From the August 2011 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Mastering Social Media

Social networking cannot be ignored, and there’s a right way to do it.

In a sign of the times, 600 advisors at an Investment Management Consultants Association conference recently crammed into a training session called “Get Linked In, Not Left Out: Compliance Friendly Ways to Harness Social Media’s Power in Your Practice.” That’s no typo: 600.

As presenter Kip Gregory, a social media expert, puts it: “It points to the level of interest people have — and the desire for clarity and background. It encapsulates the single issue that most advisors are centering on: How do I use this in a way that (A) is relevant to my business and (B) doesn’t get me in trouble?”

Over the past months, firms such as Guardian Life, Securities America, American Portfolios and, notably, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, have joined early adopters in embracing social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. But there has been a little hiccup.

As Stephanie Sammons, CEO of Dallas-based Wired Advisor, observes: “The majority of the financial advisor population out there are scratching their heads wondering: Is it going to be worth my time? They’re not really ready to jump in yet. They are still very much trying to understand the value of all this.”

The good news for the advisor: Regulatory compliance, a chief concern, should become clearer when FINRA expands upon its social media guidance later this year. Also, firms such as Socialware, Erado, Arkovi and Actiance are rolling out new and improved technology solutions to help advisors stay compliant as they tweet, blog and connect.

Socialware, which has client relationships with more than 100 FINRA-regulated firms, raised the bar recently when it launched a software product that drives business leads to advisors. And, importantly, forward-thinking financial services firms are providing vetted marketing content that advisors can use as profile material or status updates as they build their online presence.

“People inherently know in their gut this is big. Like the Internet, like email, this will forever change the way advisors do business,” notes Socialware CEO Chad Bockius. “But it’s not enough to simply deploy some technology. From the business side, you really do need education. And anyone who is doing this without a business strategy is missing the mark.”

If it all seems a bit overwhelming, it is.

But as Gregory, who heads the The Gregory Group in Washington, D.C., likes to remind advisors: “It’s really not about social networking. It’s about what this technology can do for you as a business-building tool to create a systematic approach to marketing, selling and relationship management. It’s putting together a cohesive strategy where you can, as an individual, create a guerrilla marketing and selling capability — and it doesn’t cost you a fortune. You could never have done 10 years ago what you can do today for free. And this isn’t a Chia Pet. It’s here to stay.”

What do experts in the social media space describe as top of mind as advisors navigate this new terrain? Here is what they’re thinking:

Develop a social media strategy. What do you want social media to do: Generate referrals? Drive traffic to your website? Build your brand among existing clients? “The questions I’m getting now remind me of questions I was getting 15 years ago around the Web. Should we have a website? Yes, everyone should be online. What’s your website’s strategy? You need a social media strategy that spells out what you’re trying to do,” states Lee Kowarski, a principal with kasina, the consulting firm. “That strategy will determine which mediums to use and how.”

A social media strategy or policy should also cover how you behave online. Additionally, he says, it’s important to be mindful of the distinctive mix of content and tone at the various social media sites. Advisors may use Facebook, for example, to communicate a softer side such as their community involvement. Meanwhile, they can use Twitter to disseminate news and a blog to offer in-depth analysis. “What’s your mix and balance?” Kowarski asks. “That’s going to determine what kind of conversations you get started.”

Mind your etiquette and attitude. As in any community, there are dos and don’ts when it comes to general etiquette. On LinkedIn, as an example, Gregory recommends reaching out first to the people you know best. “The interesting thing about social media is it’s a give-to-get environment,” he says. “If you come at it with a what-am-I-going-to-take-away-from-this attitude, you are already behind the curve.”

Instead, think in terms of what you can add to the dialogue or the relationships you have. Build a “golden Rolodex” as a way of making yourself more valuable to your contacts and connections. Your Rolodex might include a wedding planner, divorce attorney, local tennis pro, top leasing agent at the Lexus dealership — whoever serves your audience. “Human connections are where these relationships get cemented,” Gregory contends. A cautionary note: Don’t send generic invitations to connect. It can make you look like you’re “shotgunning” everyone. Instead, he suggests, take 10 seconds and remove the doubt by writing something like: “I found you on LinkedIn. Let’s catch up.”

