A recent study of 69 asset management firms’ websites concluded that 98.5% did not meet basic readability levels. The study, conducted by VisibleThread, looked at four key metrics:

  1. Long Sentences – How many sentences are too long?
  2. Readability – How clear is the content?
  3. Passive Language – How many sentences are passive?
  4. Word Complexity Density – How many complex, hard-to-understand words are in the content?

I was admittedly a bit skeptical about these results. After all, many asset managers direct their website content toward financial professionals rather than individual investors. And even if the websites are intended for individual investors, one could assume that many of these individuals are well educated. VisibleThread must have heard this skepticism before because it was immediately addressed in the study’s executive summary:

“Customers of asset management firms are often well educated. But, they also lead busy lives. Complex content takes longer to digest. Event for the educated, poorly written content is hard to understand.”

Touché VisibleThread. The firm said it “scanned [content] starting from the publicly available URL,” which implies the content was intended for a general audience.

So, what does the study claim asset managers are doing wrong and, more importantly, how can they improve?

  1. Limit sentences to 25 words

The study docked asset managers that had a high proportion of sentences exceeding 25 words. Long sentences may contain multiple concepts, making them harder to understand than shorter sentences. This is particularly pertinent in financial services, where some concepts may be somewhat complex to begin with.

  1. Focus on readability

Readability measures how easy it is for a person to read a piece of content. The study’s readability scores were formulated using average sentence length and syllables per word. In addition to long words and long sentences, readability scores factor in excessive use of adverbs, use of jargon and passive voice. While it’s hard to understand the specific algorithms that generate readability scores, the takeaway is to write content with our readers in mind.

  1. Use active language rather than passive

Content written in an active voice is generally easier to understand. For example, “We analyze balance sheets” is clearer than “Balance sheets are analyzed.” Thinking about writing in an active voice ties into overall consistency of voice, tone and style. This can be a challenge when multiple people are contributing to the site content. Having a review process in place where someone is specifically assessing site content for elements of consistency (in addition to readability) can be helpful.

  1. Avoid complex words and jargon

The study’s “density rating” was calculated based on the proportion of complex words relative to the total word count. The firm scans for complex words and phrases listed on The Plain Language Action and Information Network website. Here’s where my skepticism comes back. This list of “complex” words and phrases include some common terms that often have a narrow, specific meaning in a financial services context. Here are some examples:

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Anyone who has written quarterly commentary has probably used the phrase “during the period” or “time period.” I can’t help but wonder if the “word complexity density” scores had something to do with nearly every manager failing to meet “basic readability levels.”

Skepticism aside, there’s clearly no shortage of jargon in the financial services industry. Those of us who have been in the industry for several years may be guilty of using jargon without even knowing we’re doing it.

Microsoft Word’s “Spelling and Grammar” check is a helpful tool for communications professionals wanting to write concise, jargon-free website content with favorable readability scores. Within Word’s “Grammar Settings,” you can customize “Clarity and Conciseness” options to monitor for passive voice, jargon, complex words and more.

As for this blog post, Word (and our SEO platform) busted me for using the phrases “during the period” and “time period.” I’m happy to report, however, that I made it through without a single sentence over 25 words.