Increasing pension engagement through personalized communication

By Emir Efendić, Lisa Bruggen and Mark Graus
Posted on February 01, 2021

Ensuring our financial future has never been more important. A global pandemic and an economic downturn currently contribute to uncertainty on a massive scale. One key way of ensuring a comfortable financial future is through a pension. And yet, despite retirement’s outsized importance, not many people are informed about the ins and outs of their retirement. They are simply not doing enough to adequately prepare and plan for their retirement life.

Not having enough money for retirement is a major financial regret for many (Bell, 2016). Large-scale surveys suggest that people only start to think about retirement 6 to 12 months before retiring (Helman et al., 2008). In the Netherlands, the focus of our research, the Pensioenmonitor surveys show that a significant portion of the population (40%) admit never having taken the time to think about their post-retirement income. Even more people (63%) had not even glanced at their yearly retirement statement.

It is clear that interventions to increase people’s engagement with retirement would benefit them greatly. Yet wide-ranging approaches might not work - differences in age, education, and a variety of other personal factors make it difficult to approach this heterogenous population with a single intervention. So, what can we do to improve engagement with retirement?

One promising approach may be to personalize retirement communication, adapting the means of communication to the person in question. This can be achieved using information inferred from people’s behaviour, or supplied by people themselves - for example their score on a personality characteristic (Montgomery & Smith, 2009). Previous research in other domains has shown that people can be highly receptive to personalized content, and find it to be a useful decision aid (Tam & Ho, 2006). As online retirement communication is on the rise, this is increasingly possible for this domain as well.

Our research project: first experiment

We focus on insights from psychological science, aiming to tailor retirement information to people’s psychological characteristics. Many psychological characteristics have been identified in previous work as relevant for retirement planning. These can be used in personalizing retirement information. For example, knowing how much of an optimist a person is could help us tailor communication to messages to which that person will be more receptive. In that sense, if people are more optimistic by nature, and we personalize the message in a way that strikes a chord, they could be more receptive and willing to engage.

To start us off, we conducted a study on a sample of Dutch participants (N = 200, mean age = 30.1) recruited on Prolific, the online participant recruitment platform. They were first asked to respond to some general questions designed to measure their personality characteristics. Afterwards, they were randomly presented with different text versions and asked to make a choice (see Figure 1. for an example). Specifically, we showed participants several versions of text tailored to specific psychological characteristics and asked them to select which one would actually lead them to find out more about a specific aspect of their retirement.

We found that people preferred retirement messages that were in line with their score on a particular psychological trait: someone who is more of an optimist, for instance, preferred a retirement message that was personalized to be more optimistic. Similarly, someone with a different set of time preferences (being more concerned about their present, rather than their future wellbeing) preferred a message that was personalized for them.

Figure 1. Screenshot of the two versions of tailored text. The left side is tailored more towards optimists, while the right side is tailored more towards pessimists.

Second experiment and relevance

Personalization, however, can misfire - especially when asking people to choose to uncover further information about retirement, as we did in our second study. Unlike the previous study, where we asked about preferences, we presented people with a choice: did they want to find out more about retirement, or skip that section? Through Prolific, we recruited participants from the UK (N = 501, mean age = 37), and we told them that more information about retirement was available to them in an online dashboard. After responding to questions designed to measure their personality characteristics, participants were randomly presented with one of four possible versions of tailored text. For example, one version was tailored to optimists and people who are more worried about their future. However, if we compared both groups of people (those who were presented with personalized communication and those who were not) we found no differences on willingness to choose to engage with a retirement dashboard.

Governments and retirement funds are highly motivated to know how to ensure people’s future financial safety. However, this hinges on participation and engagement with retirement. If people delay engagement and avoid getting informed about these potential problems, they will be ill-prepared for what is to come. The way we communicate important facts, and whether we can get people to follow through, is as important as helping them understand the financial situation that they may find themselves in.

Our preliminary findings suggest that personalizing communication may hold the promise to get people interested and engaged with information that they have been avoiding. But it also presents some challenges. We would, for instance, like to find out what happens when people are able to explore a retirement dashboard in which the retirement information itself is personalized. Will everybody be interested in the same set of retirement information? Perhaps some people, dependent on their personality characteristics, will be interested only in specific information. We plan to share the results of these studies later this year.


  • Bell, C. (2016). Survey Finds Most Americans Have Financial Regrets. Bankrate.
  • Helman, R., Copeland, C., VanDerhei, J., & Salisbury, D. (2008). EBRI 2008 Recent Retirees Survey: Report of Findings (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1158071). Social Science Research Network.
  • Montgomery, A. L., & Smith, M. D. (2009). Prospects for Personalization on the Internet. Journal of Interactive Marketing, 23(2), 130–137.
  • Tam, K. Y., & Ho, S. Y. (2006). Understanding the Impact of Web Personalization on User Information Processing and Decision Outcomes. MIS Quarterly, 30(4), 865–890. JSTOR.