From the March 2007 issue of Wealth Manager Web • Subscribe!

March 1, 2007

Out of Site

Recently, an advisor who knew his Web site was not up to par took it down completely. Although he planned a total makeover, he was in no rush to create a new site. During that time, a client was referred to him. The client was in the process of selling a $4 million commercial property and needed guidance on the tax implications. Since this advisor specialized in managing highly appreciated real estate in retirement, the combination seemed to be a perfect match. That is, until the client's daughter surfed the Web and, finding no site for the advisor, was convinced her mother had been taken in by a scam artist. What a wakeup call! The advisor saved the account by meeting with the client and her adult children in his office, but he quickly made a new Web site his top priority. He doesn't want that to happen again!

Believe it or not, while most of your firm's high-net-worth prospects--and certainly their adult children--are savvy Internet users, many advisors are still living in denial, convinced that all of their clients are older, uninterested in the Web, and satisfied with online sites that read like office brochures. Wrong!

High-net-worth clients are rarely boring. The Web sites of their would-be advisors, however, often are! At best, most advisor sites are colorful brochures loaded with dull financial jargon that ignores Web "best practices" when it comes to updating their sites. Many advisors will tell you that "It looks fine, and I can't close business from the Web site anyway." True. It is not likely that you can put a contract on your Web site and expect it to be signed. But you also cannot afford to bore your "stealth" Web site visitors. A high-net-worth client will not call you to discuss your services until they've checked out your Web site. You certainly do the same before hiring any services for your own business. If your Web site is not on a par with the retail sites your prospects visit most often, they are bound to be skeptical about your professionalism. For good or ill, your clients expect your Web site to match other sites that currently capture their attention.

Web sites the Wrong Way

Most advisors ignore their old-style "frame" Web sites to their own peril. It is easier to ignore a Web site than to spend time re-designing and rewriting. Yes, it can be time consuming, but it is important to start budgeting time for this most visible part of your business development activities. Even as a placeholder, old style "frame" Web sites give your clients and prospects the wrong image. Michael McGrath, owner of Kiss Computing, a Web strategy firm in Eastham, Mass., points out that a frame Web site is static from page to page--with only the copy and graphics changing.

Most Web sites don't use "best practices" in design. It's not good enough to put a Web site up and not pay attention to best practices.

Says McGrath: "Frame sites do not allow for good meta tags and meta descriptions in the source code. In short, there's nothing for the search engines to index--not enough copy, not a high enough word count, no page titles, headings, none of what is considered 'best practices.' Frame sets were good Internet technology five to seven years ago, but please remember that a generation in Internet technology is, at most, 18 months, so you do the math on how old and dated most advisor sites are," he says.

Old design, with what is now considered juvenile technology, will hurt your firm greatly. The result may be that search engines neither index nor revisit the site. Appealing to search engines is a major business these days, and advisors cannot afford to ignore this particular game.

Most Web sites read generically and do not differentiate the advisor. Whether you call yourself a financial advisor, an investment advisor, a financial planner or a money manager--every professional has a unique approach to their business model. Yet a survey of existing advisor sites turns up language that is painfully similar with a focus often on lists of services, not benefits to the client or prospect. Some advisors specialize in selling 401(k) plans; others like to work with physicians, and still others focus on real estate transactions necessary for retirement and estate planning. It is this information that needs to be front and center and reflected in Web site content.

Most Web sites use "bells and whistles" that divert clients' attention from your firm. Clearly, if you manage portfolios of mutual funds for your clients, you should not be offering them a conduit from your Web page to ticker symbol search engines so they can investigate stocks. Similarly, even if you do manage a stock portfolio, do you really want your clients to be able to evaluate the performance of individual stocks from your Web site? Clients who want to search for information about a stock will do so from a specialty site, or from their brokerage account site--not your Web site. It is a waste of space on your site and not the "sophisticated" addition you might have thought.

