March 5, 2013

The Client Newsletter: Canned or Customized?

Do you use a newsletter content service, write it yourself or hire a ghostwriter? Three approaches discussed and debated

The client newsletter is a staple of the financial advisor’s business. It costs money and time to produce, and advisors surely worry that some unknown number of contacts are just throwing it away (or deleting it), thus diluting the value of the investment.

But fail to put it out and you have dispensed with a valuable tool that enables you to communicate with multiple clients and prospects in one fell swoop, and allows you to maintain mindshare with clients in between one-on-one appointments or phone calls.

“It allows us to continue communicating with clients versus going month to month without having any [dialogue],” says James Schwartz, a senior advisor with Strategic Wealth Advisors, a registered investment advisor in Scottsdale, Ariz.

In an interview with AdvisorOne, Schwartz urged his fellow advisors to be consistent in their client communications. “Don’t miss a month, or feel you can skip a quarter or a month, because people will start looking for it.”

And not finding it will undermine your authority because clients are looking for your viewpoint, or at least a viewpoint you endorse, Schwartz adds.

“Our clients say, ‘Hey I just read this article or saw this story on TV and they were talking about the tax package. What do you think about it?’”

What the advisor thinks of an issue, and how to present that, is a key strategic question advisors confront: namely, do they write the newsletter themselves, or do they private-label someone else’s newsletter?

And if the latter, does the advisor work with a large outfit that mass-produces newsletters or does the advisor collaborate with someone who can customize the product, to help the advisor develop a consistent and unique voice?

Schwartz says his firm has no interest in the do-it-yourself approach to client newsletters.

“Writing takes a long time,” he said. “So we want to get the message out there in as efficient a way as possible.”

For Schwartz, that means using the Morningstar Newsletter Builder “because it’s reasonably priced, it’s fairly easy to assemble the newsletter and we’re able to put in a customized blurb on page 1.”

The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based advisor says his $399-per-year subscription permits him to choose from an ever-expanding library of FINRA-reviewed and non-FINRA-reviewed articles, all publicly identified as coming from Morningstar. He says stock pickers “might want a newsletter that focusses on investments, and markets and what’s going on with the budget. We like newsletters that offer articles on financial planning issues like long-term care and Social Security optimization.”

Schwartz is not bothered by the fact that the articles are seen to come from Morningstar, and is unimpressed with those who put their names on other people’s articles.

“I see a lot of attorneys doing that and a lot of other advisors doing that. Most people understand that the attorney and advisor are not writing that. That takes time.”

But to Marshall Jaffee of Jaffe Asset Management in Beverly Hills, Calif., the considerable amount of time he spends writing his own client newsletters is well worth it.

“The reason I don’t use a service is because, for better or worse, I have something to say that differs from what investors are hearing from their normal sources of information,” says Jaffe.

A former wirehouse advisor, the independent advisor was particularly put off by his former firm’s research, which he says was “educating” clients “in ways that led them to make poor choices on a regular basis.  This insanity drove me crazy—so in some way writing the newsletter was a form of therapy to convince myself that I wasn’t nuts.”

Jaffe told AdvisorOne his opinionated letters “might risk losing a few clients—but the ones I keep will be mine for life.”

The Beverly Hills-based advisor confirms Schwartz’s point about the time commitment involved in writing his own newsletter, a process he describes as “constructive agony.” But he says the effort is of crucial importance.

“I get a paragraph or two on paper, and then I try to expand on my point and then wrap it all up in a perfect bow with a catchy and resounding ending.  That’s my goal.  After the 10th draft I start losing faith that I can write anything cogent. But little by little it comes around—and I’m almost always happy with the end result.

“But what makes the entire process worthwhile is that the struggle I go through really solidifies and clarifies my thinking, both about the specific issue I’m writing about as well as investing in general,”  he says. “Writing the newsletter forces me to face head-on the flaws and/or weaknesses in my thinking and to re-evaluate previously held conclusions that no longer appear to be as solid as I first thought. More than any other activity, writing (and rewriting) the newsletter has been the single most important factor in forming, solidifying, clarifying and changing my investment philosophy over the years.”

Between Jaffe’s suffering for his newsletters and Schwarz’s turnkey approach using Morningstar—Advisor Products, Advisor Intel and Litman Gregory’s Advisor Intelligence are among the many purveyors of similar services—a middle way is to hire a writer to customize an offering for you, which offers the opportunity to develop a consistent voice.

“Services that offer FINRA- reviewed, off-the-shelf articles for advisors are very helpful—especially for those who are busy and don’t have the time or the budget to work with a ghostwriter or a designer for a custom newsletter,” says Sydney LeBlanc, a veteran brokerage-industry freelancer.

“But I’ve talked to advisors who have said, ‘I don’t want to give my clients a newsletter with cookie-cutter articles, or something they’ve already read on the Internet,’” she says. “Working with a ghostwriter ensures that the newsletter is ‘personal’ and reflects the personality and style of the advisor. The thing is, most clients can tell when a newsletter contains canned articles. I know I can.”

The San Diego-based writer says the costs of customization can vary widely. “Some financial writers charge by the word ($0.50 to $1.50 per word), some by the page ($200 to $400), and some by the hour ($50-$150 per hour). And even those costs are negotiable.”

The key objective of the advisor, however, should be making a memorable impression, she says.

“I believe this is best accomplished by working with a writer who can introduce your persona in the articles,” she says. “You want your clients and prospects to look forward to your newsletter!”

One final consideration, from Strategic Wealth Advisors’ James Schwartz: “Whatever newsletter you do select, it has to be relevant to today’s market.”

Yet, here too, Marshall Jaffe counsels steeling yourself to put in the necessary time and effort:

“In a financial world that is simply awash with millions of pages of commentary that say next to nothing, you would think that the easiest and most obvious choice for an individual who wants to stand out is to simply write what’s on their mind.”

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Read What Works in Client Communications? Getting Personal by Allen Williamson at AdvisorOne.

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