Fidelity's redesigned defined contribution participant site blew away the competition as the firm for a second year dominated Pensions' & Investments' Best of the Web competition.
But Fidelity didn't repeat its hat trick of last year - other money managers' defined benefit plan sponsor sites have surpassed Fidelity's in the past year, the judges ruled. In fact, Fidelity didn't even show up in the top five in that category.
Instead, INVESCO took the defined benefit crown.
The strength of Fidelity's NetBenefits defined contribution site carried the firm to overall victory among the 50 money managers with the most U.S. tax-exempt institutional assets under management as measured by the May 1 issue of P&I.
The other overall winners, meaning the total points awarded the managers' defined contribution participant and defined benefit sponsor sites were highest, were: T. Rowe Price Associates Inc. in second; Putnam Investments Inc., third; and American Express and INVESCO, honorable mentions.
For defined contribution participant sites, Putnam placed second and Merrill Lynch Retirement Services, third. Honorable mentions went to Zurich Scudder Investments, New York, and MFS Investment Management Inc., Boston.
Among websites tailored to defined benefit plan sponsors, T. Rowe Price was second and Barclays Global Investors, third. Honorable mentions went to Alliance Capital Management, New York, and Schroder Investment Management Ltd., London.
There were some moves among the top sites overall. T. Rowe Price moved in to second place, up from an honorable mention last year, replacing Vanguard Group Inc.; and Putnam knocked Minneapolis-based American Express Retirement Services down one notch. The Vanguard site was not fully evaluated this year because the firm did not give judges access to password-protected portions of its retirement site.
For defined contribution participant sites, Putnam finished at No. 2 for the second time, while Merrill Lynch was new to the top three, replacing last year's third-place winner, Vanguard.
A panel of six judges representing plan sponsors, web experts and the consulting industry - as well as three staff members from P&I - selected this year's Best of the Web award winners.
Judges gave each website a numeric score. Criteria focused heavily on content, investment concepts, personalization, design, functionality and ease of use.
While the scores were close in some categories, Boston-based Fidelity Institutional Retirement Services' redesigned defined contribution participant site, NetBenefits, captured the highest vote total of any site in either category.
"To me, Fidelity is so much better than anyone else right now," said contest judge Mike Barry, president, Plan Advisory Services Group, Chicago. "The others are catching up, but (Fidelity is) in a different league than everyone else. They have always been willing to invest heavily in the things they feel are the right things to invest in."
And to Fidelity executives, the Internet is worth investing in. The big mutual fund complex boosted its technology spending budget to more than $2 billion this year. That's more than many mutual fund companies have in total assets.
"The way we approach the web is that it is one of our primary channels for delivering service, information and access to participants and employers," said Jane Jamieson, executive vice president and director of the electronic channel group at Fidelity Employer Services Co. "Our approach has been to continually improve the site, keep it up to date, focus on ease of use and have all the functionality people want."
That was a winning combination, according to the judges who unanimously praised the site. A common thread among the top-rated sites was their high level of educational content, strong functionality and ease of use. In addition, sponsors of the top sites seemed to embrace the Internet as a vital means of providing essential financial information.
Ms. Jamieson said a recent survey of Fidelity's participant base showed 92% rated the site as easy to use.
"As we look at the standards underlying our use of the web, we think of other sites. What other sites people use affects our approach. We know participants use other sites and that has as much to do with setting expectations as anything. They are all getting better, the bar is continuously being raised," she said.
The NetBenefits redesign added single-click access to a variety of employee benefit programs and workplace services. Fidelity is in the process of rolling out an enhanced benefits portal with full account aggregation customized for each plan sponsor. Employees will have access to all their benefit programs on a single site, said Ms. Jamieson. For Fidelity's record-keeping clients, the upgraded NetBenefits integrates information for a participant's 401(k) plan and other benefit programs, including payroll; defined benefit plans; and health and insurance plans. It also allows plan sponsors to offer plan-specific news and stock market updates.
That's not to say that other providers are standing still. The top providers offer most of the same functions as Fidelity and are gaining ground rapidly in a competitive marketplace that demands more functionality and content.
Putnam's winning redesigned ibenefitcenter.com participant site is its second-generation offering. The firm's website includes defined benefit, 401(k) and open-architecture investment advice that allows participants to select any online advice provider through a website customized to the individual user, said David Tyrie, managing director and head of e-commerce at Putnam, Boston.
