AXA Distributors, John Hancock, Lincoln Financial, Pacific Life  and SunAmerica topped the list of the best variable-annuity websites for advisors in a new survey by kasina.

“All of these sites did a really good job of servicing advisers’ books, showing how contracts are set up, plus information on holdings, performance and transactions,” said Mike McLaughlin, a senior managing consultant at kasina.

The stakes are high. With nearly 1,500 products competing in the variable annuity space, assets down 24% last year in 2008 from 2007 and flows into annuity products down over 30% since 2007, firms are striving to transform their businesses,

But certain annuity providers are rising to the challenge with innovative features they hope will win advisers’ loyalty to their products.

Standout features include SunAmerica’s dashboard layout, which provides advisers with a one-page, concise view of all their business with the company and a feature on Pacific Life’s website that enables advisers to download statements for all their clients at the same time.

“The name of the game is differentiation in order to win advisors’ business,” McLaughlin said. “Every one of these firms sees its website as something that helps them win business.”

This is the first year kasina has looked at insurance companies’ websites, although it has kept tabs on mutual funds’ sites for 10 years. kasina wound up reviewing 13 insurers’ VA sites. McLaughlin said there are only around 25 significant players in the VA space, and nine of the companies kasina looked at are in the top 15 largest VA providers by sales volume. Only insurance companies that agree to participate are included in the study.

While kasina has no past data to compare VA sites’ progression, McLaughlin said there are several ways mutual fund companies could take a hint from insurers’ websites, primarily in how client-focused VA sites are. “Whether it’s products or thought leadership, VA providers consistently show advisers why their products matter to their clients, and they also do a really good job telling advisers why the provider is a good partner,” McLaughlin said. “And the top five sites do this consistently well.” By contrast, fund companies usually lead with how good their products are.

What separates the best from the worst of VA providers’ sites is functionality. “With the ever-increasing importance of the web as a communications tool, effectively presenting sales ideas and marketing messages online is imperative and offers a competitive advantage,” says Jeff Spritzer, vice president, web strategy and content management at AXA in New York.

The worst examples are basically online brochures for variable annuities that advisers can easily just get in hard-copy form. “That’s what less-competitive web offerings are compared to the full-service thought leadership the best firms offer,” McLaughlin said. The best sites are “a unique and attractive package rather than a registry,” and go as far a helping advisers get appointed in new states, detail their revenue streams and tailor presentations for specific client needs.

Liz Altman, senior vice president at SunAmerica in Los Angeles, says the firm relaunched its website in July 2008, a complete overhaul that drastically improved its functionality. “It was very vanilla before,” she said. “But after a tremendous amount of market research we launched a full-blown redo to help advisers build their practices.” While SunAmerica has no data in dollars yet, Altman notes that the site, which includes tools to help advisors segment their client bases, has seen a “significant increase in terms of the number of visitors each day and the length of time they stay at the site.”

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