The usefulness of online Web sites geared to intermediaries has long been a matter for debate. E-business strategy consultant kasina of New York conducted a study recently, finding that financial-services professionals still find the medium useful for sharing information. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of work to be done on the Web.

"Over the past year, asset management firms have concentrated on driving traffic to their intermediary sites by improving navigation, usability and overall site appeal," said kasina's CEO Steven Miyao. However, usability is still an issue, he said.

The study showed that the average number of registered users for the top 10 sites in the survey is 26,000, with that number ranging from 4,000 to 61,000 users for the individual sites.

For the survey, kasina divided financial planners and broker/dealers into three tiers. Miyao noted that all three use the Internet in different ways.

Pricing and performance information seemed to be most popular among tier-three participants, as 55% of the advisers look to online channels for this information. Thirty-four percent of tier-two said pricing and performance were important to them.

This information helps them "evaluate how to make better investments for their clients," Miyao said.

There is a large disparity in the amount of time members of the different tiers spend online. Nineteen hours per week are spent online by tier-three advisers, versus eight by tier-one and 12 by tier-two. Miyao pointed to a drop-off in time from last year, noting that tier-one users were online only eight hours a week this year, well below the 12 hours last year. Also the smaller firms, which spent 19 hours a week online this year, used to sign on for 24 hours a week a year ago. Miyao estimates the reason people are surfing mutual fund and other financial sites less is probably because they have their eyes on the market more - not due to any malfunction of the sites, he said.

$2 Million a Pop

The average budget for the top 10 sites was around $2 million in the last year. Miyao said that the average is about the same as a year ago. "There have not been a lot of firms that have increased their budgets, but also not a lot of firms have decreased their budgets, either. Budgets have changed in other areas, but most are staying about the same in this area."

Another thing that remains the same is the companies that made kasina's grade. "Eight of the top firms are the same as they were last year, but one of the firms that is different this year is Fidelity, which dropped out of the top 10," Miyao said. "The reason for that is that they've spent their primary efforts last year on developing a content syndication strategy, which is targeted at the tier-two broker/dealers, where they are providing their content, not only on their Web site, but also on the intranet of the broker/dealer."

The majority of managers, 58%, feel that content syndication will be the next big technology, the study found. The growing influence of enhancement of portals was mentioned by 25%.

The study revealed that advisors would like to see more tools to compare different funds on the Web sites.

In conclusion, Miyao said: "Most of the firms are starting to rework their customer relationship management programs, using the Web site much more as a marketing tool."

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