More employers have been using retirement plan participant websites as a means of communication and education than they did in the past. Research finds that using certain strategies can make websites even more appealing to participants.
The “DC Participant Planscape,” an annual Cogent Syndicated study from Escalent, found that participants want their employers to send email/text alerts linking to new information and add online dashboards with real-time account information so they can stay updated on their balances. The study reported that within the past 12 months, 81% of participants have logged into their accounts, with most signing in to check account balances or review investment options.
“For the most part, this is purely prompted by informational updates or needs,” says Sonia Davis, senior product director for the Cogent Syndicated division at Escalent.
The report also studied how participants respond to different communication strategies, and what groups are most likely to lean into certain approaches. For example, Millennial and Generation X participants were most likely to welcome easy-to-use trading platforms, short educational videos, better mobile capabilities and personalized education such as real-life stories and inspirational savings tips, according to Escalent. Younger generations were also drawn to enhanced data security, easier logins and student debt assistance.
Baby Boomers, on the other hand, said they preferred traditional online features such as calculators, retirement income worksheets, simplified plan investment options and market updates, according to Davis.
All generations listed live Q&A features, debt guidance, debt trackers and personalized education as benefits they would be interested in.
When navigating strategies for participant websites, employers should take into consideration the wants, needs and different circumstances of each employee, says Jennifer Benz, senior vice president of Segal Benz Communications. She says employers should ask whether participants can access benefit information outside of the participant website. “Not all families will have access to that information when they are not authenticated or not on a work device,” she notes.
Taking advantage of mobile devices can also work in the employer and participant’s favor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean employers have to consider using an app. Joey Allen, manager for website implementation at Segal Benz Communications, says participants might not be enthusiastic about signing in to their accounts through an app. “Apps are something that you are partnering with, rather than a primary vehicle,” she points out. “There are downloads and so many other steps that it can be a barrier.”
Accessibility is key, Allen says, and while some participants may not have access to a desktop or a laptop outside the workplace, most participants do have a cellphone. In fact, a 2021 Pew Research Center study found that 85% of Americans today own a smartphone, and another study found more users than ever are accessing the internet through smartphones and tablets rather than through a desktop. “It’s important to think about mobile devices because people can still use the satellite on their phones,” even if they don’t have internet access otherwise, Allen says.
Along with accessibility, Allen says employers should ensure their website is functional. For example, she says, those with visual impairments oftentimes struggle with a website’s structure. If a participant uses a screen reader—a software program that allows for blind or visually impaired users to read displayed text—an employer would want to ensure the structure and outline of the webpage is clear. Additionally, implementing jump links when a participant would not want to hear the whole menu allows users to easily jump to another section of the page.
Plan sponsors should also consider avoiding clashing colors and text that is difficult to read, as well as guarantee the written content is clear to those reading and hearing it. Employers will also want to ensure participants have the option to access the website through a keyboard only and not just through a computer mouse.
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