For Betterment, the upcoming year will see the continuation of its trajectory from an investment platform to a place where customers can carry out all of their financial activities in one place.
Dan Egan, managing director of behavioral finance and investing at Betterment, told Bank Innovation the company plans to broaden its reach this year, with the objective to become a personal finance operating system for its customers. Betterment’s focus will be to offer digital financial tools for customers, and augmenting them with human advice when necessary.
The 12-year-old company, which has $21 billion in assets under management, was an early mover among robo-advisers. In recent years, it has built out its product ecosystem. It’s also offered clients opportunities to consult with human advisers. In July of last year, it took the plunge into banking with Betterment Everyday products, which include checking and savings accounts.
“We’re definitely going to be moving more into the sort of everyday checking and savings, and reaching people more broadly,” said Egan. “The first step towards being financially well is not to open up and IRA and pick a portfolio, but to start saving, and that’s where we see ourselves — being able to help more people.”
He emphasized that technology is the underpinning of Betterment’s offerings, but financial wellness is the goal, even if clients require human advice along the way. Betterment’s hybrid approach stands in contrast to rival Wealthfront’s digital-only delivery method in which clients reportedly prefer an “I pay you not to talk to me” approach.
“More and more, we’re finding that technology is a complement to speaking to your customers,” noted Egan.
Betterment currently offers a digital-only service, which costs 0.25% of assets under management; a premium offering, which includes unlimited access to human advisers for 0.40% of assets under management; and à la carte sessions with advisers starting at $199. In addition, through Betterment for Advisors, the company offers its technology to licensed financial advisers.
The company emphasized that banking is a tool that enables customers to make better use of Betterment’s products instead of an end unto itself.
“We’re definitely not a challenger bank — banking itself is really a commodity these days, a transactional thing that happens under the hood and a very ‘unfun’ regulated space to be in,” explained Egan. “Where it gets interesting is ‘Where is a client spending and saving? How can we accelerate how much they’re saving and put [funds] towards different financial goals or automatically into a Roth IRA?'”
Alyson Clarke, principal analyst at Forrester Research, recently told Bank Innovation that checking accounts are likely to drive more engagement within Betterment’s app. “Once you get checking into the mix, people are going to be looking at their accounts more frequently,” she said. “More eyeballs lets you educate customers, as well as offer advice and other services.”
According to Dennis Gallant, senior analyst at Aite Group’s wealth management practice, Betterment’s moves are geared at appealing to a wide audience. He noted that a growing number of digital-only investment providers are adding human input, catering to customers’ varying levels of reliance on human advice.
“The hybrid [advice] space is poised for growth and it’s providing choice for investors,” said Gallant. “It’s a move towards this [human] advice continuum — there are some people that may not need it initially, but as their situation becomes more complex, they may move up the spectrum and start looking for hybrid [advisers].”
“I mean, we’re also not getting into casinos,” said Egan. “We’re here to help people make money, not just get exposed to random speculative fluctuation.”
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