A new audit of the performance and an efficiency of advisor websites provides some encouraging news for financial services firms that have invested time and money to upgrade the online systems their employees use to manage client accounts.

However, the Annuity Monitor report written by Corporate Insight, a research and consulting firm for the financial services industry, found that most of the improvement were modest at best and still leave plenty of room for improvement.

The audit, which evaluated nine categories, 19 subcategories and more than 90 website attributes of the advisor websites used at 15 large financial services firms, assigned ratings on a four-point scale -- 1 for poor, 2 for fair, 3 for good and 4 for excellent -- across six key audit categories.

The purpose of the audit is to give financial services clients some sense of how their advisor-facing websites are actually performing from an objective, detailed perspective. More and more firms have or are starting to roll out interactive websites to help advisors attract and retain more clients and manage their transactions.

On the bright side, industry averages were up from the 2010 audit in five categories, a sign, according to the report authors, that firms are "actively core weaknesses on their advisor websites."

The biggest improvement came in the "Advisor Sales Resources" category, with the industry average improving 0.18 point to 2.72, essentially nestling the 15 firms' advisor websites somewhere between "fair" and "good." Meanwhile, "Advisor Product Information and Marketing" performance inched up 0.13 point to an average of 2.88, the highest-performing category of the batch.

"A number of firms upgraded the detail and level of transparency offered on both variable and fixed annuity product information pages with a focus on suitability and fees," the report said. "A number of impressive annuity-focused online marketing campaigns were also unveiled this year and prominently displayed on advisor homepages."

On the "Advisor Website Design and Usability" front, financial services firms audited -- including the likes of Lincoln Financial Group, Prudential, Sun Life Financial and ING -- the advisor websites earned an average rating of 2.66, up 0.04 from 2010.

"Navigation was the focal point of the advisor site revamps performed in 2010," the report said. "Navigation was drastically improved on some prominent new advisor websites by making key online resources easier to locate and expediting overall navigation via new main navigation menus and homepage quick links."

However, the ratings were less than stellar in the "Advisor Tools" and "Advisor Literature Order Tools" categories where the firms attained average scores of 1.86 and 1.72, respectively.

"Only four new advisor tools were introduced in 2010 and only two firms modified their literature order systems," according to the report.

Compared to the rapid advisor website development witnessed in late 2009 when six of the firms audited rolled out new advisor sites, 2010 was rather dead with only two firms introducing new sites and only 25% introducing new advisor tools.

Financial services firms realize that catering to the onslaught of Baby Boomers eager for quick, sound investment advice will require continued investment in advisor websites as this population grows and their investment options and needs become more complicated by the economy and the sheer volume of investment products available.

"With the majority of Boomers nearing retirement looking to consult a specialist when making financial decisions, advisors must have the tools and information necessary to work with this growing investor segment," IRI CEO Cathy Weatherford said in a statement. "The audit findings underscore this effort to increase the flow of information to advisors, as financial services firms continue to evolve and improve their online resources."

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