altogether, either. Explainer videos with animations or imagery can help to clarify and simplify the message you want to convey. With the medium also being easier to digest and focus on than straight-forward copy, it could also help to improve user attention.

Mint.com’s explainer video is a good example. Highlighting key words like ‘easier’ and ‘smarter’, it conveys the brand’s positioning – as well as informs the user how to sign up without filling its website with tonnes of copy. 

When it comes to acquiring new customers, branded blogs are still worthwhile. However, with many financial brands competing on the same subject matter, those that are able to differentiate themselves with unique and original topics – and that offer real value to users – are likely to gain an edge.  

Wealthsimple, an online investment service, does this with its blog. Instead of standard content such as explainer posts or advice-focused articles, it has a series about the money struggles of famous people or fictional characters – written from their perspective. This, alongside slick social media copy and on-site writing, makes it stand out and appeal to consumers looking for the service it offers. 

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