From the May 2009 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

What Do Prospects Find When They Google You?

Proper online marketing is an essential business tool that advisors can no longer do without.

Amazing fact: The United States alone accounts for 9.5 billion Internet searches every month.

Pointed question: What do prospects discover when they google you?

If the results amount to anything short of a strong Web presence, you should begin crafting one right away. Simply put, financial advisors need to market themselves and their firms online -- or be eaten by the competition.

Internet marketing starts with a professional, effective website. If you're an independent FA without a site, wake up and embrace the wonders of the World Wide Web.

Beyond the basic site, your plan of action might focus, too, on a host of ever-evolving high tech tools, such as a blog, audio podcasts, video clips, social-networking (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), paid advertising on others' sites and more.

Online marketing is no hula hoop fad: The medium is here to stay -- and growing more sophisticated with every new cyberspace advancement.

"If done right, websites are part of the sales process," says Jay Nagdeman, president of Suasion Resources, specializing exclusively in financial services marketing for 27 years. This past January, the firm launched a new division, Online Financial Marketing (www.onlinefinancialmarketing.com), offering advisory firms customized Internet consulting services.

"Virtual selling has the ability to revolutionize marketing," says Nagdeman, who has been developing websites for brokerages, banks and other large firms since the 1990s. "Not only can [online marketing] pay current dividends -- it can help [advisors] increase business significantly through this market debacle and beyond."

A website is "an essential element in everybody's marketing toolkit," says Nagdeman. And a prospect's initial visit to one is the first stop in creating the all-important advisor-client relationship.

"You're building confidence by moving the user step by step. If you don't motivate people to move on to the next level in the process -- to contact your firm -- your website hasn't done its job," says Nagdeman, author of the just released "The Professional's Guide to Financial Services Marketing" (April 2009, John Wiley & Sons).

Falling Behind

Back in the '90s, financial firms were ahead of the curve in website creation. But over the past five years or so, both institutions and individual practitioners have fallen behind in the areas of interactivity, innovation and use of technology, says William Rice, president of the Web Marketing Association, in Simsbury, Conn.

Why is the financial-services field lagging other industries? "Compliance people have been fearful to let individual practitioners say what they want on their websites," says Rice, who spent more than 20 years in marketing posts at financial services firms. "That's why independents have done much better than wirehouse and major regional [advisors] when it comes to bells and whistles."

Rice, along with other marketing experts, calls right now a critical time for FAs "to create online tools for keeping in touch with customers on an ongoing basis. The Web allows them to personalize communications in a mass way," he says. "Search engines are one of the driving forces of the Internet." [According to Nagdeman, searches comprise 80 percent-plus of online activity].

"If you're not creating a presence that will be picked up," adds Rice, "you'll be at a major disadvantage -- and maybe not even know it."

Social Networking

In the Internet's first phase, financial services sites, featuring calculators and the like, were among the first to be interactive. That gave them an edge. Nowadays, though, that sort of interactivity is "almost pass?," says Rice. To really wow people today, he says, you need to provide much more sophisticated interactivity -- a new phase referred to as Web 2.0, which is distinguished by user-created content. Examples include blogging, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and Twitter.

With Web 2.0, the main goal is to start an interaction. Twitter, the social-networking sensation, lets those who sign up to receive other folks' feeds read short -- 140 characters or less -- messages called tweets. The object is to stay connected by answering Twitter's key question, "What are you doing?" But plenty of celebrities, businesses and politicians have latched onto Twitter for marketing and promotional use.

What's neat is that most of these newer online services can be interconnected. For instance, your business profile on LinkedIn can be tagged back to your website. There, you might have a link to your blog, where you can elaborate on the brief tweets you post on Twitter. If you're involved in community activities or enjoy strategic partnerships, you can cross-link with those sites too.

"Web 2.0 services position you as a savvy business person," says Marie Swift, president of Impact Communications, in Leawood, Kansas. "It's also a way to be novel and to have reason for people to want to interact with you and start a dialogue."

But, cautions Swift, "don't spend all your time blogging and tweeting. Do it quickly and consistently, then get out there and meet people because nothing is going to replace face-time."

The Way of the Web

At Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, Fla., Michael White, director of marketing and corporate communications, says producers use their sites mostly as a point of validation to facilitate referrals. "It makes it easier to schedule an in-depth meeting after that initial contact" to check out FA credentials and expertise.

As Swift puts it, an advisor's website "should be perceived as a 'virtual lobby" or waiting room," Swift says. "That first impression is very important."

But communicating with prospects on the Web is different from communicating in print media; and, says Nagdeman, "virtual selling has its own conventions, behaviors and pitfalls."

