Fund sponsors compete for advice attention online

kasina released its annual ranking of fund providers that it says offer the most engaging and substantive web experience for advisers.

Oct 17, 2013 @ 3:34 pm

By Trevor Hunnicutt

Money managers are seldom singled out for their innovation in technology, but a consulting firm has done just that.

On Thursday, kasina LLC released its annual ranking of fund providers that it says offer the most engaging and substantive web experience for advisers.

Just one in five advisers are using asset managers' own websites to research their funds, according to kasina data, but firms are working hard to change that by designing more-compelling websites.

“It's the cost of doing business today,” said Mark McKenna, head of global marketing at Putnam Investments, which ranked second on kasina's list of fund websites. “We compete in a global environment on a daily basis and we're striving to be the best.”

OppenheimerFunds Inc., which rolled out a redesigned website for advisers last month, ranked first in kasina's list of mutual fund sponsors, while the Royce Funds from Legg Mason Inc. rounded out the top three.

Among ETF sponsors, The Vanguard Group Inc., BlackRock Inc.'s iShares unit and The Charles Schwab Corp. were at the top of the heap.

These companies aren't your grandfather's staid financial services firms. They use social media, ambitious data visualizations and seamless integration for mobile phones and tablet devices to stand out in the crowded $15 trillion U.S. market for funds which advisers help their clients navigate.

In the process, the web has forced asset managers to reinvent the role of wholesalers, sales professionals from asset management firms who used to be one of advisers sources for information. Now they meet with advisers who come prepared with reams — or tablets — full of information from third-party sources such as Morningstar Inc., Bloomberg or IndexUniverse LLC.

Increasingly, money managers are looking outside the financial services industry to innovative, consumer-facing e-commerce websites for guidance on how to market their brand, executives said. When OppenheimerFunds redesigned its website, the company turned to Zappos.com, Amazon.com, the Food Network and Ticketmaster.com for inspiration, said Erik Schneberger, head of digital strategy for the mutual fund firm.

OppenheimerFunds redesigned its website to show more personality, making videos with its portfolio managers, and in it, they discuss not just their investment strategy but their lives and hobbies.

It's a way for the firm to distinguish its personality and expertise, a crucial exercise for the asset manager that wants to stand out, according to Julia Binder, who wrote kasina's study.

“Online, people are very averse to the traditional product pitch,” Ms. Binder said. “They're looking for solutions to problems, and advisers are too, especially since 2008, 2009, when their phones were ringing off the hook. They want to know how to hedge against volatility; they want to know how they can help members of the 'sandwich' generation that are trying to help their parents, trying to provide for their retirement, trying to put their kids through school.”

The asset managers, therefore, have embraced the challenge of delivering compelling and informative content, much like the news and data services such as Reuters News and Dow Jones. Putnam Investments, for instance, is boiling down its analysis of the long-term U.S. debt crisis into an accessible graphic primer. Its website includes a way to compare funds it provides with those of competitors, as well as a blog on how advisers can use technology, Mr. McKenna said.

Asset managers could always connect with advisers through wholesalers, advertisements on third-party websites and through content deals with brokerage intranets. But on asset managers' websites, no matter what the content, the firm's sales pitch is never more than a click away.

“If you're silent, then you're basically opening the door to losing a customer, but if you speak, in my view, then you have an opportunity to invite them into your thinking, learning more about your investment process and having that type of engagement and dialogue about your brand,” Ms. Binder said. “The more products you can introduce to an adviser who's considering your brand, the more opportunities you have to do business.”

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