Protect your online reputation. You want your online reputation to match your offline one. Therefore, it’s critical to develop a strong and positive online presence. “The fact of the matter is people will Google you and having a social media presence boosts your credibility online,” observes Marie Swift, president and CEO of Impact Communications in Leawood, Kan.

Also, if someone is badmouthing you on a public discussion board, you want to be the first to know it. Swift suggests using Google Alerts or SocialMention.com, services that will alert you when your name is mentioned on the Web. Your options if you do find out someone is defaming you online: ask the discussion board host to remove the offending comments, file a defamation suit or drown out the negative with a positive such as a search engine optimized press release that salutes your accomplishments and thought leadership.

Two tips from Sammons: (1) Stay away from social media sites when you are feeling emotional. “Intelligence goes down when emotions are high,” she says. (2) Avoid jumping into discussions involving politics or religion.

Keep it compliant. The SEC’s sweeps early this year of social media use by advisors put compliance on center stage but experts say you can steer clear of trouble by paying attention to the basics. For starters, don’t accept recommendations on LinkedIn. They are considered testimonials, a no-no. In fact, Bockius says, you can disable the “Like” or “Recommendations” functions with a software solution. Any “advertisement,” such as your profile, must be pre-reviewed by your compliance department. Everything else must be post-reviewed, an archiving function typically handled by software provided by your broker/dealer. Also: Don’t use words like “guarantee” or “risk” in your posts and never promote products or investment strategies.

Build a blog. If you have the time and talent, blogging is a terrific tool for building your online thought leadership, according to Sammons. “Websites are static. They sit there and often don’t get traffic,” she says. “A blog puts you in the midst of social networking. It allows you to be visible and valuable to your niche market.” A blog can involve mixed media: video, text, audio, images — whatever the advisor is comfortable with. And once you write a post, you can take the link and distribute it for extra mileage on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

Sammons recommends spending at least one hour a week blogging. “It doesn’t have to be a 1,000 word article but a 250-word insight here or commentary on a news item there.” The more you blog, she says, the better the result. The ultimate goal: a blog that will draw people to your website — and to you. For a look at successful financial advisor bloggers, Sammons suggests checking out blog.bradpine.com, womenmoneyanddivorce.com, blog.froehlichfinancial.com and ofindependentmeans.com.

Use your time wisely. As Swift bluntly puts it, social media can be a “time suck.” But there are some easy fixes. HootSuite, a social media dashboard, allows you to get feeds from your Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts all in one view. Instead of visiting each website, you work from a single interface. Swift also likes the Friday morning peer-to-peer social media discussion board on Twitter hosted by linkedFA, the social networking site for financial professionals. “It’s very useful, a great way to see what other advisors are doing,” she says.

Also, Swift recommends hiring a ghost tweeter or ghost blogger. “Writing is writing. Get someone who can write in your voice. The most important thing is voice and message,” she adds. “The rest can be learned.” Video, audio and podcasts are other digital assets that don’t take up a lot of time. Still, a successful use of social media does require time. How much? Swift says it’s important to use your social networks daily and to mix up the content at each one of them. “You know you’re doing it right when people start to engage with you on whatever the medium is,” she adds. “If it’s not building real connections, it’s a waste of your time.”

Nurture your networks. The bottom line: Use it or lose it. “You really have to show up,” according to Kristen Luke, principal of San Diego-based Wealth Management Marketing. “You can’t be a member of an organization and expect to build business and not go to the meetings. This represents a progression of technology and the way we communicate. This medium is here to stay.”

Gregory’s advice? “You’ve got to be in it to win it.” Don’t create a profile on LinkedIn and let it atrophy. Search among your online connections for life events that are money-in-motion triggers: a job change, a relocation, a retirement, a promotion. “It’s not like you’re dumpster driving in their trash. They’re putting it out there,” he says. “The smart people are using the information that crosses their screen every day to reach out to people and to recognize windows of opportunity while they are open, or even before they open.” Or combine it with traditional methods. Identify prospects in the business pages of your local newspaper and plug their names into LinkedIn to see if a connection path exists. In all likelihood, he says, it will. “It’s incredibly powerful,” he adds. “Frankly it’s jaw-dropping.”

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