At first it seemed the state of the DOL’s fiduciary rule should have been the most-read story. Then I understood what was. (Photo: Shutterstock)

It was certainly the most anticipated story heading into 2017: What would the incoming President Donald Trump decide to do about the DOL’s conflict-of-interest (a.k.a., “fiduciary”) rule?

For reasons not fully expected, the Obama administration, after spending years working on it and offering a very public announcement of the rule, decided it wouldn’t become effective until the 44th president left office, giving his successor final say on its ultimate disposition.

That, as a candidate, President Trump had little to say about the fiduciary rule only fueled speculation. Would he keep it? Would he can it? Would he use it as negotiation leverage for some unrelated but higher priority policy? It turned out he did all of these things.

You’d think, given the extended play this story had, it would have garnered the most readers of all 2017 stories. It didn’t. It wasn’t even #2, (see “Top 5 FiduciaryNews.com Stories in 2017 for the 401k Plan Sponsor and Fiduciary,” FiduciaryNews.com, December 27, 2017).

While some might consider the bronze medal for being the third most-read story of 2017 an impressive feat, much more was expected from the fiduciary rule story. This finish might surprise fiduciary advocates, but it’s also very telling for several reasons.

First and foremost, it could be the world has had enough of “fiduciary” and decided to move on. That doesn’t mean the world doesn’t think one’s fiduciary duty isn’t important. Rather, I suspect the opposite.

Fiduciary is now the assumed de facto standard among most retirement professionals. (We apparently still have a way to go given recent surveys showing plan sponsors might still not be up to speed on fiduciary.)

Given this general acceptance, readers might feel, beyond a certain “newsiness,” there simply isn’t as much to be said about fiduciary, no matter what the headline promises.

Fiduciary fatigue, however, only creates the void, it doesn’t fill it. If there’s nothing to fill that void, fiduciary would retain its #1 position.

But some thing did fill that void. Correct that. Some things (note the use of the plural here) filled that void. It’s both instructive and forward-looking to analyze these top two stories.

Coming in at number two was a somewhat surprising standby. As mundane as fiduciary may have become, you’d figure blocking and tackling issues pertaining to plan sponsors and participants have been an even more overwritten about subject. The fact is, offering the answers to questions everyone knows to ask is an overwritten subject.

Yet, if you began to identify the questions no one is asking but everyone should be asking, then you’ve got yourself a story that lures readers. This is precisely what we witnessed this year.

This, by the way, has been a proven copywriting template for decades. People aren’t afraid of what they know they don’t know. They’re most afraid of not knowing what they don’t know.

If you can offer to address this latter concern, you’ll have an audience you can count on. The fact that this was the second most-popular article of 2017 tells you plan sponsors and participants continue to show concern that they’re worried they are missing something.

Who’s in the best position to tell them what that something is?

 

In retrospect, the number one story was least surprising of all. It’s been on the radar for nearly as long as fiduciary, yet has seen only a scattering of the attention. That means there remains an unsated appetite willing to consume more stories along these lines. The subject of the top story dealt with 401k MEPs. These stories perked up in advance of the culmination of the new tax bill. It became the top story of 2017.

 

And, with that, it becomes the most anticipated story of 2018.