Helping advisors market their firms over the last eight years, I’ve seen some bizarre stuff. There was one advisor who wanted his Web site navigation menu to feature a rollover button that turned the viewer’s mouse cursor into crosshairs. When you clicked on a link to go to another page, you’d hear a gunshot.
Then there are advisors who plaster pictures of dogs or babies all over their sites or brochures. Photographs of unsmiling, fat men at their desk in poor lighting are common on many advisor Web sites. My personal favorite–and so help me, I recently saw this with my own eyes when I parked my car to attend an FPA chapter conference–is the advisor who glued a sign with his URL on the rear window of his car, as if someone looking for a financial planner might drive up behind his six-year-old Saturn on a freeway and write down his Web address.
I avoid writing about my own experiences related to my business. I don’t want to offend my clients or use this column to plug my firm. But in surveys of advisors by the magazine, our readers say again and again that they want more marketing stories. So this month I’m going to tell you about some common mistakes advisors make in marketing.
Don’t Be a Copycat
Five or six years ago, a story that I wrote was published in the newsletter of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. Normally, that would be just fine. Trouble was, someone else claimed credit for writing it. Not only did he submit it to NAPFA as an example of something that he wrote, but he also published it in his client newsletter. NAPFA investigated and wanted to take disciplinary action against the member. I decided not to press the issue and he was let off with a slap on the wrist. But the incident alerted me to a nasty little problem that comes up with a small group of advisors. People on my staff tell me that advisors now and then ask them to copy someone else’s logo for use on their Web site, and other advisors have asked our staff to copy text word for word from another advisor’s site. The ethical issue this raises is obvious. But look at the practical implications: In the case of the advisor who plagiarized me, a lawsuit would have been a slam dunk for me. As a CFP and CPA, the guy could have been disciplined by his profession as well. Eric Bergner, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property issues at Moses & Singer in New York, says that a logo–even if it has not been trademarked–cannot be hijacked. You do have liability exposure if you do this.
Bergner says copyrighting text makes it easier to collect damages for plagiarism, but getting an injunction against someone who steals your words is not too difficult, even without a copyright. Going after someone who steals your logo is easier. “Using someone’s logo without their authorization for purposes of trade is almost undoubtedly going to constitute trademark infringement,” says Bergner. “You get trademark rights for using a trademark in commerce and you don’t need a registration.” Even if you change someone else’s logo to make it look a little different, it could still be infringement. “As a general rule, if the logo is substantially similar and the goods and services offered are substantially similar, then you’re dead,” says Bergner. Creating a logo or marketing copy that reflects what is unique about you will help you grow your business.
You should not expect your newsletter, Web site, brochure, or any other single marketing effort to directly generate business. These marketing materials reinforce your message, and that’s all you should expect from them. They are reminders of what you stand for. They are ways to touch clients. But nobody is going to tell you he hired you because of your Web site. Nobody is going to come into your office and say she decided to hire you before meeting you based on reading your newsletter. These marketing vehicles form part of your marketing campaign, and they help people trust you and should clearly communicate your values and reasons for being in business. But only you and your staff actually make people trust you with their money. Your brochure and Web site help you get new clients and keep selling your services to people after you have met with them. But try to have realistic expectations about what these marketing tools can do for you.
Avoid Being Cheesy
Most advisor Web sites and brochures feature photos shot by a staff member, spouse, or some other amateur photographer. Treating your public image casually like this is a mistake. If you do a search in Yahoo! for financial advisors, and go to the third or fourth page of the search results, you’ll start to see advisor Web sites with photos taken by amateurs. Some staff photos are close-ups, while others are not. Some are color, while others are black and white. Often the lighting is poor, the background of each photo is different from the next, or the people are dressed casually. Hire a photographer to come to your office or negotiate a deal to get photos of your entire staff with the local one-hour photo shop, which probably has a portrait studio. And tell your staff to dress properly.
Remember: You’re Selling
The financial advice business has come a long way from the days when all you needed was to know how to sell. Financial planning is now looked upon almost as if it were a science. Some people entering the profession in recent years even look upon themselves as financial doctors. The business is becoming a profession and now attracts people who want to help other people. These are all wonderful developments. However, a small number of practitioners have come to regard selling as evil. Mostly these are fee-only advisors who believe marketing is crass commercialism that subverts their holy mission. Hogwash! When you offer your advice–whether on retainer or for a fee based on assets under management, you’re selling something. Don’t be ashamed of that. It’s capitalism.
Do You Look Cheap?
Many advisors buy the least expensive Web site, newsletter, or brochure they can find because they don’t see direct results from it. That’s bad thinking. If the impression you make on people relative to your competitors is unfavorable, you could be losing business. For instance, I was recently shopping on the Web for cutters for my electric shaver. One site I went to didn’t have pictures of the products and the site was ugly graphically–just a bunch of text thrown on a page without any planning or regard to aesthetics. The other site I went to was slick. It had pictures of all the products and was better organized. Its prices were about the same. Guess which company got my order? The one that made the better impression. And that’s when I’m buying new shaver blades. People are going to be a lot more careful when they check you out on the Web looking for a financial advisor. Looks do matter. Sure, that sounds shallow, but making a good impression is critical. You can refuse to believe that people evaluate you that way. If so, you’re just fooling yourself.
