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FS Web sites Falling Behind

Study says the industry’s Web presence is suffering post ‘Net boom.

Research conducted by the Web Marketing Association (West Simsbury, Conn.) concluded that over the last three years, financial services Web sites have fallen behind those of other industries in overall innovation.

To be sure, banks and other financial companies have made it clear that the Internet is a valuable channel to exploit. However, says William Rice, president of the WMA, spending on Web site enhancement has begun to subside in the industry. "Financial services overall started off very strongly online," Rice explains. "It was one industry that recognized early on they could really interact with consumers or brokers online. They made Internet investments without expecting much ROI. But then we had the [Internet] shakeout. The Internet remains an important part of their business, but it's being treated as any other part of their business today." FSIs have slowed their investments in the online channel in favor of other areas while other industries continued to innovate on the Web, claims Rice.

The results are part of the WMA's State of the Internet Report, an aggregation of Web site data compiled from nine years of research from its annual WebAward competition. Sites were judged using seven criteria: design, innovation, content, technology, interactivity, copywriting and ease of use. According to the association, the goal of the report is to provide the Web development community with a benchmark by which to define the standard for excellence for Web site development. It also offers companies a way to see how they rate against their peers and against other industries. Nearly 9,800 sites from almost 100 industries were reviewed for the report.

With such a broad sample of participants studied over this prolonged period of time, Rice says the WMA approached the results with an open mind. "What caught my eye, though, was that some of the industries you'd think would do well were at the bottom (such as public relations); while others you wouldn't expect ranked fairly high."

One surprise was that the insurance industry actually had a somewhat respectable showing in the report -- at least against its financial services industry peers. The average insurance industry Web site score was 51 versus 52.2 for the overall Internet standards assessment report (ISAR) index (out of a possible total of 70 points). Rice does, however, point out that most of the insurance sites examined were those focused on the broker community, not consumers. Banks and brokerage firms, meanwhile, rated at 47.6 and 40.9 respectively.

Rice says the overall design of a site is really a make or break factor. In fact, judges from the study said design was the primary reason in their viewing a site positively. "One of the biggest factors that can be a positive or a negative for your site comes from the old adage of not judging a book by its cover," he comments. "The initial visit to your site sets the credibility level for your brand." Elements of design like the look and feel, fonts and colors, and the information architecture "all feed into the ease of use aspect as well. You can have a wonderfully designed site, but if it's not easy to use, then people won't go there. A nice-to-look-at site will get people to look farther, but the content counts in the end."

On the plus side, it was in the category of content that financial services sites actually excelled.

Rice does have a few suggestions for banks, brokers and insurers when it comes to their Web ventures. "Financial institutions should look at their analytics and see what consumers want. They should make the information easy to access otherwise people will go elsewhere," he explains. "Part of making this easy to use is looking at alternative technology, like RSS, which lets you push content to users. They have to find ways to cross-sell and up-sell products, and to personalize Web sites. The beauty of interactive media is that financial institutions can see what offers people have acted on and they can learn about that so they can categorize future offers. It all comes back to analytics."

The WMA is currently calling for entries for the 2006 WebAwards (see webawards-2006.org). The deadline is May 31. Don't just enter for the potential glory, Rice notes. "You also get good feedback on how to improve yourself. You'll get scores for each of our seven criteria and can benchmark yourself against others in the industry," he says.

Winning Websites for 2005 from the financial services industry include: Banking -- Sainsbury's Bank homepage; Insurance -- Medical Mutual - Ohio's Get-Well Card site; Brokerage -- Charles Schwab's A Defining Year site; and Financial Services -- Merrill Lynch Gateway site.

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