While over 300 mutual fund companies have websites for shareholders, at least 50 companies now have separate Web pages or sites for financial professionals. These sites have become an important avenue through which fund companies are forming bonds with brokers and advisers and quickly sending them information they can use to sell their products.
In response to brokers' requests, for example, Putnam Investments recently redesigned its adviser website, originally posted in April 1997 and found at www.putnaminv.com, to make it easier and faster to get information at the site. The site's screen can be expanded to minimize the need to scroll up and down, there are fewer graphics to make bringing up the site quicker and the navigation tool bar has been modified to make getting information easier.
"We understand the value of advisors' time," said Gavan Taylor, Putnam's chief information officer. "This site helps them make the most of it."
Consulting firms like McGladrey & Pullen of New York, which annually publishes a ranking of mutual fund websites, are increasingly paying attention to adviser sites. This year, McGladrey & Pullen started to include a ranking of the top five adviser sites in its overall mutual fund website study.
Liberty Funds Distributor, which sells the Colonial Funds, the Stein Roe Advisor Funds and the Newport Funds through investment professionals, has become one of the latest fund companies with an adviser site. Financial professionals who sell Liberty funds or are just interested in the funds can call Liberty to get a user name and password to gain access to the site through the shareholder site at www.libertyfunds.com. Once they have gained access to the site, advisers can download prospectuses, fund information, a list of the companies sales directors, sample prospecting letters, sales ideas and seminar presentation materials.
The site is a means of helping advisers more effectively sell Liberty funds, says Linda Raftery-Arpino, vice president of shareholder communications and electronic marketing at Liberty.
"One of the most important things to have (on the site) is ideas to talk to clients about," says Raftery-Arpino. One of the many ways the sites can be helpful is that advisers can download seminar presentation materials that can be used to make overhead projection slides. It is cost effective for Liberty and saves advisers' time. Without the site, they would have to call an internal wholesaler and ask them to mail the same materials.
MFS not only has a site for brokers at advisors.mfs.com, but it also has a site for registered investment advisers at ria.mfs.com, and a third one for advisers who sell its offshore products.
The information provided on each site is geared to the audience, according to Craig Keim, senior product manager for electronic commerce at MFS. For instance, besides getting detailed fund information, brokers can go online to view their accounts and their clients' accounts and to see how much business they are doing with MFS. A branch manager can also see how much business his or her branch is doing with MFS.
Keim says the MFS adviser site, which was named one of the top five adviser websites by McGladrey & Pullen, focuses on providing current information, market commentary, and sales ideas. The site began in June of 1996.
The site for registered investment advisers mostly provides information about fund supermarkets, the channel through which MFS sells to fee-based advisers. Since RIAs do not receive commissions through MFS, there is less emphasis on building relationships with RIAs and more on fund supermarkets, Keim said. The RIA site was started in June, 1997.
While both MFS and Liberty sell through brokers and not direct to shareholders, they diverge in one area. MFS allows its shareholders to execute transactions on its shareholder site, while Liberty does not. Many fund companies are not offering account access and transactional capabilities to its shareholders for fear of angering brokers.
"That's something that we are very aware of," said Keim. "How do we keep the balance? We always want to provide the most up-to-date information (to brokers) before we think of providing it to our other channels." The MFS shareholder site also encourages investors to consult a broker about their investment decisions. "On the site for the public, we definitely promote the imperative of working with a financial adviser. We definitely have a concentrated effort on putting out why it's important to work with a financial adviser," Keim said.
u Dalbar and Diversified Management Resources, both of Boston, recently conducted what they are calling the Financial Professionals' Demand for Electronic Commerce Study. It notes that while 77 percent of financial professionals are connected to the Internet, many of those at the largest broker/dealers and wirehouses have restrictions placed on their Internet use. Others questioned for the survey said that it was too difficult and time consuming to surf from site to site to get all the fund information they need.
"A full eighty percent of financial professionals would use the Internet more often to obtain information from mutual fund companies if they could get it all from one site instead of individual home pages," the Dalbar study said. It found that 38 percent of the financial professionals questioned believed that they would be executing transactions over the Internet within one year. Eight-two percent said they would expect to do transactions "sometime in the future."