Another common ailment of many Web sites is educational content that is canned and sounds that way. The company that set up the frame site probably provided content that was accepted by the advisor to "bulk up" the site, make it look "done," and not take a lot of time or effort. And it looks that way. If you bother to read the material, it is by necessity, generic and unrelated to the real business of your firm. It is negatively simplistic. If you are trying to attract the high-net-worth investor, you're not going to impress him with information about automobile insurance and reverse mortgages.

Case studies are sorely missing on most advisor sites. Every piece of written content should be--absolutely must be--written from your professional perspective. In a story about managing the equity in your real estate, consider using examples of strategies you have used with your clients. You might simply rewrite some of the material you've sent to clients explaining why you've selected certain strategies.

Because every stealth visitor to your Web site has different issues, your site should be prepared to engage the visitor with real content and information on wealth management strategies. Density in content is what prospects and search engines look for. Don't disappoint them.

Web sites the Right Way

Use "best practices" Web technology. A complete update every two years is a must if you wish to look "right" when the target high-net-worth client visits your site to check you out. Don't be afraid of the cost of Web design. Use the very best designers you can afford. Your Web site is your front door. You wouldn't leave the paint there scratched and peeling. You would paint it as often as needed to keep it looking good. Your Web site deserves the same attention.

Change or update customized content regularly. Mark your calendar for a monthly or weekly look at how you can update your Web site. A good hosting company will provide a reporting service and encourage you to change your site regularly to incorporate more of the key words that visitors are using to reach your site, and expand the most popular areas

Create a new case study based on current client work for every update. Examples of case studies that will interest high net worth individuals include:

o How to keep the lake house in the family for many generations to come;

o How to fund college educations for the second family of children without decimating the inheritance of the first family;

o Why long-term care insurance is important for seniors considering a second marriage;

o How to eliminate or defer capital gains taxes when the family business real estate holdings are sold.

Set up a schedule that gives you time for appropriate compliance reviews on updates.

Even with compliance requirements (see sidebar at left), it is well worth the effort. It keeps your site fresh and allows you to frequently post material that will interest your clients, your prospects and your referral sources.

You've made the effort to hire excellent staff and create a sophisticated office environment, an excellent letterhead and logos, as well as effective investment programs and added value services for your demanding high-net-worth clients. Your Web site must reflect your overall commitment to excellence. What will this cost you? Reasonable costs for a good Web site design run from $5,000 to $10,000 for a very complex one. What amount of client assets do you need to manage to recoup that cost? Your Web site is not the place to practice frugality. The days when you could get away with a static "brochure" Web site are over. You want visitors to appreciate the high-end services and skills your firm offers. Turn prospects on, not off, with a vibrant, interesting and content-rich Web site that responds to the interests of the wealthy individuals and families who will make your best clients.

Compliance Knot

The NASD considers any information to be advertising if it is sent to an unknown audience, and Web site visitors fall into this "unknown" category, says LaVerne Zellmann of Compliance Advisory Services, Inc. in Atlanta, a compliance consulting firm for broker/dealers and registered investment advisors. Therefore, advisors who trade through a broker/dealer are required to send their customized Web pages for review by that B/D's compliance officers. Many of those compliance officers will require gate keeping: When someone enters a Web site where gate keeping is implemented, the visitor must identify their state of residence. The site will open only if the advisor is licensed to do business in that state

Even if the advisor is also a fee-only RIA, the broker/dealer affiliation takes precedence where compliance is involved. The situation is much simpler for fee-only RIAs who are SEC registered and not NASD registered. Such advisors must name their compliance officers and be aware of all SEC rules regarding advertising. Also, Zellmann says, they must pay attention to the handful of states that require state-only registrants to file advertising.

"Compliance is a complex area because we do not have enforcement by regulation, but by example," Zellmann says. "For best results with compliance, keep your copy simple and balanced and don't use testimonials," she warns.

None of this, however, should keep you from vetting the most creative Web designers in your area to find a firm that will give you the look and functionality you want. Just be sure to reserve time in your schedule for any changes to your editorial copy that may be required. --LWC

Lisbeth Wiley Chapman is founder and CEO of Ink & Air (www.inkair.com) and the author of "Get Media Smart!" an audio program and learning guide for financial advisors.

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