The Digital Frontier: A Crucial Element in Engaging Participants

June 10, 2014 ( - Plan participants trust their employers, or plan sponsors, to provide them with the resources, tools and information necessary to plan their retirement readiness.

In the past, plan sponsors placed most of their attention on plan level details, including investment options, fees and other features. Now, sponsors are growing more concerned about participant engagement as it pertains to their own retirement planning. But, how does one achieve increased engagement? It is one thing to hold live orientations during open enrollment, but holding them often enough that they actually drive engagement can be cost prohibitive and negatively impact productivity within the workplace.

Enter the digital participant experience. There should be little argument that digital and the internet have remade the broader financial industry over the past decade. People have become comfortable handling investments, moving money and paying bills online. PLANSPONSOR magazine’s recent participant survey showed 24% rely on the plan website as their primary source of information when analyzing investments—more than three times those who said employer workshops/meetings were their primary source (see “Research: Smarter Than We Thought”)! Corporate Insight’s own surveys have shown Millennials in particular have a strong propensity towards using the digital channel and this group will be plan sponsors’ major concern in the years to come.

We have been monitoring developments in the industry for several years, and we are now starting to see retirement plan providers beginning to embrace the digital channel. They have started to offer compelling tools for plan sponsors to meet the challenge of increasing participant engagement. The landscape is still uneven at best, however. It is reminiscent of the brokerage industry in the late 1990’s—there are a few leaders making significant inroads into digital, but the industry at large is still lacking.

What can a plan sponsor do to leverage the Web and other digital technologies? We suggest sponsors work with their plan providers to better understand what is offered on providers’ platforms and look for specific tools that can engage participants.

Knowing Where You Are Relative to Retirement Goals  

The homepage is critical to the participant experience. An effective homepage offers context as to where a participant stands relative to their retirement readiness. The account value represents more than just a number. When a plan participant logs into his account, they should not only see their account value, they should also see indicators that provide context as to what this value means relative to retirement readiness. 

There are a variety of tools and techniques that can effectively provide this context. A wise use of colors, graphics, signage and language can alert and engage a participant about any savings issues.  Some providers use visuals that align with a weather forecast (i.e. clouds represent a retirement savings shortfall).  Other providers point out a retirement shortfall with the use of red banners and language that plainly states that a participant is off course.

Getting Participants to Act 

Once you gain a participant’s attention, make the next step she needs to take intuitive and easy to implement. For instance, if a participant is facing a retirement readiness shortfall, increasing her payroll contribution is one of the basic ways to address this issue.  However, we have seen instances where the process of increasing a contribution rate was not well thought out or incorporated into the participant experience.  Again, a smart use of visuals, language and placement will help ensure participants can take corrective action.

Maintaining Engagement 

There is a natural tendency for people to “set it and forget it.” Retirement planning is a dynamic exercise that transpires over a long time. Therefore, the participant experience also needs to be dynamic and capture a participant’s attention. Simply offering participants a host of retirement-related calculators will not suffice. The results of the tools need to offer context as well as feed into a larger portrait that defines retirement readiness. 

Some of the options available to sponsors are as basic as having a smart set of alerts that ping a participant when they are veering off track or if they have not updated their retirement profile in a while. Another technique sponsors should consider is incorporating gamification into the participant experience. Gamification is the concept of applying game-like features to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. In the retirement plan space, this can be accomplished by incorporating savings tips and best practices into web-based games. J.P. Morgan, for example, offers participants a game that mimics the card game Memory—substituting retirement savings phrases for the pictures used in the original version. This adds entertainment value while also motivating participants to consider the unique variables that affect their own retirement situation.


There is an opportunity for plan sponsors to work more closely with their providers to address the unique needs of their participants. Simply offering a sound retirement platform is no longer enough. A dynamic digital experience for participants that is seamlessly accessed across a variety of devices has become a critical component of an effective retirement plan. It is arguable that there is a tendency for sponsors to accept at face value what advisers and recordkeepers say regarding their digital channels. As the importance of digital continues to grow, the evaluation of the digital channel needs to become part of the due diligence process in plan design and provider selection.


Michael Ellison is the President of Corporate Insight, a research and consulting firm that has provided competitive intelligence and user experience research to the financial services industry for more than 20 years. Corporate Insight’s new report, “Engaging Participants: Best Practices for Plan Sponsors,” offers plan sponsors best practices for delivering online and mobile experiences to meet the unique needs of their employees.


NOTE: This feature is to provide general information only, does not constitute legal advice, and cannot be used or substituted for legal or tax advice.   

Any opinions of the author(s) do not necessarily reflect the stance of Asset International or its affiliates.