Since most visitors merely scan text rather than read it word for word, online content must be broken up into small chunks and written in short, snappy bites. The idea is to let visitors progressively drill down to find the more detailed information they may be seeking.

"The secret to having the website accomplish something for you is to make it personal and interactive," says Nagdeman, based in Roseland, N.J. "It's not enough to simply post your standard sales pitch and brochure... Make [the site] engaging and easy for people to navigate so it becomes a very fluid instrument for research."

A Low-Cost Investment

Online marketing is a surprisingly cost-efficient way to connect with clients and prospects. "The cost-benefit trade-off is usually pretty good," notes Andrew Schlossberg, chief marketing officer of Invesco AIM, whose award-winning Web site, www.invescoAIM.com serves up timely investment information for advisor use.

Customized websites, which, depending on needs, can cost several thousand dollars, make your special qualifications and unique value proposition stand out, as well as allow enhanced interactivity.

"The biggest negative is to have a generic website," Nagdeman says. "There are so many cookie-cutter sites out there that...all look the same. They aren't customized in communicating who the firms are, what they do and why somebody should be a client."

Swift, however, believes that templated sites, typically starting at about $1,000 from turnkey suppliers such as AdvisorProducts and CEPadvantage can "look as good as custom sites for a fraction of the cost."

Raymond James advisors, working with an in-house agency, pay as little as $50 to $100 for a templated site, plus a $15 monthly maintenance fee.

Invesco's Schlossberg cautions, however, that "if an advisor's website isn't targeted, topical and timely, with compelling content, it can have all the bells and whistles -- Twitter, podcasts [etc.] -- but it's probably going to be irrelevant."

Search-Engine Success

To drive visitors to your site, ideally it should emerge high in search engine results when a prospect types in, for example, "financial advisors" and your locale. The process called search engine optimization (SEO) can help affect that.

"Websites have to be coded and worked so they will give you high organic rankings in a search," Nagdeman notes.

It's not a simple matter, though. Each engine has its own variables that determine which results turn up at the top. Moreover, the variables are always changing. And though you may show up high in Google results, that may not be the case in a Yahoo search.

To help search engines recognize your site, make sure your Web address and keywords appear on other credible sites that use the same keywords (e.g., "IRA rollover"). Such words should be in your headlines and subheads and repeated throughout the site. Services like www.ineedhits.com can be employed to help raise a site's prominence.

For improved visibility, you might try search engine marketing (SEM) -- mainly paid advertising, such as pay-per-click campaigns, on others' websites. With Google AdSense, you can target prospects in a specific zip code for as little as 15 cents per click, depending on your total campaign.

"SEM makes people aware that you're in the community doing positive things and that you might be somebody for them to talk with," Nagdeman says.

Up ahead: Websites, social networking, e-mail and other technologies will keep on merging. "There's no doubt that [Web marketing] will be increasingly important for maintaining client relationships," White says.

As Impact's Swift puts it: "If advisors don't have a site, they'll be at a disadvantage -- and that has been true for at least five years. They may be in denial that a website is important; but it's essential."

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Web Do's

A website should differentiate you from other advisors by spotlighting your unique value proposition. "You're able to get a competitive advantage by engaging visitors in a personal, memorable way," says Jay Nagdeman, president of Suasion Resources, whose new consulting division, Online Financial Marketing, helps advisors and planners implement virtual selling.

In setting up a website:

- Determine whom you want to attract.

- Integrate with your broader marketing strategy.

- Support brand identity.

- Emphasize your services' benefits.

- Compose text in short, punchy bites.

- Control navigation by using headlines and bold-face fonts.

- Stress professional experience in bios; mention outside interests.

- Include photos, like advisor headshots.

- Make sure "content, colors, flow, tone are synched up," says Andrew Schlossberg, chief marketing officer of Invesco AIM. "If they aren't, your site will end up being more of a detriment than an advantage."

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Web Don'ts

- Have your, um, nephew create the site. "Unless he's a pro, it could look hokey. That will reflect poorly on your brand and detract from the sales process," says Michael White, Raymond James Financial's director of marketing and corporate communications.

- Use too much Adobe Flash to look cool. Search engines often can't read and find all the information.

- Choose a hard-to-read font. Save pizzazz for graphics and pictures.

- Try to retrofit your print brochure to the Web.

- Keep a sloppy site.

- Build a site, and then leaving it alone. (Update content; check for broken links.)

- Biggest problem with a website? "Not having one," says William Rice, president of the Web Marketing Association.

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Freelance writer Jane Wollman Rusoff is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor of Research and is the founder of Family Star Productions.

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