"The genesis of ibenefitcenter was our belief that the Internet is strengthening communications between plan sponsors and participants, that the world is turning into a knowledge-based economy and companies need to provide high-quality products and services and benefit programs to help better manage their work force," said Mr. Tyrie.
"We consider these things our defining capabilities. You hear a lot about how to use the Internet, but the whole defined contribution marketplace is turning to those who can integrate information and services."
Integration with other financial information is a common theme among many of the top websites.
"We recognize that retirement planning occurs in a larger context of personal financial planning," said Stuart Ritter, senior communications product manager at T. Rowe Price Retirement Plan Services, Baltimore. "People feel more comfortable putting money away for retirement if they have a better idea of their overall financial situation." That's why T. Rowe Price is preparing a third-quarter addition that will allow defined contribution plan participants to consolidate retirement plan information with other internal T. Rowe Price accounts such as individual retirement accounts.
The overall web strategy at T. Rowe Price "is to provide one location where people can go for content, financial planning tools and all the information they need to make good retirement decisions."
"Our approach is to understand participant needs and to deliver financial solutions seamlessly in whatever channels they prefer - whether print, phone or the web," he said.
Another common factor among the top websites is change. Most have revised or revamped their sites at least once in the last year, and more upgrades are in the works.
Merrill Lynch, Plainsboro, N.J., modified its participant site in two new releases during the last six months, said Jim McCarthy, director of benefits and investment solutions at Merrill Lynch Retirement Services, providing additional functionality and enhanced reporting capability.
However, as with other major providers, the Internet is not the end game for delivering financial services to participants.
"We don't use the web exclusively. Our strategic direction is all about channel choice. We believe from a lot of angles the web has great benefits, but it is not a work-shifting endeavor," said Mr. McCarthy.
Merrill Lynch, too, will move to allowing plan participants to aggregate their defined contribution account information with data on their other Merrill Lynch accounts.
DB sites share qualities
The top defined benefit websites didn't contain as many bells and whistles as the defined contribution sites, but judges found the winning sites had some of the same qualities, such as ease of use, functionality and content.
The absence of Fidelity from among this year's top defined benefit sites was apparently not as much a commentary on Fidelity as on the improved quality of the other defined benefit providers.
Winner INVESCO focused on providing detailed information on its products and services as well as high-quality research materials.
"We try to get the best-quality information out to plan sponsors and consultants, which describes the products we offer and keep it as timely as possible," said Bob Merckel, manager of marketing communications at INVESCO Institutional, Atlanta, the North American division of AMVESCAP. "Research reports are posted and `Investment spotlights' focus on such topics as private capital and bonds to let people know what we are thinking. It's primarily an informational site. It's strictly a defined benefit site."
As with many of the managers surveyed, INVESCO is preparing to launch an updated version to include additional reporting and research data and a "leaner, cleaner look that is more user-friendly," said Mr. Merckel. The update is expected this fall.
BGI, San Francisco, rolled out its revised defined benefit site in late March, just in time for the Best of the Web judging.
With BGI's Orders Online, plan sponsors can place cash-based orders for BGI funds for the next available trade date or to schedule trade dates farther out. In addition, BGI plan sponsor clients can get real-time updates of account information; a variety of reports, including monthly trust statements, fund performance and unit values; and access to BGI investment research.
The operational heart of the BGI site, ATG Dynamo, a personalization platform developed by Art Technology Group, Cambridge, Mass., "remembers" who uses the site and provides specialized information and content to users based on their previous visits.
BGI's online trading system also allows securities crossing among BGI's institutional clients. Internal trade crossing allows clients to shift assets among BGI accounts internally without sending the trade to an exchange for execution. Drawing upon BGI's huge securities inventory, largely in index funds, trades are crossed internally among its client base. While crossing is not new at BGI, the key benefit of Orders Online is its speed and time-saving capabilities. The system tracks cost savings associated with the internal crossing and reports those savings to clients.
"The notion of using the Internet to speed up the delivery of reporting means people want more things faster," said Kathy Taylor, managing director and co-leader of BGI's global web strategy. "It has received a push from the retail marketplace where people get information on their personal portfolios. They start to ask if pension plans can turn around information that quickly too."
Also, she said, since pension funds have become a source of profitability in many companies "if they can squeeze out an extra one percentage point return in their pension fund than the competition, it reduces the amount of contributions they have to put in. That all helps the bottom line," she said.