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Can New Tech Ideas Influence 401(k) Participant Behavior?

April 3, 2017

Mobile phones have fully permeated society. Americans seem to be constantly gazing at their handheld devices, waiting for the latest update or communication.

But are consumers ready for on-demand, pushed mobile retirement advice and one-click deferral escalations?

Some research says yes, but other experts say, “Not so fast.”

Pew Research Center reports that 72 percent of U.S. adults own smartphones—a number that has increased steadily each year. The financial industry is taking notice and trying to find ways to capitalize accordingly, especially in the retirement sector, where technological evolution has slowed to a grind over the past 20 years.

According to recent research from the Spectrem Group, 60 percent of consumers are interested in accessing retirement planning tools and asset allocation on their smartphones, iPads or computers.

Spectrem’s president, George Walper, says the shift to mobile occurred very quickly, aided by the growth of the larger-screen experience—which also applies to today’s oversized smartphones. He also thinks the transition to participant-managed retirement plans will become even more prevalent on smartphones.

“If individuals are comfortable conducting online financial transactions such as bill pay, they are likely to be as comfortable with retirement planning tools,” says Walper.

He adds that participants expect to interact with their advisor, but basic compliance steps can still affect how that interaction occurs (e.g., through mobile devices)—and that the Department of Labor’s Fiduciary Rule could influence which advisors can push recommendations.

But while automatic enrollment and escalation tools have seen some success, many companies are hesitant to incorporate the features into a smartphone-friendly marketing strategy.

Or, as The 401k Study Group founder Chuck Hammond puts it, “adding one more thing to the retirement planning puzzle becomes overwhelming for plan sponsors.”

Hammond is an advisor by trade, but his organization acts as a social and digital gathering place that allows thousands of 401(k) specialists to share and collaborate with one another, and where the community can vet new tools and applications.

Because of this, Hammond sees firsthand the obvious barriers to implementing such options as “Click here to increase salary deferral by ‘X’ percent” where, in one touch, a participant can increase the amount without having to fill out paperwork or even visit a website.

Sounds simple enough. But in addition to the plan sponsor hurdle, he says, participants are also overloaded with retirement information, leaving them unsure sure of how to navigate confusing waters.

“We are asking them to be a 4-star chef and giving them ingredients, but no lessons,” he says. “You can tell them to ‘click here’, but they don’t know if it’s good for them. It’s also not realistic to think that, in addition to picking up their kids, putting air in the car tires and whatever else is on their mind, that they will take a moment to follow a push notification to increase their retirement savings.”

Push notifications are delivered via a software application to a personal computing device without a specific request from the message recipient.

According to a Javelin Strategy & Research Advisory Services Report, push notifications are expected to become central to consumers’ lives within the next five years. More than half of all online consumers are expected to receive financial alerts by 2019.

A different report notes, however, that 50 percent of consumers overall already find these notifications “annoying”—a proportion that is likely to grow as they become more common.

These alerts aren’t always marketing-related, however; indeed, they have become useful for alerting consumers of low balances, due payments and the like.

But Hammond points out that somebody has to pay for a full-scale 401(k) plan push notification program.

And then, there are the concerns about hacking—and security in general.

And while people often use their devices for online banking, stock trading and payment tools like ApplePay, he thinks they may still be reluctant to enter a Social Security number, change their beneficiaries or adjust salary deferrals.

Spectrem found that security remains an important issue for social media users, and may be one of the reasons for low social media usage rates among financial professionals. Fifty-six percent of plan participants overall worry about how secure their financial information could be on a social media platform. In addition, 41 percent cite recent hacking incidents as a cause for concern.

Walper recognizes the security issues but says companies in the retirement space are already tracking threats 24/7.

In the end, experts like Hammond are cautiously optimistic about the development of mobile technology tools and their effects on participant behavior.

“Coupled with a proactive advisor and plan sponsor, participants may very well want to receive information that way,” he says. “But it’s not a silver bullet.”


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