Introduction: This article was originally written in 2004, shortly after the end of the first phase of the free OnlineAdviser project and prior to any commercial engagements using the brand name. Since then, many commercial services have used the platform to provide professional support the other 95% of users who do not otherwise have assess to a professional. In 2010 the project was further expanded to health reform through the addition of OnlineNavigator service.
In 1995 I started an online experiment in the financial advisory field that eventually came to be known as “OnlineAdviser”. From the beginning, it was clear that there was a strong demand for free online professional service, but unclear how that type of service might fit in with traditional service models.
By 2004, I counted more than 35,000 consumer inquiries. Routine inquiries had to be partially automated and I recruited, without pay, a small handful of close friends to help answer some the easier duplicate questions that essentially needed “cut and paste” responses.
In the beginning, this service was publicized primarily through newspaper columns, radio and public speaking. Then when Web-based services like Allexperts.com and Financial-planning.com proved popular, this became the mode of choice and this format caught the attention of some larger financial services firms. My efforts were partially funded by commercial services that copied the online business model. The bulk of the requests came via e-mail during the peak of the Internet boom from 1999-2002. I handled “old-fashioned” telephone calls at an average rate of 20 per day through the end of 2003. I finally threw in the towel when it became clear that the time commitment required to continue this service would prevent me from meeting important parental responsibilities. The firs phase of free public OnlineAdviser service ended December 31, 2003. It was reintroduced later in 2010 after the launch of OnlineNavigator service that separated the heavy burden of health reform questions.
The common thread was that all of these services provided access to free advice at a point of a critical financial decision. It was clear that a lack of access to expert information was one of the factors that held people back from reaching their full financial potential. Most middle income people do not have access to high quality financial information and are unlikely to maintain a relationship with a qualified financial adviser.
Several attempts to convert from a free service to a paid service failed. There does not seem to be enough support for “on demand” professional service or, alternately, the cost of recruiting and onboarding these customers is not profitable.
Twice I tried to trademark the name “OnlineAdviser” without success. It may take a higher level of legal expertise to overcome the government’s objection that the term is simply too broad to warrant trademark.
It was always been clear that I learned more from consumers than they learned from me. I had the advantage of access to this large data set upon which to evaluate and compare the comments of each individual user. The project gave me a glimpse into public perception that was invaluable and, IMO, shared by few others in the financial advisory field.
The notes and observations I collected from the more than 35,000 users of this service provide invaluable resource for a book pegged “The Other 95%”. The summaries of my first impressions will be published in pieces and will likely re-appear in articles, lectures, videos and possibly a book.
Now, almost 20 year later, the future of providing financial service to middle class Americans still remains very much uncertain. While the country recognizes the huge need for such services, we can point to little in the way of sustainable tangible results.