From the August 2017 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

How Ron Carson, Others Lure Clients With Latest Tech

Experts share ways to use the latest and greatest tools while giving clients an advisor-friendly experience

Automation and technology can take a lot of pressure off advisors trying to develop marketing strategies. Automation and technology can take a lot of pressure off advisors trying to develop marketing strategies.

Client expectations about you and your practice don't suddenly kick into high gear after you’ve added an individual or firm to your book. They start way before you’ve even made your first contact, since prospective clients assume you have an online presence.

Establishing that digital presence and being available online means you must fully embrace technology. Fortunately, there are many new ways to accomplish this, thanks to an array of resources offered by broker-dealers and a variety of other financial firms and third parties.

Plus, by employing digital technology you can track and measure in real time which marketing strategies are producing the results you want and where you need to make adjustments.

(Related: Orion Forms New Partnership to Launch Tech, Marketing Platform for TAMPs)

“People are expecting to interact with technology in all aspects of their lives. The best advisors have incorporated it into their offerings — and marketing is no different,” said Jessica Liberi, vice president of product development for financial software maker eMoney Advisor.

While traditionally, advisors have relied on referrals and seminars to get new clients, “That's a [relatively] passive approach,” Liberi explained. She adds that eMoney Advisor aims “to enable digital-marketing methods to help advisors really go after specific segments of the market, so that when prospects are ready to make a decision, they know who the advisors are, and the advisors are able to see how they interacted with their content.”

The move to digital marketing by FAs has been evolutionary and continues at a steady but relatively slow pace. “Financial advisors have been looking into online marketing, including social media, to target younger prospects, and we’ve seen a lot of advisors adopting tools like video,” said Isabella Fonseca, a senior research analyst at Aite Group, an industry research firm. “More and more have been made available. But the adoption [of them] isn't as mature” as the technology itself.

It is clear, though, that if more advisors do not soon start applying digital technology to their marketing efforts, they will be at a competitive disadvantage. “Clients are telling us they want to communicate in different ways. Even our older clients are expecting this today, so we have to be more responsive,” said Mike White, chief marketing officer of Raymond James.

In fact, “If advisors don't have a strong digital presence and automation that people have come to expect, [their] firm may not be seen as modern or as capable as a competing one,” said Marie Swift, president and CEO of Impact Communications.

In other words, “You can't be a Luddite advisory service competing with all the technology-minded ones out there,” said Evan LaHuta, head of client experience at Pershing Advisor Solutions.

Online Options

Digital marketing starts on advisor websites. Interactivity gives clients and prospects a sense of the firm's value and personality.

Websites also help the firm operate as a paperless office. In July, for instance, advisor Ron Carson — whose Carson Group has more than $10 billion in assets under advisement — launched a new client onboarding system on Carsonwealth.com.

Designed and built by his firm and eMoney, the Client Experience Optimizer (or CEO) is like a game. At the end of a brief questionnaire, prospects get a reward — the suggestion of a risk-level-appropriate investment portfolio. Once prospects become clients, they do not need to retype this information.

“We consider this a holy grail for client experience and advisory productivity. I’m guessing that it could double or triple our number of leads because of the new engagement level that gamifies the experience,” Carson said.

The Omaha-based advisor is spreading the word on his new radio show, available as a podcast and on iHeartRadio and traditional radio. All of Carson's 54 partner offices will have CEO capability this summer. Since 2010, his firm has invested more than $40 million in technology to drive prospecting and productivity, as well as to differentiate it from the competition.

Other advisory firms are investing millions in digital marketing, too, but they need to be systematic about it, according to Scott MacKillop, CEO of First Ascent Asset Management, which relies on high-quality videos produced by its director of communications to give its website a user-friendly approach.

“Advisors have to figure out, before they put money into marketing technology, what goals they’re trying to accomplish and how they expect to see a return on their investment,” MacKillop said.

Employing technology for marketing is “a little bit art and a little bit science,” he explains. “Most advisors don't have a skill set yet for all the techniques. But advisory firms that know how to do online marketing really well will experience great growth.”

There's little doubt that state-of-the-art tech can boost practice productivity and performance. In fact, a 2015 study of over 400 advisors done by Pershing and the Aite Group (“The Emerging Digital Advisor”), revealed that “more than 90% of digitally enabled advisors increased their AUM, with more than a third of the practices growing by more than 10%.”

“Over the last 12 months, firms using technology have nearly doubled revenue growth, our research found,” Pershing's LaHuta said. “Those that don't use it are going to have a different ending to their story.”

Being Social Savvy

Social media is at the heart of most advisors’ digital-marketing efforts. By picking up information posted by investors on their social networks (Facebook, Twitter and the like), advisors can find out what's happening in prospects’ and clients’ lives.

In partnership with Hearsay Systems, Raymond James is even providing dozens of “Social Signals” to its independent and employee FAs to keep them up to date on important personal events that have financial implications for their clients — a new marriage, job change, relocation, birth of a grandchild, etc.

