The financial services industry has changed in the past few decades. The way advisors are taught to sell has changed drastically. The products carriers offer have changed to meet the shifting demands of consumers. Prospecting strategies have improved with the available technology. And the way advisors market themselves has changed most of all.

When many advisors got their start in the industry, the World Wide Web was still a tool used almost exclusively by government agencies. Heck, when many advisors got their start in the industry, personal computers were elements of science fiction. Time was when a yellow pages ad sufficed to draw new business. Today, if an advisor doesn’t have a Web site he’s behind his competition.

“People are using the Internet to become better consumers,” says Steve Uhring, vice president of business development for Torrance, Calif.-based LiveOffice, a provider of Web sites and Web site support for financial advisors through its AdvisorSquare division. “You are conspicuous by your absence [on the Internet].”

Having a Web site, however, is easier said than done. How does an advisor get one designed? What are the elements needed? Do sites designed for seniors require anything special? (For the answers to those questions and more, visit the Web sites listed in the information box at the bottom of this story.) Beyond the design elements needed, what are some of the do’s and don’ts of financial services Web sites? Whether an advisor designs the site himself or uses a Web site-building company that offers thousands of templates and all the support one can ask for, knowing those do’s and don’ts is essential. One thing is sure: Web sites are a good way to reach out and say hello.

A good introduction

The Internet has provided professionals of all stripes a way to introduce themselves to everyone with Internet access. That’s something advisors can take advantage of. People can read an advisor’s biography, see a picture and find out the advisor’s investing or planning philosophy, all with a couple clicks of the mouse. But, it’s important to remember – especially when dealing with retirement financial products – that face-to-face meetings are going to be the real deal closers.

“When dealing with seniors, you need to have a Web site,” Uhring says. “A Web site is a good introduction, but it is no substitute for personal contact. Seniors primarily want to do business in person.”

To entice that face-to-face interaction, an advisor needs to make his Web site personable. His picture should be on the site, most likely with his biography, and he should include photos of his family. Many seniors are grandparents; they like seeing pictures of children and grandchildren. Beyond that, photos of clients at advisor-sponsored events are a big draw.

“Advisors should put pictures of customers in their target market on their Web site,” says Sylvia Todor, marketing director for Financial Visions, a financial services Web site provider based in Lafayette, Calif.

Uhring agrees with Todor’s assessment. LiveOffice has data that show such photos actually drive more site traffic. Survey results show that advisors who post and promote photos of them with clients, either at private or community events, attract twice as much site traffic as those advisors who don’t.

Senior advisors know how important it is to develop relationships with clients. One of the mantras of this business says this is a relationship-driven industry, not transaction-driven. A safe, risk-free introduction is a positive step toward building a relationship. But don’t let that positive introduction go to waste because of poor follow through.

Active participation

Don’t ignore your site. It’s like a virtual employee that needs attention. If the site has a “contact us” button that utilizes e-mail, make sure someone is monitoring that inbox. People who don’t receive prompt responses don’t return to the site, wasting the initial relationship-building step the site is designed to promote.

“Don’t include a “Contact Me” link and then fail to check your e-mail,” says Richard Sherman, better known as Mr. Modem to the thousands of seniors who subscribe to his weekly “Ask Mr. Modem” newsletter. “A response is always appropriate, and not some boilerplate, auto-generated response. Make it personal. And don’t try to compel a Web site visitor to pick up the phone and call for information because it’s more convenient for you. They’re using the Internet for a reason.”

It should be obvious that advisors can’t ignore the people who visit their site, but they shouldn’t ignore the content on the site, either. Fresh content is what keeps people coming back. Keep the content relevant and useful, Todor says, adding that the site is not supposed to be static. She calls it a living, breathing animal, a sentiment Mr. Modem shares.

“Web sites are living, breathing entities,” Mr. Modem says. “Content on a site should be updated frequently. Content management is vitally important.”

A big Web site “don’t,” Mr. Modem adds, is including a “Last updated” date if the advisor doesn’t plan to update frequently. That could show a lack of commitment to the site. When content is updated, it needs to be relevant.

“Advisors need to speak to their target audience,” Todor says. “Make sure the content is focused and specific as possible.”

Uhring says the content advisors provide should “make clear they know retirement has changed” and that they can provide plans that address those changes. What they don’t want to do, however, is use industry jargon to exhibit their vast knowledge.

Simpler is better

Remember this old joke: What’s the white stuff in bird poop? That’s bird poop, too. The joke illustrates a concept advisors need to remember when coming up with content for their Web site: don’t over think things and keep it simple. Steer clear of thinking experts need to show their expertise with big words and lots of industry-speak. Seniors want to know you can help them make their money last, not that you know how to find alpha. “Don’t be too complex,” Uhring says. “The simpler, the better. Seniors have a pretty good idea of what they want. They’re on the Internet trying to find the person who can help them do that.”

People don’t spend too long deciding whether they’re going to stay on any given site, so advisors have a short time to convince seniors to explore their site further.

“Keeping it simple, friendly and comprehensible is vitally important,” Mr. Modem says. Even keeping it simple can leave site visitors with questions, which leads to a big “do:” have a “Frequently asked questions” page. A page with a group of popular questions and the responses to them saves time – the advisor’s and the visitor’s. If an advisor is asked the same question by numerous prospects and clients, he should include that question on the FAQ page. Financial Vision’s Todor recommends writing the questions using the words that customers use, then the advisor should write the answers in his own words, not in industry jargon. Keep responses as short as possible; look for ways to break up long responses into two or three questions and answers.

“FAQ resources on a Web site are invaluable,” Mr. Modem says. “Within that context, products can be included and even recommended, but the primary focus of a Web site should be to provide helpful information, solutions, services.”

Many advisors may be tempted to incorporate all of the latest technology into their Web sites, impress visitors that way. But remember, the more advanced something is, the longer it may take to download, which can discourage many of the 95 percent of seniors who say they access the Internet from home. According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, in 2004, there were about 8 million wired seniors – 7.6 million of whom logged on from home. Of those, 72 percent used a dial-up connection, so download times are slow.

“The bells and whistles need to be less on a site that is aimed at seniors,” Uhring says. “Audio, video, podcasts, etc., are not going to work.”

The good news for advisors is that 47 percent more seniors used the Internet in 2004 vs. 2000, so the crowd is growing larger. That number will continue to increase as baby boomers enter their senior years. The boomers comprise a more computer literate generation, having used computers on their jobs and in their homes for much longer than their senior parents.

Like it or not, a Web site is a fundamental part of owning and operating a financial services practice in the 21st century. It isn’t easy to build and operate a site, but it doesn’t have to be daunting. There are people and companies out there that specialize in building quality sites; advisors aren’t alone.

“Advisors don’t have to be intimidated by the technology,” Todor says. “There are lots of resources for help.”

For more information on Web sites, go to our Web site and read “Surfin’ seniors.”

For additional information, please visit www.producersweb.com , www.mrmodem.com , www.liveoffice.com and www.fvisions.com . For information on the design elements of a senior-friendly Web site, please visit www.medicareed.org , www.maturemarketinstitute.com and www.nlm.nih.gov .