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YouTube Retirement Planning: 401(k) Education Hits MySpace


Meet Jack. He's a single, 23-year-old, culinary school graduate who has recently landed a gig as a sous chef. A five-foot-11-inch Aires with an athletic build, Jack is interested in networking with others, but not having kids, according to his MySpace profile.

Jack is also just beginning to learn about retirement planning. Oh, and Jack is a computer-generated animation.

Jack, and his Einstein-inspired guru "Doc," are the stars of a series of three videos being broadcast through YouTube that track his journey to financial literacy by a start-up company called FeelSmartAbout.

"How do we get young individuals in their 20s to really change their behavior and their approach to retirement?" said Christian Echavarria, the founder and president of the upstart outside of Pittsburgh. "That is the biggest need in the industry."

Addressing that need means marketing through the channels that 20-somethings, or the so-called Millennial generation, visit.

"We tend to look at [YouTube] as an alternative medium, but to the audience it's no alternative at all," said Jim Atkinson, president of Orbis Marketing, a company in Woodland Hills, Calif., that specializes in financial services. Perhaps the greatest testament to the influence and reach of the video-sharing company's free services is the $1.65 billion in stock Google paid for it in 2006. "The world has changed," Atkinson said. "Forget just the Millennials. Everyone takes in content in a huge variety of mediums."

And while consumer products-from new cars to new music videos-have turned to Internet networking, through which news and information is shared between viewers with common interests, financial services companies have been slower to respond.

But once companies do get involved, the public is relatively quick to react.

Jack, for example, already has 19 "friends," or people who have linked their profiles to his on MySpace, and Echavarria maintains it's been with no outreach or marketing. Those friends include Ashley, a 21-year-old whose favorite movie is "Bring it On," Tom, a 31-year-old in Santa Monica, Calif., and Grace, a 25-year-old vegetarian whose motto, "You only live once," seems contrary to Doc's message to Jack about saving first, and then spending.

The YouTube e-mail alerts generated since at least late April, appear to be sent from users with names like "ImakeTheWorldRock" and "DiggingForTruth."

Echavarria said his company didn't send those messages.

What's more, FeelSmartAbout won't even have its first product to sell until August, and when it does, the target will be retirement plan sponsors and providers, not investors.

As co-founder of Invesmart, an independent retirement plan provider based in Pittsburgh, Echavarria said he saw a need for advice geared to 401(k) investors. Last summer, The Standard of Portland Ore., acquired Invesmart, and the passage of the Pension Protection Act allowed for plan sponsors and providers to offer investors guidance. An instant market for Echavarria's education tools was born.

While the YouTube videos may not generate business for FeelSmartAbout directly, the experiment is yet another good test run among consumers.

The Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) in Washington, tapped into YouTube a few months ago, posting a series of short videos, none much over a minute, extolling the virtues of planning for retirement and the pitfalls of consumer debt.

EBRI has been producing the spots, in conjunction with the American Savings Education Council, for a decade. In the past, they have been broadcast on television and posted on choosetosave.org, the organizations' joint site.

So far, a spot called "Make A Date"-a spoof of the dating game where a damsel chooses between three eligible bachelors: a conservative-talking bear, a fast-and-loose bull, and a human, whose investing philosophy is somewhere in between-has been viewed 18 times. The balanced-portfolio gets the girl.

In another spoof, "The Fugitive," the manhunt focuses on a perp who fails to participate in his 401(k). It has been downloaded 36 times.

The record-holder for the most viewed video on YouTube belongs to comedian Judson Laipply's "Evolution of Dance." The six-minute clip has been downloaded nearly 49,483,000 times over the past year. It's unlikely Jack or EBRI's latest Emmy-nominated character, "Savingsman,"-a cape-wearing superhero a-la-Marvel Comics-will ever garner a tenth as many hits. But it hardly matters. "Part of the reason they're taking this approach is that the medium and the audience demand it," Atkinson said.

"It's not about empty impressions anymore, it's about ongoing engagements, said Rohit Bhargava, vice president of interactive marketing for Washington-based Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide.

Like generations before them, word of mouth is what influences Millennials most. "Social networks are a way of amplifying this word of mouth, but it is no substitute for the power of suggestion," said Bhargava.

The "share" function of YouTube and the ability to search for "friends" with common interests in MySpace adds this component of suggestion by not only allowing users to search and find others like them, but to refer one another to sites of interest.

"Millennials are likely to be the most skilled of any demographic at filtering irrelevant information and finding relevant messages," Bhargava said.

EBRI's spots are not limited to the flippant spoofs of kitchy pop-culture shows, and not all of them target young workers.

Likewise, Echavarria said FeelSmartAbout plans to produce education modules addressing different topics within retirement, aimed at people in different stages of their careers. The goal is to provide an alternative to the 401(k) enrollment books most participants never bother to read.

Bhargava noted that if well executed, the instant, direct and relatively inexpensive virtues of this unconventional method of investor education can be exceedingly effective. "The devil is in the details," he said.

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