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Personalize Websites, Funds Advised


NEW YORK - Mutual fund companies should turn their web sites into personalized, compelling sources of information for shareholders and financial advisors, executives agreed last week at a conference here sponsored by International Business Communications of Southborough, Mass., a company that organizes financial service conferences. The theme of the conference was "Successful Strategies for Electronic Distribution of Mutual Funds."

Mutual fund companies can draw customers to their web sites by consolidating shareholders' account balance information and updating the figures daily, the executives said. The statements could even include assets from other sources, such as real estate, as well as other fund holdings, they said.

To further personalize a web site, mutual fund companies should include retirement planning calculators, portfolio trackers and other devices to assist investors, the executives said.

Fund companies should also track shareholders' holdings and usage of their websites so they can offer shareholders related news articles and research reports that would be of interest to them, the executives said.

Prudential Securities has had high hit rates from posting market commentaries from its leading analysts nine times each business day, said Stan Witkowski, senior vice president with Prudential Securities of New York. That led Prudential to also include audio and video clips of interviews with chief executive officers, he said.

Mutual fund web sites could also be more appealing if they offered other products and services such as tax management, real estate services, bill payment software, or even other mutual funds, the conference participants said. The goal should be to create a strong brand image as a service-oriented firm, they said.

"Offer other products as well as your own so the customer always wants to come to your site," said Dr. Philip Lawrence, a partner in financial services consulting with Ernst & Young of New York. "They may not always buy from you, but you want to become the trusted source."

Many fund companies are also trying to create a sense of community at their web sites by holding online "webcast" events at which portfolio managers are available to answer shareholders' questions. Some fund companies are even allowing shareholders to communicate with one another in chat rooms or via message boards.

When Janus recently closed its Janus Twenty Fund, "They put the fund manager out there on a webcast to explain why and to speak about other investment choices," said Stephen Cohn, co-president of Sage Online. "When the Van Wagoner Funds dipped, Garret Van Wagoner addressed investors head-on." Sage, of Bala Cynwood, Pa., provides financial information to America Online.

Raging Bull of Andover, Mass., a provider of stock quotes over the Internet, owes much of its success to publishing visitors' comments, said Stephen Killeen, president and chief executive officer of Raging Bull. Visitors enjoy seeing themselves published and return to the site to see if they get any responses, he said.

The Internet gives mutual fund companies an "unparalleled opportunity to establish a relationship or deepen an existing relationship with the consumer," said Killeen. "The greater your contact with customers, the greater your share of wallet."

Mutual funds must have sites capable of downloading quickly and design them so they are easy to navigate, conference speakers also said.