Retirement Readiness: How to Sell Employees – 5 Phases of Awareness

Retirement Readiness: How to “Sell” Employees – The 5 Phases of Awareness. Inspiration strikes at the oddest times, often due to the most random of circumstances. One recent evening, I was a captive audience (literally) in my car driving through the canyons of Bel Air in Los Angeles — well, more like crawling along in luxury-bumper-to-luxury-bumper traffic — and I was listening to one of my favorite freelance writing business podcasts. The woman being interviewed was a business-to-business copywriter who specializes in conversion marketing (essentially, using words to make sales; in her case, mostly online), and she talked about something called the five phases of prospect awareness, which are either a precursor to or a catalyst for a buying decision.

According to this, copywriting legend Eugene Schwartz was the first to break down the five phases of awareness down in his book, “Breakthrough Advertising”, in 1966. They are:

  1. The Most Aware: Your prospect knows your product, and only needs to know “the deal.”
  2. Product-Aware: Your prospect knows what you sell, but isn’t sure it’s right for him.
  3. Solution-Aware: Your prospect knows the result he wants, but not that your product provides it.
  4. Problem-Aware: Your prospect senses he has a problem but doesn’t know there’s a solution.
  5. Completely Unaware: No knowledge of anything except, perhaps, his own identity or opinion.

Because I’m a self-proclaimed “DC geek,” as my SUV crept along in rush-hour traffic at a snail’s pace, of course, I started thinking about how the phases of awareness relate to how we communicate the benefits of workplace retirement plans to employees. Could there be a lesson here, I thought to myself?

I believe there is. As an employer, you recognize that your retirement plan is a valuable benefit. The reality is, however, your employees may not. Not yet, anyway. Or they may not fully understand how it can help them. And therein lies the opportunity to “sell” them on it. I think, for the most part, workers are at all different spots on the awareness spectrum. The idealist in me wants to believe that most fall somewhere between phases 1 and 3. However, my inner skeptic isn’t convinced. There may still very well be some workers out there who are in the 4-5 range. Unbeknownst to them, ignorance is not bliss (or it won’t become retirement day, anyway).

For the sake of optimism, let’s assume that most workers are either a 1, 2, or 3. Many people work hard with the goal of achieving a rewarding, comfortable retirement, but perhaps they simply don’t know how to use their retirement plan at work to help them get there. Or maybe they’ve been auto-enrolled into the plan, as many employees are these days, so they know they’re saving, but not necessarily what’s really going on with that money, or what their savings can ultimately do for them, or even that they should boost their savings rate over time to ensure they reach their goal of a comfortable retirement. I would call those Number 3s.

Number 2s are a more skeptical bunch, and thus, a harder sell. They have heard, and likely inherently know, that saving in their workplace retirement plan is the “right” thing to do and that it’s a good way to help them achieve a more secure financial future. But maybe they think they can fare better on their own, by investing in a self-directed portfolio separate from their plan at work, or maybe in an IRA, or by doing something other than saving in their employer’s plan to help them build savings for their so-called golden years. They “get” that the plan can help them prepare for retirement, but may not necessarily believe it. Or, like so many workers still do today, they may make a conscious choice to do nothing, even though they know better.

Number 1s are your “dream prospect,” to stick with the sales lingo. These folks have what a colleague of mine calls a high “get-it factor” when it comes to understanding the benefits of their employer-sponsored retirement plan. They enthusiastically shout “count me in!” and are all too happy to sign on the metaphorical dotted line so they can take full advantage of the plan.

All this to say, when it comes to their education and communication efforts, plan sponsors have their work cut out for them with the Number 2s and 3s. That said, this is also the audience with the highest conversion potential, obviously, so it may be worth the effort.  It’s another way to think about education and communication — not just as a means to an end, but actually, that you’re “selling” employees on the plan.

Before you can do anything, however, you need to gauge where participants are in their “buying process.” Are they even aware of the plan? Do they understand its benefits? Are they pre-sold, and therefore, don’t need much convincing? Consider surveying your workforce to determine which phase of awareness they’re in. As I mentioned earlier, they’re likely in all different phases.

So that said, once you’ve established where your workforce stands in terms of their awareness, implementing a multi-pronged education and communication program can be an effective approach. By multi-pronged, I mean your efforts must be tailored specifically for the phase of awareness your employees are in currently. In other words, it doesn’t make sense to try to “sell” or “convince” where more awareness is needed. Or, if awareness is already achieved, then it’s more desirable to engage employees with a stronger “sales pitch” that drives home the benefits of the plan, and how they can maximize those advantages to help them reach their goals. In essence  — and this isn’t the first time I’ve said this — reaching employees, where they are, can help raise the potential that the message gets through and that they’ll take action on it.

The five phases of awareness idea shifted how I think about reaching employees with the message about their retirement plan benefits. Not everyone is ready to sign on the dotted line — some aren’t even aware, or they simply don’t understand, how their workplace retirement plan can serve them. Sometimes, it helps to take a step back and consider how something we take for granted as a “benefit” may be perceived through someone else’s eyes, especially employees, who don’t always share our perspective that retirement plans are truly awesome. I hope this article offered another point of view and some food for thought about how you can maximize the effectiveness of your communication program, and in turn, help increase your plan’s success and improve your employees’ retirement readiness.



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