The Science of Financial Attention

Wealth Management and Private Banking

10 July 2017James Goad

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The science of financial attention is the emerging discipline arising from the convergence of digital data, psychology and experimental science. As the relationship between individuals and financial institutions becomes digitised, utilising client data to revolutionise the client journey, contextualising client data and explaining factors that are pertinent to their investments is key to client engagement.


  • Financial attention is defined as the notice taken of information regarding one’s financial affairs. This attention is not always for a prolonged period. More generally attention sessions are short. However, it is not just about looking at information and reports on one’s holdings - It is the emotional response to this data.
  • The science of financial attention is the emerging discipline arising from the convergence of digital data, psychology and experimental science; involving the rise of randomised controlled trials used to test user experience.
  • Any myths supposing a strong link between older generations and decreased digital engagement should be disregarded.
  • It is the case that there are high volumes of older clients along with millennials who are digitally attentive.
  • Ensuring clear and transparent access to clients of their investment holdings online is helpful but to significantly improve customer experience, digital platforms and interfaces must tell clients a story, contextualising the data and explaining factors that are pertinent to them.

Key issues and challenges:

  • Average number of attentive days per year largely exceeds the average number of trading days per year. This suggests that financial attention is fast becoming a fundamental and extremely prevalent economic activity.
  • The Ostrich Effect is the underlying concept that explains the fluctuations in financial attention. It is the idea that in months where the economy is said to be doing well, individuals are more likely to look at their investment data but in months with frequent “down days” individuals are less likely to log-on and look at their money.
  • This highlights the fact that individuals are “enormously responsive to the impact of the news” as well as the powerful psychological effects economic news can have on an individual’s financial attention.
  • It is important to ensure that clients are able to differentiate news and updates from a long-term financial planning strategy, arguing that this is where the human interaction element is necessary. “CNBC and Bloomberg are really showing short term changes relevant to traders rather than what affects a long-term plan.”
  • The research presented shed light on the attention volume disparities across various client segments. DC (Defined Contribution) investors are far more engaged than retail investors and male attention seems to exceed female attention. Yet surprisingly, delegates were informed that both millennials and older clients demonstrate that they are digitally attentive in relatively equal measure.
  • Collecting such metrics fuels the growth of digital data. The Vanguard expert referred to data collection in the previous month based on ten million clicks on their digital platform and 1.5 million online sessions. A session can range from one minute to one hour but the conclusions drawn were that “people who look a lot don’t look for very long - digital attention is generally quite short.”
  • There is a psychological phenomenon surrounding client consumption of data but a major issue is getting clients to understand such data. This delegate noted that they have a rich online portal which contains clients’ investment performance data and also contextualises this information to aid client understanding.
  • A response from another delegate emphasised the importance of contextualising data, with their focus being to ensure the data is actually of interest to their client -“It’s all about breaking it down and making it something that meets their interests and goals”
  • For wealth managers, the next step in improving financial attention is to use the data to revolutionise the client journey. This can be done by making connections based on the information collected of what clients are clicking on. The data can also be used to help evaluate strategy to enhance user experience by finding out what is successful and what is not. “This process is definitely where financial institutions are heading towards, whether it is done internally or it is outsourced.”
  • The delegates were reassured that whilst tracking client behaviour can produce some really interesting and useful insights, there is also a level of ‘creepiness’, so it is imperative that using journey data is done in a nonintrusive way.
  • Delegates questioned the volume of digital data that can be feasibly obtained. Some found that only a small percentage of clients actually log on to the online portals and a huge percentage are not even interested. But overall delegates agreed that we are moving into a more interactive world and wealth management firms must be prepared for that.
  • Interestingly, one delegate suggested: “We could use the trends of when people are logging on to alert private banks that clients are attentive and engaged. This could really enhance the client relationship by targeting those who are really looking to engage.”
  • Many delegates remained unconvinced on the extent that digitalisation will dominate the wealth management industry. They were increasingly uncertain of what existing technologies such as “Siri” and “Alexa” would look like in ten years’ time. One delegate spoke about a millennials forum they held whereby the overwhelming conclusion was that not everything should be digital. Their contention was that within the wealth management industry clients do want some human interaction on top of the messages in the data. “Ultimately the process should be as personalised as possible. I don’t think the human is dead yet – unless we have an immense continuous speed up in A.I. progression.”

Conclusions and solutions:

  • The fundamental idea is that financial institutions will increasingly rely upon this emerging science of tracking financial attention to optimise client experience.
  • The more insightful the online investment data becomes, the more likely investors are to engage with their money.
  • This will in turn improve investor decision making and outcomes although increased digitalisation will improve user experience, some clients will always require a more dedicated face-to-face proposition, particularly when it comes to reassurance and explanation of their investment portfolios.



Expert: Steve Utkus, Vanguard     


Facilitator: Tasha Vashisht