Canada wealth managers lure clients with websites

Thu Jan 17, 2013 12:56pm EST

* Need for information offsets fear of giving it away

* Financial planning complexity spurs professional advice

By Andrea Hopkins

TORONTO, Jan 17 (Reuters) - The Bank of Montreal's relatively new website has everything an investor might need, from wealth calculators to videos, worksheets, checklists and information to tie it all together. But with so much free advice on offer, is there still a need for investors to contact the bank's financial advisers?

The executives who designed the site believe so.

"It's like WebMD - you might check your symptoms, but in the end, you're always going to go see the doctor if you're really concerned," said Lisa Parise, director of Enterprise Wealth Planning at BMO, Canada's fourth-largest bank.

While wealth managers at Canada's big banks, insurers, and independent practices once fretted about giving information away for free, the evolution of internet marketing and consumer demand for information has pushed everyone into full-service website design.

Similar tools are found on the web page of any financial adviser or firm - retirement savings calculators, net worth worksheets, budget and investment planning for every life stage. A nd there are also constant links and pop-ups to connect with an adviser by phone, by email, by live chat or even video, in the hope the website will serve as an introduction to fee-generating advisers.

"It's part of what's happening in the world - people are going to (the Internet) for information. And if that's where the consumers are going and that's how they want to get information, we will be there," said Vicken Kazazian, president of Sun Life Financial Distributors (Canada) Inc, Canada's third-largest life insurer.

Parise and Kazazian say they've weathered an evolution in thinking about website resources over the years. It started more than a decade ago with shallow sites advertising services, essentially online brochures, and has since moved to full-service sites where a client would be able to buy a simple product without connecting to another person.

The goal, evidenced by contact details supplied at every turn, is to encourage investors to gather information and then pick up the phone.

"Having the information is helpful, because they get a sense of how complex planning decisions are, how much data they have to sift through," said SunLife's Kazazian. "What we do find is that ... when it comes to a purchasing decision, some people might feel very confident they can do it on their own, but most people do want to validate and speak to somebody."

Big financial firms and independent advisers alike are constantly evaluating their sites, judging what is most popular, what gets ignored, and what turns people off.

Prospective customers have short attention spans, said Mark Halpern, president of illnessPROTECTION.com - an insurance and estate planning site - and a member of Advocis, the Financial Advisors Association of Canada.

"Our biggest competition is getting people's attention in a tech-heavy world where people are constantly multi-tasking," he said.

On his website, a contact form trails every shard of information a visitor clicks, an attempt by Halpern to coax clients to complete the task of buying insurance for something they hope will never happen.

And while his site has "way more information" than previous versions, including video and links to buy products online, Halpern still struggles with providing so much.

"We want them to pick up the phone to have a conversation," he said. "Sometimes if you give away too much, you give the impression that what you are selling is a commodity."

Halpern still resists offering pricing on the website, but he has invested in tools to track visitors to the sites and remind them - with follow-up advertising - of the insurance they should have bought when they were on his site.

"The bottom line is insurance still has to be sold. People don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I want to buy insurance today for when I'm dead or disabled.' It still has to be sold, and ... the average consumer is too busy to do it alone."

Indeed, wealth managers, once averse to the idea of a detailed website, now seem receptive to it.

At BMO, Parise launched a separate website for financial planning in the fall of 2012, a tool for potential clients with details of different wealth management services.

"Clients come in primed for a meeting, more prepared. Advisers will actually send the link to clients, having them go through some work ahead of time ... so clients come in motivated and with a better understanding, asking better questions," she said.

And while web designers constantly tinker with their sites to chase what competitors are offering or get ahead of the crowd, tracking tools have convinced them to be patient.

"They might not pick an adviser the first or second time they visit, but they might the third or fourth," said Kazazian. "Last year, we had well over 10,000 who clicked 'I want to talk to an adviser.' And that number just keeps growing."

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