Fidelity swept Pensions & Investments' Best of the Web contest.
Its website won top honors for overall excellence, as well as for use by defined benefit plan sponsors and use by defined contribution plan participants.
The overall winners: Fidelity Investments, first; Vanguard Group Inc., second; and American Express Financial Corp., third. Honorable mentions were awarded to T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. and CIGNA Investments Inc.
On the defined benefit side, Fidelity Management Trust Co. was first; American Express Asset Management, second; and INVESCO, third. Honorable mentions went to American Century Investments and Vanguard.
For defined contribution participant sites, the first-place winner was Fidelity Institutional Retirement Services, followed by Putnam Investments Inc., second; and Vanguard, third. Honorable mentions were awarded to T. Rowe Price and Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.
The winners were chosen by a team of nine judges, who scrutinized the websites of the nation's 50 largest money managers. They gave a numerical score to each site; those scores, when totaled, determined the winners in each category. In addition, companies' scores from both the defined benefit and defined contribution categories were combined to produce overall winners.
Sites were scored on navigational ease, design, content and private access. Judges were not allowed to evaluate the sites of their own firms.
The judges were: Frank Armo, vice president of electronic business development for Fidelity Institutional Retirement Services Group, Boston; Michael Barry, president of the Plan Advisory Services Group, Chicago; Giri Cherukuri, founder of Chicago-based InvestmentSeek.com and head trader at Lisle, Ill.-based OakBrook Investments LLC; Donna Delpo, product manager, technology, at SEI Investments Asset Management Group, Oaks, Pa.; John May, senior vice president and business head of SEI's TreasuryPoint.com; David Freese, manager of web editorial services at Tacoma, Wash.-based Frank Russell Corp.; Michael McGlinn, client Internet manager of corporate and institutional services at Northern Trust Co., Chicago; and Susan Barreto and Fred Williams, P&I's technology reporters.
Winners used similar strategies in building their websites: listening to their clients; focusing on communication and education; measuring the use of a website; and having a strong centralized internal web team.
All beta-tested with, partnered with and surveyed their clients before launching their websites.
"It strictly comes down to the user experience," said Robert Reynolds, president of Fidelity Institutional Retirement Services, Boston.
Fidelity has its own lab, where executives can monitor how participants move through a website. Mr. Reynolds believes clients are looking for information that's easily accessible and has the data they need.
"People don't want to click their life away," he added.
And while most people initially are attracted to the graphics on websites, Fidelity and other firms need to be careful not to have too many complex graphics that might slow the download time of each page, Mr. Reynolds said. That can detract from the user experience.
Malvern, Pa.-based Vanguard also had client-specific goals when launching its website.
Overall, Vanguard's goal is to have clients "look smarter" and be more efficient, said Paul Heller, head of the firm's full-service defined contribution business.
Vanguard officials used feedback from clients in building the defined contribution participant site, which includes specific account information and investment education.
Integrated services needed
CIGNA Investments also talks directly to plan sponsor clients to help them anticipate the online tools needed in the marketplace, said Ian Glew, senior vice president of total retirement services for the Hartford, Conn.-based firm.
The insurer created a focus group of 25 clients that meets twice a year to discuss online needs.
One such need is for integrated services, Mr. Glew said. That way, plan sponsors and participants can get information on both their defined benefit and defined contribution plans in one place. CIGNA's customized websites allow for this.
American Express, Minneapolis, also has a "user interface lab," where participants can tell them what parts of a website they like or dislike.
One piece of feedback: Change some of the terminology, said Sharon Solfest, director of e-commerce at American Express. Participants noted headings for certain sections didn't mean anything to them.
AmEx officials also survey users and receive suggestions from clients on a regular basis. And if a specific suggestion is made by more than person, the suggestion becomes a higher priority, Ms. Solfest said.
Company officials also look at feedback from the AmEx phone center to determine if there are any features that would be helpful to add to the website.
Vanguard, too, looks at how the website should be integrated with the phone center and educational materials to bring together a complete communication and education package.
"Retirement is a long way off. It's nothing you do every day, so a big aspect for us was communication," Vanguard's Mr. Heller said.
Advice, education integral
Education and investment advice are integral parts of successful client communication effort, according to defined contribution website winners.
Officials at Putnam Investments, Boston, believe in a customized education approach and made deals to post articles from Time, Money and Fortune magazines.
They also make sure participants benefit from consistency in all the various media used -- the website, printed statements or via the phone, said Thomas M. Turpin, managing director, head of defined contribution.
Putnam recently signed on to provide mPower Advisors LLC, an investment advice engine, to its clients.
T. Rowe Price has made arrangements with Financial Engines Inc. and mPower to provide online investment advice to clients in the near future. The advice would be integrated with more streamlined online transaction process and a direct e-mail capability, said Steve Sanchez, vice president of communications and product development.
INVESCO also has been concerned with keeping the lines of communication open, be it through the web or still on paper.
"There is this thought: Because it's so easy to send this stuff (via the web or e-mail) and the volume has gone up, the feeling of being connected has gone down. We are working on that," said Sam DeKinder, director of institutional marketing at the Atlanta-based firm.
Keep on monitoring
Once managers are sure they have a lock on communicating via the web in conjunction with existing forms of communication, they also need to keep monitoring their clients' use of their site, according to web consultants.
American Express, for one, has begun to study clients' online activities.
Understanding the "webmetrics" of a site also helps a firm learn which areas of the site provide valuable content to clients and which need to be revamped or promoted more, AmEx's Ms. Solfest said.
AmEx uses specialized tools to check how long it takes for a certain webpage to load and how long users stay on a particular part of a site. Officials also can set the software to alert them to a slow page load on the website. That helps find -- and solve -- problems quickly.
Ms. Solfest said, "These are important things businesses often forget in developing their websites. A pretty site with content that takes more than a minute to load won't bring a customer back."
MetLife uses login file analysis to monitor participants' paths.
Steve Cousey, MetLife's director of e-business for retirement savings, said about 80% of participants use the site to check their account balance.
"They use the web as a comfort factor," he said. He also has noticed that during wild market swings. the transaction activity was not much more than normal, about 35,000 transactions per month. Overall use of the site has been increasing steadily, but not as a primary mode of transactions, Mr. Cousey concluded.
Building a team
Another crucial element to building and maintaining a website is creating an internal Internet team and appointing a team leader.
All of the team members working on the winners' websites came from either marketing or technology.
Fidelity has an Internet czar and a team under him. Mr. Reynolds expects to continue to have a separate Internet initiative inside the firm.
Some also rely on outside consultants from time to time.
Dave McCalley, vice president of e-commerce at American Century Investments, Kansas City, Mo., said his firm has a strong internal team that also works with an external vendor's team.
The composition of the teams at American Century usually is evenly split between staff and outsiders.
"I'm not sure if one weighs in more heavily than another because a good idea can come from anywhere," Mr. McCalley said.