What We Learned from our First 1,000 Followers: Part 2
Between January and December of 2020, we crafted 170 Instagram posts on @pineapplefinance. Our goal was to answer one simple question: could we use Instagram to improve Canadians’ financial literacy?
Our hypothesis was that Instagram could be a stepping stone, inspiring followers to learn something new every day during their morning scrolling, gradually levelling up their financial prowess in the process.
Our topics ranged from the 50/30/20 budget approach to sustainable investing strategies and saving tips and tricks. But here is the spoiler alert. With almost 200 posts under our belt and 1,150+ followers, we still haven’t cracked how to entice Canadians to engage with personal finance, let alone systematically improve their financial know-how.
While we suspected that posting benchmark savings for retirement by age would be a hit, we never thought that posts on how to organize financial paperwork, how to talk to your partner about money, and how to negotiate a lower bill or interest rate would round out our Top 4 posts of all time. We also didn’t think that fulfilling our followers’ requests for how to pick a financial advisor would be one of poorest performing posts.
So, what did we learn from our first 1,000 followers? We’re back for part 2 of our series with:
The challenges unsuspecting followers face in trying to sort our personal finance on Instagram.
- Instagram puts personal finance on shuffle.
Going into this experiment, we knew that it was called ‘personal’ finance for a reason. We suspected that our followers would have different goals but we didn’t fully appreciate how broad the range was. Some followers have messaged us to say that they were barely making ends meet and appreciated our budgeting advice. Others wanted suggestions on how to prioritize extra mortgage payments vs. extra RRSP contributions.
Our challenge was that we couldn’t dynamically meet followers where they were starting from. Instagram as a medium makes it difficult to share information in a logical order that helps followers understand content prioritization, meaning we couldn’t direct followers to the best starting point for them. Success on Instagram is tied to volume of posting, requiring a constant stream of new things to say. This creates a lot of ‘churn’ on the topic of personal finance, especially for beginners. Instead of a curated playlist, Instagram puts content on shuffle tasking followers with self-sorting their next steps.
Instagram also makes it challenging to curate the right personal finance account suggestions for a given individual. Based on its algorithms, Instagram tends to feed you more content that is similar to what you’ve engaged with previously. If you follow one account geared towards savings tips or debt repayment, its likely to suggest more of the same. While this is helpful for folks scrolling for creative inspiration or pure entertainment, it’s decidedly less helpful for educational purposes. At no point does it help followers identify the need to ‘graduate’ to other personal finance topics. Instagram can help followers put extra savings in their bank accounts, but it isn’t smart enough to suggest the beginner investing content that can help them really put those savings to work.
2. The ‘Rules’ of Personal Finance aren’t personal enough
Personal finance is littered with rules of thumb. But as we dug into the literature, we quickly learned that general rules of thumb can be dangerous to follow when they don’t account for unique situations.
Retirement savings rates are a minefield. A common guideline is to save 20% of your take home pay for retirement. But exact savings rates should be based on when you start saving, when you want to retire, the lifestyle you want in retirement, and how you are invested. How can a generic 20% account for all those variations? Fidelity estimates that a 35-year-old starting with $0 in retirement savings actually needs to be saving 23% for retirement. And that’s assuming that individual is okay working to 67, is unlikely to live much past 90, and would be satisfied maintaining a similar lifestyle as they are now (no winters in Fiji on 23% a month!).
Further, there’s little guidance available to women on how their retirement needs vastly differ from men. Women need an even higher savings rate because of fewer working years due to child care (which often comes early in a career causing a double whammy on the compounding front), fewer working years due to family care (which often comes later in a career when earnings are often higher), a higher likelihood of living longer, and consequently the potential for higher healthcare expenses later in life. Our hunch is that the ‘20%’ is likely to leave many women short.
Finally, we’ve yet to adjust retirement ‘guidelines’ for the post-COVID economy. We know increased volatility in the markets is likely to be the status quo for the foreseeable future with the potential for higher tax rates too. This should likely demand higher savings rates to compensate, but the blanket ‘20%’ rule hasn’t caught up yet.
3. High engagement doesn’t necessary align to the most important concepts
The core ‘food groups’ of financial-oriented content on Instagram fall into three categories: stock picking ideas, individuals’ success stories in paying off debt or building net worth, and saving hacks or side hustle ideas.
Although these posts and accounts are insightful for their followers, we couldn’t help but question whether following these accounts would be enough to “learn personal finance”.
When it comes to “Green Energy Stocks with Spectacular Gains” or “5 Fastest Growing Companies of 2020”, multiple studies show that a passive investing strategies produce higher returns than trying to pick individual stocks, especially for investors just getting started. And while watching an individual’s journey to pay off debt or increase net worth can be inspirational and prompt someone to follow suit, it doesn’t provide any guidance for how others can replicate results.
We introduced saving tips into our content because of their uncanny ability to drive engagement (yes, we know, likely not the best reason for posting something). We started our “$5K Challenge” to share tips that would help our followers find $5,000 by the end of the year. We ended up expanding the challenge to $10K based on the overwhelming response.
But, we couldn’t help but thinking — why are we focused on helping our followers save $10/week through meal planning when we could be encouraging them to set up an auto-deposit to their emergency fund or investing account? Wouldn’t that have had longer-lasting results with less effort for our followers?
And, was it really better to focus on encouraging people to start a new side hustle, or should we have done an enrolment drive for work retirement plans? With Canadians passing up billions of dollars in pension plan contributions from their employers, collecting a free 50% — 100% match from an employer is the ultimate low-effort side gig, and comes with built-in, guaranteed returns!
So what comes next?
We’re shifting gears to our next experiment, an e-book, Level Up Your Finances.
Instead of providing a smattering of content that doesn’t always convey its importance to overall financial well-being, we’re creating a Financial Wellbeing Hierarchy of Needs to start with the most important concepts, and gradually expand into adjacent drivers of financial security.
As for our continuing or stopping our Instagram account, we have yet to decide.