By Hannah Stewart (Comm’19)
One’s name, banking information and a good wifi signal—that’s all most people need to set up an online brokerage account. A helmet, the right shoes and good outerwear—that’s where most people start when exploring extreme sports. While most sports enthusiasts realize the importance of preparation and safety, many new investors lack that knowledge, sometimes to disastrous consequences.
First-time investors often hear that in order to get high returns, they ought to have a high-risk portfolio. According to Forbes, nearly two thirds of the global population use financial technology every day. Whether it’s using a smartphone to send money to a friend or to trade stocks, moving money between people and accounts is more accessible than ever.
Last year, Securities Commissioner Tung Chan from the Colorado Division of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) became concerned about the reported rise of new investors making bad investments as access to financial technology increased. She connected with Assistant Professor Jolene Fisher’s strategic communication capstone class for their help to create an educational campaign.
“We knew something had to be done and we knew we needed help to do it right,” Chan said. “Many of the students were in our target audience. They could relate. They did the research and they came up with professional campaigns with unexpected, creative messaging and channels of distribution.”
Real clients in the classroom
Each semester Fisher teaches the senior capstone course, she aims to have at least one real-life client that is a company or in the realm of public affairs advertising, where an organization or brand seeks to influence or inform the public.
“I like inviting real clients into my capstone class because it gives the students an opportunity to move beyond the hypothetical and apply their thinking to a specific issue the client is experiencing,” Fisher explained. “Through this process, students learn firsthand the many and complex factors a client takes into account when determining if they want to put their dollars behind a strategic communication campaign. “
With DORA as a client, students conducted research, including interviews and focus groups with their peers to better understand their perspectives on investing.
“Through our focus groups and interviews, I learned that young investors tend to take more risks, as they are often in the market for [the] thrill,” said Harrison Meng (StratComm’22), who now works at The Trade Desk. “At the same time, this also makes them more susceptible to losing it all.”
After nearly a semester of research and creating a pitchbook, the teams presented their findings to Chan and her team. One team, including Meng, impressed the commissioner so much that its campaign was chosen to be used by DORA.
“We could see the campaign coming to life visually by comparing activities like skydiving or backcountry skiing to taking risks with your money. [Athletes] take certain precautions to ensure their safety. The same thing should apply to your investing habits and the ‘safety’ of your money,” said team member Annabella Ruschenberg (StratComm’22), who now works as an account coordinator at 9thWonder.
For Makayla Karas (StratComm’22), it was exciting to have her team’s pitch chosen by the state and to stay on the project. After graduation, she was hired by Chan’s office to help execute the campaign.
“The whole point is to help young people be successful with investing, and I believe that safety can start with a simple conversation between friends,” Karas said.
“The students acted as a successful advertising agency: They did a pitch, they sold that pitch, the pitch was approved, and ultimately, that pitch is public facing.
—Teaching Assistant Professor Morgan Young
Launching the campaign
Bringing an idea from the classroom to live social media ads and a billboard on a major state highway is no easy feat. To make it possible, Fisher secured $120,000 in grant funding from the Investor Protection Trust (IPT) and recruited Teaching Assistant Professor Morgan Young, founder of advertising company Young Ideas, onto the team.
“We stepped in and helped get it from a student idea to producible files. The ideas were there, we didn’t want to mess with the creative at all,” Young explained. “The students acted as a successful advertising agency: They did a pitch, they sold that pitch, the pitch was approved, and ultimately, that pitch is public facing.”
Young—who has previously worked on government campaigns—and his team worked largely behind the scenes, helping Karas and her new team create a media plan. He explained that it was important to make sure the images of mountain bikers and skiers came from Colorado. Just as importantly, it was key to find the perfect locations to showcase the creative.
Logistically, adventurous college students will often take either I70 or Highway 6 to get to popular ski spots like Winter Park and Copper Mountain. Those two routes converge near Empire, making it prime placement for a billboard of a skier that went up in November.
“Seeing the billboard for the first time was really emotional. It was a physical representation of all the hard work over the last year,” Karas said.
When the first billboard was erected, DORA launched their microsite with information like how to spot investment scams and began to run targeted social ad campaigns on Instagram and TikTok. Karas also managed in-person educational booths at events such as ETHDenver (a major Web3 event) and the Colorado Older Adult Financial Justice Symposium to promote the campaign.
“I’ve had students do great work, clients who have been really excited, really complimentary, but never anything like this, to this scale, it might go even bigger,” Fisher said. “There’s potential for other states to model something after what we’ve done.”
Almost five months into the campaign, in March 2023, the IPT voted to continue funding through the end of the calendar year. They granted an additional $195,000 to continue the social media ads and erect two more billboards—featuring a rock climber and mountain biker—over the summer. The campaign’s full impact hasn’t been determined yet, but Karas said a number of friends have reached out saying the billboard has sparked conversations about financial safety.
“Americans in particular are very influenced by marketing communications. The heart of what we’re trying to teach in CMCI is to not just be effective in advertising but to be ethical in our advertising as well,” Young said. “This is a case where you have both the effectiveness and the ethics coming together at one moment."