Time for a Transition (VI): Becoming an Online Social Butterfly

Online networking and digital communication should supplement - not replace - your traditional means of networking.

Web 2.0 and the use of online social media is on the rise within the industry. "Online Marketing Methods: Planner Best Practices," a white paper published in May by the Denver-based Financial Planning Association, states that 43% of advisors reported using social media/online networking sites.

In addition, 32% of advisors said they used audiocasts and webcasts, while 17% reported they used blogs in their practices. Sixty percent of advisors who participated in online social networking generated at least 16 leads per year. The results were based on responses from 331 FPA members.

This quick and fun video by SocialGloo makes the point in 90 seconds: Advisors who use Web 2.0 and Social Media strategies online can build buzz and generate awareness that compliments their traditional networking and marketing strategies.

Think your compliance department won't allow any social media use? Here's some good news:

Earlier this week, FINRA issued a 10-page notice that provides guidance on the use of social media sites. Many registered reps and hybrid advisors have held back on social media use because until now the water was still pretty muddy. Regulators have been scrambling to keep up with the rapidly evolving landscape but FINRA has come out with their guidelines (released January 24, 2010) in fairly good time.

You can find the FINRA notice online.

While every compliance department will have its own interpretation and set of rules, I believe that the new FINRA notice will help firms create reasonable policies. For registered representatives, the FINRA notice has some good news for in it, most notably:

- Static vs. Non Static Content - FINRA's distinction between "static content" and "non-static content" now makes social media a viable option for many advisors. The new guidelines say that static content, like other marketing materials, requires prior approval of a registered principal, while non-static content (i.e. Twitter, wall postings on blogs, discussion boards, etc.) does not require prior approval.

-Third Party Posts - Overall, third party posts on social media sites established by advisors are not considered part of the firm's communication with the public, which opens the door for advisors to consider LinkedIn, Ning, Groupsite, blogging, Facebook pages, etc - although FINRA does strongly suggest monitoring.

There's still a lot to consider re: recordkeeping and supervision but more and more firms will be looking into enterprise-wide solutions such as SocialWare to help them open the door to previously feared social media tactics.

Here's what to be thinking about now.

Weave Web 2.0 Into Your Marketing Plan

Many financial advisors are A-type, results-driven people. Some even have what I call "bright shiny ball syndrome" - anytime a new bright shiny ball floats by, they are distracted by it. Others think that there is some "magic fairy dust" that will suddenly produce new, ideal clients. One thing is for sure: Working on impulse - especially when it comes to Web 2.0 (and even if compliance says certain elements of it are okay) - is problematic.

Creating a comprehensive marketing plan (one that incorporates Web 2.0 and social media tactics) is the best way to start. Online networking and digital communication should supplement - not replace - your traditional means of networking.

Nothing will ever replace good old face-time. So keep setting up those lunch meetings, small dinner parties, client appreciation events and community ed sessions. Use the telephone, email and a webinar service, if needed, to keep in touch in between your personal meeting opportunities.

Financial advisors must constantly strive to find new and creative ways to connect in person. With all the hoopla surrounding social media and the online world, don't forget that live marketing events can bring people together in relevant circles.

Get Up to Speed, Then Put Your Ear to the Ground

A great way to learn about basic social media tools is to watch a series of fun and short videos produced by CommonCraft.com.

Start with these:

  1. Social Media in Plain English.
  2. LinkedIn in Plain English.
  3. Twitter in Plain English.
  4. Twitter Search in Plain English.
  5. RSS in Plain English.

Also visit these sites to see how other advisors, firms and industry consultants are using Web 2.0 outposts to drive traffic to their primary communication hub -- their website:

  1. Family Investment Center blog.
  2. Kids Finance Coach blog.
  3. Keener Financial blog.
  4. FPA Twitter Live blog.
  5. T3 Technology Conference blog.
  6. AdvisorPod blog.

Once the comprehensive marketing plan is laid out and you've studied Web 2.0 technologies for a while, revisit your website to make sure it's all that it can be. I like seeing short videos, professional sounding audios, compelling text and lots of vibrant photos or good process graphics on a site.

Anything that builds a sense of personal connection is good, and the more interactive, the better.
Add some new media to your site. Start off with a video of yourself and your business talking about what it is that you do. Put this video on the home page of your website, just to the right of the introductory message you have posted as text. A video can help to build trust and puts both a face and a voice to your a name.

