Financial advice is all about client communication. A weblog, or "blog" for short, is about communication too. Is there a place, then, for blogging in financial services?
For those not yet familiar with blogs, they are websites updated often (sometimes daily) with comments about areas of interest to the blogger. Subjects on which people blog include politics, food and local news. The blog is usually kept in journal style -- like a personal online diary -- with posts (comments) displayed in reverse chronological order. As a reader of blogs, there are hundreds of thousands of blogs to choose from and, if the blogger has something interesting to say, he or she often develops a following. Not all blogs flow in just one direction; many now invite readers to participate, creating a forum, in effect, while others might contain not only text, but images and links to other blogs or websites.
If you follow technology and use it eagerly in your practice (as all efficient planners do), then you may have asked yourself whether there's an application for blogs in your practice. Some experts think so. Alan Weinkrantz, whose own blog can be seen at www.alanweinkrantz.typepad.com, is a public relations consultant who says, "Financial planners should develop blogging strategies as a means to differentiate themselves." To demonstrate how versatile blogs can be, Weinkrantz even started a blog for the sole purpose of selling his house ("the buyer gets a free oil change at the local garage, free coffee at Starbucks, and dinner at a local restaurant with decades of history"). And the strategy worked.
Yet, the current regulatory environment makes it difficult for some advisors to create blogs. Hence, one broker-dealer -- Securities America -- has done it for them. Explains Paul Lofties, first vice president of wealth management services, "Securities America has rolled out a program called 'Ask Sam X,' standing for Ask Securities America Experts. Ask Sam X includes an interactive blog, a listserv, and an online resource directory of Securities America advisors who want to collaborate and help their peers."
Says Lofties, Ask Sam X is designed to stimulate peer group support on advanced planning issues and facilitate the sharing of best practices among Securities America's reps. "In my estimation, it's a bit unusual for an independent broker-dealer to encourage this level of information-sharing and collaboration," he adds. As a tribute to its success, Lofties says Ask Sam X has been very well received since its rollout. "We just did our first marketing of the listserv last week," says Lofties, "and 80 advisors signed up."
How did Ask Sam X start? "Some of our reps who came from different backgrounds, like insurance broker-dealers, said they missed the opportunities they'd had for collaboration and information-sharing, particularly on advanced planning issues. I, too, agree that the best source of advanced planning information is the collective force of our own reps, so I wanted to help them."
So Securities America came up with a full-featured blogging site. The listserv is like any other forum that advisors can contribute to with e-mail submissions. An advisor might, for example, submit a practice management question and other subscribers to the listserv will see the question and can respond to it. Including a directory of all reps on the blog site is part of the collaboration plan because each rep can be listed according to his or her expertise, allowing other reps to search for them by topic, or even geographical location or other characteristics. As for the wealth management blog, Lofties' department updates reps on interesting cases it is working on or conversations it has had with advisors that other reps can benefit from. (For a sample blog posting from Securities America's Wealth Management Services group, see http://daviddrucker.com/files/Sample%20SA%20blog%20posting.rtf).
"We've also approached our advisors to post comments or submit articles to the blog site," says Lofties. "About 10 advisors now contribute regularly either because we asked them to contribute or simply because they're very interested." One such advisor is Howard Slater, a founding partner of Cedar Brook Financial Partners, in Cleveland. "When I and some of my associates transitioned to Securities America, we became more autonomous but also more separated," says Slater. "When you've got so much intellectual capital spread around the country, there must be tools to allow for the sharing of best practices. Because I have experience lecturing nationally and writing about my area of expertise -- how to differentiate oneself from the competition -- I began contributing articles on this topic to the Securities America blog." (For a sample blog posting from Slater, see http://daviddrucker.com/files/The%20Approach%20Talk%20by%20Howard%20Slater.doc).
Whereas some blogs are carefully planned and designed, others are essentially improvised in response to a sudden need. Bob Haley of Advanced Wealth Management in Portland, Ore., learned about the potential of blogs after his son, Andy, tragically attempted suicide 24 months ago. During his son's very long recovery, more people than Haley could have imagined would call to check on Andy's recovery -- not just friends and family, but members of Andy's high school racquetball team and many of Bob's fellow Commonwealth reps.
"In the first few days when my wife and I didn't know if our son would live, we were approached by the mother of another racquetball player whose son had sold a business that was an early pioneer in blogging. She offered to set up and maintain a blog for us. She would call us and get updates on Andy and then post them to the blog. Our son had done such an exceptional job of hiding his depression and suicide attempt that we wanted to help alert everyone we could to the risk of depression at all ages, and especially in young people," says Haley. Hundreds of people would check the blog daily to learn of Andy's progress.
Haley's blog was set up so that readers could also post messages. "What developed was an outpouring of emotional support for our family and people talking about the suicides or depressions in their families and the help they'd received," he says. "The blog not only allowed us to be efficient in our communications but allowed this vast community to connect with us in a very helpful way."
So, as we've seen, blogs can be useful for sharing information between reps and communicating with existing clients and others, but the question remains: Can blogs somehow be used to develop new business? Let's just say there's plenty of potential. What is business development but relationship-building? And a big part of relationship-building is letting people know who you are -- not just name, rank and serial number -- but your spontaneous thoughts and feelings about issues important to clients.
Why couldn't an advisor attract leads through regular postings to his blog, or use his blog to keep prospects and clients informed on all manner of topics, direct his unique message to his ideal client audience, and share his thoughts so as to strengthen his "brand?" As appropriate, she could link to articles on current topics and provide her own commentary. Or, she could just post her own entries on subjects she thinks important. If you already send an eNewsletter to clients, prospects, media contacts and others, you could even link to your blog within the newsletter. Blogs are often informal, so take advantage of that fact to show your personality to your reader as well as demonstrate your knowledge of critical financial planning and investment issues.
If you want to create your own blog, it's really quite simple. Many websites have emerged to facilitate the process. Perhaps the best known is Blogger (www.blogger.com). To test its ease of use, I set up a free blog at Blogger by merely typing in some basic contact information, naming my blog and selecting a template, or custom look for my blog from among 12 choices. In less than five minutes, my blog was up and running and I was posting a trial message to it (see http://druckerknowledgesystems.blogspot.com/).
Which is all to say that advisors need to keep an eye on the latest technological goings-on and constantly ask themselves how they and their clients can benefit from them. The blog represents such an opportunity. While it's still new, just having a blog -- as Weinkrantz notes -- is a way of differentiating oneself.
For the advisor who likes to think of himself as unique, though, a blog might just be essential. Engaging in newly emerging communications media shows that an advisor is progressive and in touch with the world around him. And, if the advisor is in tune with the world around him, then the would-be client may reason, "This advisor has the ability to be in tune with me."
David J. Drucker, CFP, is president of Drucker Knowledge Systems; see www.DavidDrucker.com.