Adding Mobile Apps to Your Practice

More plan sponsors are looking to expand their plan’s mobile capabilities. We ask what retirement plan advisers need to know about leveraging mobile tech.

“We’re seeing a shift in the usage of mobile apps, it’s increasing across all demographics,” says Dave Gray, vice president of client experience at Charles Schwab. “We are seeing that younger folks, under age 35, and those with smaller account balances are engaging more with the mobile apps than with the website.”

Like other experts, Gray says mobile technology presents a new and compelling way to get people engaged early and often with the retirement planning effort. He says mobile helps not just with education content and communication but by providing powerful tools and transactional capabilities that can streamline the way people interact with retirement plans.

“Many providers are in catch-up mode,” says Scott Parker, a principal at Deloitte Consulting, “but they differ in the investments that they are making. Some are planning to innovate in this area, while others are making much more modest investments to simply ‘check the box’ on mobile. Additionally, advisers should be expecting mobile capabilities from providers that help the adviser sell and service plans and participants.”

Drew Way, a senior analyst in Corporate Insight’s Retirement Group, helps tracks 19 defined contribution (DC) providers day to day. He notes 12 of the firms in that group offer a dedicated mobile site, while 10 offer a phone app and six feature tablet-specific apps.

“All have your typical data points—plan name, total balance, holding details, some show rate of return,” Way says. “The better thing we’re seeing is the addition of transactions. Today eight of the 12 mobile sites have at least one transaction,” perhaps single-click enrollment or contribution changes. Others allow auto-feature sign up via mobile, while others bring investment selection and even complete account rebalances to the mobile table.

Another interesting statistic Schwab has found, Gray reports, is that mobile users 55 and older are looking at their account balance twice as often via the app as on the website. “For older participants, generally speaking, usage is focused on getting access to information,” he says. “The key is that, overall, having the app means they make more frequent inquiries into the retirement plan.”

“Advisers should ask about a provider’s mobile/digital roadmap,” Parker says. “Do they have one? What have they released recently? What is planned for next year?”

NEXT: Where to reach participants

Plan sponsors need to make a decision, says George Walper Jr., president of Spectrem Group. Do they want to develop an application (app) for smartphones and/or tablets, a mobile-optimized website, or both? “A number of people like to use apps, some people like to just look at a website,” he says. Plan advisers can help their sponsor clients to understand which method would most suit the plan’s participant demographics.

“We generally find that the use of mobile technology in retirement [planning] has more to do with whether the [individual] user has adopted mobile technology as opposed to an age or generation,” Walper says. We used to think as an industry that mobile was more for Millennials and Gen Y, but have since learned that all age groups are adopting mobile or tablet technology. While the usage may be higher for the younger generation, mobile technology is growing key to reaching all ages of retirement plan participants.”

“Most mobile apps on the market today have been designed for a phone-based device,” Gray continues, but “people behave differently with tablets than with phones.” A tablet-specific program should support the unique user experience, maximizing that device’s expanded capabilities and larger screen. “With phones, there is less rich media content; people expect more interaction via tablet usage,” he says.

To connect with participants, Walper recommends posting videos, which can be added to applications as well as the retirement plan’s website and social media accounts as part of an integrated participant outreach campaign. “Videos should be two to three minutes in length,” he says. They should not be about products and services, but address the concerns participants worry about in their everyday lives, from paying down debt to saving for a home or their children’s education.

Way encourages advisers to “work with providers who have a mobile presence, especially as more and more people are moving away from having a desktop [computer].”

“Education and communication are always important,” he adds, “but it becomes about communicating with investors based on when and how they want to receive it.”

NEXT: Expanding education

“A lot of times you can download a phone app to your tablet,” Way says. “At a couple of firms, it’s pretty much the same thing—participants have a similar experience across both. Others take advantage of the larger screen and offer a lot more education” in the tablet-specific app.

The key, Walper says, is to “make sure you have the same information available on both,” adding:  “To me, there’s nothing more frustrating than a website telling you to download the app for more information, or an app directing you to the website.” Plan sponsors considering a mobile app for their plan participants should ensure that the offering includes at least the basic account data, but participants will appreciate—and likely expect—additional information about the program and for pre-retirees.

First and foremost, retirement plan mobile apps have to provide participant account information, which most already do, to an extent. “Some stand out for having pretty much any piece of data you could want about the account,” Way says, such as rate of return over time or an individual’s holding details. Next, transactions are growing in importance. Notably, a few plan sponsors at this summer’s PLANSPONSOR National Conference (PSNC) reported having a sizable percentage of employees who do not have access to a desktop computer at work, meaning their most convenient—perhaps only—point of account access is via mobile apps.

Plan sponsors promoting the use mobile devices as a way for participants to view their accounts will benefit both groups, Gray says. “As we continue to evolve and embrace more and more technology over the next few years, this promotion encourages engagement.” He believes the “next frontier” of mobile technology will be the creation of personalized, smart communications with participants. “If you think about how people use devices today—to get information, do something while in the app—[participants] expect the app to proactively communicate to them the things they need to know.”

Next: Functional features

“When we look at mobile apps, we think of it within three core experiences that want to be delivered,” Gray says. “First is creating ease of access for participants; second, give participants tools and information to help them make good decisions; and third, give participants the ability to take action in the moment—meaning the transaction capabilities that we have added to our mobile apps.”

“Retirement plan participants are using mobile technology primarily to check their account balances and investment performance,” says Parker. “Mobile use is relatively immature in retirement,” he adds, but that is not due to a lack of participant interest but a lack of available technology. “Many retirement providers have either not enabled mobile transactions or don’t have a participant website that renders well on a mobile device. That said, capabilities are quickly growing as the majority of retirement providers are actively working on improving the digital customer experience, which includes a fully transactional, engaging mobile experience for retirement.”

Way anticipates another trend in mobile usage: “We’re starting to see retirement planning tools,” he says, particularly calculators and other features participants can interact with. “They’re not prevalent yet, but they’re coming,” and currently the most common such features provide retirement income projections.

Parker lists several key features sponsors should look for in their mobile applications: “balances, contribution and investment changes, distribution requests, [a] message center, basic retirement readiness tools and text message updates on the member requests—such as the status of a loan or retirement distribution request.”

Some firms have more unique features, Way adds, such as peer comparison tools that show participants how their savings stack up against others in their age group or location. “That gives a different perspective,” he says. “Projections and gap analyses are nice, to see how you fall against your stated goal, but that can fall on deaf ears. A comparison perspective can be motivating, hearing: ‘You’re really lagging behind your age group.’”