You probably know that Google is the most popular service in terms of online search, but guess who's number two? If you guessed Yahoo or Microsoft/Bing, you are wrong. The second most widely used search engine on the web is YouTube.

While people have started to turn to YouTube as a source of information, most haven't realized just how big it has become. Posting a series of videos on YouTube - in the form of your own YouTube "channel" - can create a sense of relatedness and more visibility for you. See a YouTube search example online.

Monitoring the worldwide web to ensure that your good reputation stays intact is essential. Set up Google Alerts for your name, company name, and other key words of interest to you (a competitor's name, a news topic, etc.).

Also take a look at Yasni. Yasni is a people search engine that provides an overview of someone's associated networks, including contacts, pictures and other publicly available information. In searching for a name, Yasni will aggregate mentions from sites including LinkedIn, Google, Amazon, Technorati and more.

Start Small, Then Ramp Up Participation

LinkedIn and Twitter are the next two tools to add. Having a LinkedIn profile and Twitter feeds will also boost your search engine ratings. LinkedIn and Twitter posts and can drive traffic to your website and/or blog (or anything else on the web you'd like to point out, such as an article in which you are quoted or a bylined piece published by a credible media outlet).

Lots of journalists, advisors and industry influentials are using Twitter in creative ways. You can learn by watching. Go to www.Twitter.com and set up a free account. Use the search function, which allows you to search based on keywords, or try Twellow, the Twitter Yellow Pages, to search for individuals based on profile information.

My public Twitter page can be found at www.twitter.com/marieswift. To see who I follow, log in to your own Twitter account, search for me by name, then click the "follow" button. You can follow me for a while and watch who I follow. If you want to follow that person, just click on their name and hit the "follow" button. You can always "unfollow" at anytime, or you can add new names so their "tweets" feed into your private Twitter page.

If you are going to stick around and participate on Twitter, consider creating a professionally branded page. It's another opportunity to convey your brand identity. Compliance will want to approve the Twitter background image/text and static profile info. Then, according to the new FINRA guidelines, the dynamic posts do not have to be pre-approved. Still, an advisory firm should be careful about outbound links and implied endorsements.

There are plenty of examples of professionally branded Twitter pages, but here are some good ones: http://twitter.com/Lindner_Capital, http://twitter.com/Family_Finances, http://twitter.com/lizweston, http://www.twitter.com/marieswift, http://twitter.com/t3fan.

When you're ready to start tweeting, try linking to interesting articles you've read lately, with your own (very brief) commentary. It's a way to generate credibility as a professional source of information and can guide people to your own blog or website.

Use TinyURL or BudURL to reduce long URLS and provide link-tracking reports. See how these two advisors are serving as "a professional reading service" for their followers: www.twitter.com/jfludwick and www.twitterr.com/jeankeener.

Do not fall into self-promotion. Focus instead on being knowledgeable source who wants to build relationships and provide compelling information.

LinkedIn is pretty straight forward. Just make sure your profile is as complete as possible, then join a few groups, start inviting people to link in with you, RSVP for some events, etc. As your network grows, you'll be able to see who's in their network and ask for an introduction.

Take a look at LinkedIn's "Answers" feature (it's in the "More" section of the top navigation bar on the homepage) and search for "personal finance." You will see questions that Linked In members have posed. By answering these questions, you position yourself as a resource. Just be of service; there is no need to blatantly self-promote.

LinkedIn is probably the easiest social networking site to get compliance approved. The static content will need to be pre-approved, and the testimonials / endorsement feature should be turned off. Per the FINRA Notice, posts on discussion boards ("dynamic content") do not have to be pre-approved, but care should be exercised when participating. Ask your compliance department for their guidelines.

None of this is really complicated. It does, however, take some time and planning. Advisors who want some handholding and professional help might consider attending the Web 2.0 and Social Media Boot Camp being hosted by the Financial Planning Association (FPA) in Dallas on February 28, 2010.

TD Ameritrade is sponsoring the event, which includes three webinars (two before the live event and one after the live event) and the 3 1/2 hour workshop on February 28. Because professional branding is important, the boot camp organizers will provide advice on setting up attractive blog and Twitter pages. Participants will also create a first batch of foundational posts, including audio and video introductions.

Marie Swift is president and CEO of Impact Communications, a marketing and PR firm that for over 17 years has worked exclusively with independent financial advisors and the institutions that serve them. Follow her on www.Twitter.com/marieswift and read her Best Practices in the Financial Services blog at www.marie-swift.blogspot.com.

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