That's according to a new report released by business and technology research company Forrester Research titled "Online-Influenced Sales Exceed Direct Sales in Financial Services."
The authors said their findings present credit unions and other financial institutions with an opportunity to improve the infrastructure of their online services in a manner that attracts what Forrester calls "cross-channel shoppers."
"To effectively capture and manage these cross-channel shoppers, e-business executives should dedicate a portion of their Web strategies to tactics that include lead capture, interactive help and cross-channel application completion," Forrester's Brad Strothkamp said.
Based on Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester's survey of nearly 48,000 U.S. adults in February, 63% of adults researching financial products did so online, and more than one-third (34%) of adults researched online exclusively.
And while about one-third (37%) of online researchers applied for financial products online, the type of financial product greatly influences consumers' application channel choices, Strothkamp and his colleagues found. For example, 68% of individuals who researched student loans online also applied for them online, but just 34% of adults who researched mortgage refinances online also applied online.
While online research does lead to online sales, Forrester researchers said financial institutions should focus on the most prominent consumer, the cross-channel shopper.
"Direct sales are just one facet of the role the Web plays in acquisition," Strothkamp said. "A larger piece is the percentage of consumers who research online but apply offline."
To increase sales from these cross-channel shoppers, Forrester recommends optimizing online services to increase communication with consumers and simplify the research and application process.
First, financial institutions should allow consumers to easily purchase products via multiple channels, such as by presenting them with a phone number and a link to apply online. Next, they should ensure consumers can quickly complete an unfinished application-both online and over the phone-and offer interactive help via tools such as online chats and click-to-call services.
Finally, Forrester recommends that financial institutions systematically follow up with online researchers who choose not to apply online, as well as establish ongoing communication with consumers, especially those researching a major purchase such as a mortgage.
To best capture leads, the research firm suggested financial institutions implement lead capture forms and links on their Web sites. Strategies such as delivering an e-newsletter and providing an interest rate tracking tool can help keep conversations between consumers and financial institutions alive, Forrester researchers said.
"Unlike buying a book or other simple purchases, deciding on and buying a financial product can take weeks or months," Strothkamp said. "An important tactic for products that fall into this category, like mortgages, is establishing a dialogue with the shopper."
Whether a consumer uses the Web simply to locate a financial institution's branch or complete an entire purchase, Forrester researchers say the Web has a strong influence on the sales of most financial products, which means financial institutions must evaluate their online strategies if they want to boost business.
"E-business executives should feel confident in selling the importance of the Web channel to lines of business and segment managers for even the most complex financial products, and they should use recent trend data to continue to build the business case for more investment in the online channel to benefit overall company sales and loyalty," Strothkamp said.