Don’t Hire Cousin Vinny
In the Hollywood version of life, “My Cousin Vinny” showed Karate Kid Ralph Macchio being defended successfully by Joe Pesci on charges of murder. Vinny, played by Pesci, had never tried a case. He was not even a lawyer. But that’s the movies. In real life, advisors rely on a brother-in-law, spouse, or cousin to design marketing materials. But just because your cousin dabbles in graphic design does not mean he or she can do a credible job of creating your marketing materials. Even if your relative is a full-time marketing pro, she probably doesn’t know anything about the financial advice business. Even if she does, she probably won’t spend enough time on getting the job done right.
Me! Me! Me!
Probably the most common mistake advisors make is to fill their brochures and Web sites with self-centered copy. It’s as if you think that telling people about your technical skills will convince them to do business with you. Good marketing copy addresses the reader. It’s about the benefits your clients get from financial planning and investment advice. Instead of telling people about what you do, tell them about the benefits of working with you. It does little good to tell folks you give advice on IRA rollovers or annuities. Nobody comes into your office saying, “I need a fixed annuity.” They come in saying, “I need guaranteed income.” Or, “How can you help me manage my retirement assets to last the rest of my life?” So don’t tell people about yourself. Tell them how you can help them.
Talk to Your Mom
Saying that your portfolios beat the S&P 500 or that you specialize in comprehensive financial planning may mean a lot to you. But most people don’t know which stocks are in the S&P 500. Most people don’t know that comprehensive planning deals with taxes, retirement, insurance, education funding, and investing. Avoiding jargon in marketing copy or when you’re talking to people helps them understand what you’re talking about. If you speak in clear terms, it helps you to be perceived as an expert. Try to speak and write in language that would be understood by someone who doesn’t work in the industry. Ask yourself: “Would my mom understand what I’m talking about?”
Shun Web Templates
In the late 1990s, when the Internet was just beginning to gain favor as a marketing vehicle, advisors in droves bought template Web sites. The promise was big: Slap together some generic marketing text with a banner customized with your firm name, and people would find you on the Web and beat a path to your door. The result was huge disappointment. Advisors with template Web sites realized they bought an empty promise. The truth about the Web is that you need to put time and money into planning a site in order to make it an effective marketing tool. The site’s text needs to be custom-written so that the home page draws people in and guides visitors to the right places. The graphics need to be impressive and designed around your logo and brand image.
No Logo? No Clients
When you see the hood ornament on a Jaguar, you know it. When you see golden arches, you know you just passed a McDonald’s. You, too, can create a strong brand. Everyone has a brand–moms, dads, doctors, barbers. We all put our distinct imprint on what we do. Your logo is a graphical device that stands for your brand. It is your seal of integrity and acts as an implicit promise from you when people look at it. It captures the quality of service your firm gives and the intelligence of the advice you provide. This simple graphic device helps spread the word about what you stand for. Your logo should grace all your marketing materials–the banner on your Web site, the masthead on your newsletter, your stationery, brochure, and the pens you give to clients. They should all feature the same colors. Themed materials support your brand, and a logo is a central part of the effort.
Have a Marketing Budget
The great irony about financial planners and investment planners is that, when it comes to their own business, they don’t plan. Do you have a marketing budget? Do you have 12-month marketing goals? Have you written a formal plan outlining who your ideal clients are? Do you know who your most profitable clients are and how you plan to get more clients like them? To make money on your business, you will need to set aside money to achieve your marketing goals.
Guts Equals Glory
If you want to get press, you need to have some guts. Some years back, when I was senior writer at Worth, my friend’s brother called and asked to meet with me because he was leaving dentistry to become a financial advisor. We talked for an hour. As he was preparing to leave, he asked me how he could get reporters to write about him. My advice: Read the newspaper. Know which reporters cover areas you care about and read all their coverage. Then, call them up and tell them what you like about their coverage and give them ideas about how to make it better. It’s that simple. The dentist soon was being quoted in The Wall Street Journal on a regular basis. That was his local paper. Call a reporter. They don’t bite, and you have the ideas they need.
Have an Elevator Speech
Can you explain your business in less than 20 seconds? You must be able to tell a stranger exactly who you are, what you do, and what’s unique about you in one concise 20-second statement. Write it out and then practice it. While your elevator speech takes only 20 seconds, creating it could take years.
Do it With A Pro
Some advisors think they can write their marketing copy. Some think they can produce their own newsletter. Some believe they can script their own seminars. But writing is a skill professionals spend years mastering. When someone tells you that he is managing his own portfolio or creating his own financial plan, do you believe he’ll do it right? Creating your own marketing materials is the same. Write a first draft or spend an hour or two outlining ideas for your brochure. Then hand the draft to a pro. There is a good chance you wouldn’t find the time to finish the job anyway.
Editor-at-Large Andrew Gluck, a veteran personal finance reporter, is president of Advisor Products Inc. (www.advisorproducts.com), which creates client newsletters and Web sites for advisors. Advisor Products may compete or do business with companies mentioned in this column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.