Advisors receive alerts about such happenings when they’re posted by members of their social network. “All these represent money in motion and an opportunity for advisors to educate people on [investments] they might consider that [could] come with the change,” White explained.

Advisors can also check investors’ social media postings. “This isn't stalking. People are communicating these things through social media. It's just being disciplined around listening for what's happening,” said the CMO. “Technology is just extending what advisors have always done to market their practices.”

Taking the Lead

Lead-capture tools can help advisors convert prospective clients into leads. Advisors working with the eMoney platform, for instance, have a new tool — a customized web page — for prospects to use to model their financial goals.

Advisors can post a link to the tool on their websites or social media sites. When prospects clicks on the link, they are directed to the lead-capture web page, where they can see how they’re doing in terms of achieving their retirement goals and can request an advisor to contact them.

Another new eMoney product available this fall is Advisor Branded Marketing, which includes customized videos and email campaigns. “All of this is with the intent of capturing data and the financial planning client,” Liberi said. 

Retargeting is another digital-marketing approach that can bring a satisfying ROI. How it works: Once a person interacts with your website, your ad shows up on other sites they visit to remind them of what you have to offer.

Previously expensive, retargeting has recently dropped in cost, according to Impact Communications’ Swift. “The [retargeted] person is seen as a higher-level prospect because they’ve interacted with your content and shown they were interested in it,” she said. Quizzes and questionnaires are also becoming advisor website staples, since they give prospects a modern online experience rather than a site full of research and brochures.

Interactive pop-up boxes urge prospects to take action — such as requesting content — before leaving a site. This captures their name and email address, which advisors can add to a master list. Marketing-automation software sends out requested information promptly. Over time, the FA can check to determine when to follow up based on how the prospect is using that content.

More Automation, Video

Marketing-automation software also can push out messages to lots of people. It is often used for scheduling communications with prospects at specific intervals, such as daily or weekly, and at a set time of day.

Marketing to existing clients is a strong way to employ digital technology, too, and automation lets advisors do “micro-targeted marketing,” Pershing's LaHuta says. Account aggregation, for instance, can be doubly useful with its holistic view of a client's account, including assets held at other firms or cash flowing into bank accounts.

“The advisor might say, ‘I see that you just sold your house. What do you have in mind for investing that money?’” explained LaHuta. “The technology of account aggregation is a fantastic marketing tool to find opportunities to increase wallet share.”

Video is another important marketing tool, of course, and smart advisors increasingly are featuring it on their websites. But the productions should never be dull, says MacKillop of First Ascent. “Typical ones are of people standing woodenly in front of a camera. You need to give someone more of a feeling rather than [sharing] facts and figures,” he said.

First Ascent's website boasts polished videos that tell stories about the firm. It built the site so advisors can direct their clients to this online resource instead of having to take the time to explain the asset manager's role and attributes.

The use of new technology should not replace traditional marketing methods, such as seminars, experts say. But as digital technology is applied more frequently to all aspects of an advisor's practice, it is reasonable to expect that the practice will evolve widely into one with a hybrid business model, or what is currently referred to as a bionic advisor.

“We see the hybrid models probably being the winning model, especially if the advisor is targeting high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth individuals. We’ve already seen success where traditional advisors are collaborating with automated advice and providing it to their clients,” Aite's Fonseca said.

The key is to find the right balance of digital advice and human advice, Swift said. “The future is already happening around us. But advisors shouldn't be scared by the way technology is enhancing the client experience.”

To be sure, some industry leaders have no fear. Next year, for example, Carson will offer what he calls “a half robot/half human” advisor, as well as a “100% digital experience.”

“There has never been a better time to triple down on our profession because the $41 trillion in assets that are moving to the next generation aren't tied to anyone. [Heirs] are open to the brand new, and it's all about trust, transparency and accountability,” he explained.

“The next generation is going to judge who they do business with purely on value. The relationship is important but not nearly as important as it used to be. That's now table stakes,” Carson said.

By year-end, Raymond James plans to launch its Connected Advisor digital advice platform for clients with lower asset levels and less complex investment needs. “We’re taking parts of the client-advisor relationship that are more commoditized [to use in Connected Advisor] but making sure the advisor is still front and center for more sophisticated advice like financial planning,” White explained.

Announcing the platform in January, Raymond James described it as focused on “robo-advisor-like technologies.” While White says he's “not a big fan of the term ‘bionic advisor’ because it feels like the technology is becoming a more important part of the relationship,” the chief marketing officer acknowledges that “there's something [to the concept]. But we’re using technology to enable the advisor, not disintermediate them.”

As helpful and ultimately cost-effective as digital technology may be, many advisors remain hesitant to use it for marketing and other purposes.

“That resistance is foolish because advisors need to keep up with the times. Eventually, they’re going to exit the business or sell it, and embracing digital solutions will help them build value and equity in the firm,” Swift said.

But advisors should always keep this in mind: “It's important to recognize the need for the human touch,” MacKillop said. “Clients’ fundamental desire is to have an emotional connection with the people they’re working with.”

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