Image: Bloomberg News
Image: Bloomberg News

It's not just millennials that a firm has to worry about being judged by its online presence.

Financial advisors are just as critical about what they deem is a good product provider website and an increasing percentage will make decisions about whether to engage and choose offerings based on the quality and ease of site navigation, says Howard Schneider, president of industry consulting firm Practical Perspectives, and the author of a new report detailing the effectiveness of advisor websites and support.

Schneider summarizes the attitude of advisors quick to move on if left feeling uninspired by a company website: "If you don't have the capability to do analysis, support my clients or maintain an understanding of the investments I've made, then you can't build a relationship with me, and the chances are I won't use your product."

In a ranking of firms by advisors working across the industry, some did better than others: the websites of BlackRock, Fidelity and American Funds found the widest approval among almost all advisor classes.

But other significant firms, Schneider notes, were not represented, and there are a number of reasons why; the biggest gripes advisors have about provider sites, he adds, is site navigability and ease of obtaining information.

"It is probably the primary contact point that most advisors have with firms," Schneider says. "If I'm interested in learning more about the company, the first thing I do today is I go online and see what products do you have, and get a sense for the brand and the firm expertise, even before I pick up the phone and talk to an internal or external wholesaler."

'AMAZON EXPERIENCE'

Echoing the statements made by Wells Fargo Advisors President Mary Mack at a recent SIFMA conference, Schneider says in today's market, firms need to realize their online sites are being compared to those outside the financial industry, and to Amazon in particular.

"The bar of expectations among advisors has been raised by their experience with a best-in-class website," he says. "What they do on Amazon, eBay or other similar kinds of sites in their home life has an influence on their expectations on what they should be able to do on an advisor site."

"Recognizing prior history to offer you relevant information, for instance," he continues. "There's an expectation of navigation, finding information, and even how fresh that information is going to be. All those things come to define best of class websites."

The biggest challenge for product providers, Schneider adds, is attracting new advisors through their sites. The majority of users for most sites, he says, still are advisors who are already familiar with and use their financial products already. 

COMMON SENSE

For firms that may shrug at this advice by responding that they are not e-commerce retailers but rather money managers and investment product providers, Schneider says that achieving a best-in-class website doesn't require an engineering team from Google, just some common sense.

"It's not about bells and whistles," he says. "Look at what they are doing. Advisors are coming to your site to research funds, download materials, conduct transactions. They want to use calculators and planning tools. You don't have to set it up in a way that's hard to find.

"Don't focus the sizzle," he adds. "Make sure you have the basics delivered. Advisors are going to site and making decisions whether to use your products. If I can't find what I'm looking for, that tells me something about your company.

"There are still many sites that don't meet that simplicity threshold," he continues. "They are not updated regularly, are hard to navigate, don't offer relevant information, are too generic, too simplistic, or too advertising oriented."

It's important too that there is a uniform experience across digital platforms, he adds, as advisors are accessing sites through computers and various mobile devices.

REACH OUT

A quick way to address website deficiencies is to reach out to regular users of your website, Schneider recommends.

"Talk to advisors," he says. "Go out and have a discussion with a dozen advisors using the website about what they like and what they don't like. Make sure you are getting feedback and listening to what they have to say, so you can tailor experiences to the different types of advisors serve," he adds, noting that his research found that what a wirehouse advisor searches for and requires from a firm website will largely differ from an RIA.

"We're in a world where you need multiple touchpoints," he says. "Not every advisor is alike."

Schneider acknowledges that there are particular constraints that the financial industry has compared to retailers. What appears online, even on social media, is subject to strict regulatory standards. And some firms have more resources to invest in online presence.

But a strategy of emphasizing your firm's key differences and strengths is one tactic to take, he says. "Websites are a prominent point of contact. Make sure you're investing, to make sure you're delivering on advisor expectations."

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