Lead generation. No two words strike more of a sickly feeling in the hearts of most senior advisors. That’s because a great many of you don’t know how to tackle the problem.

Certainly, you’d like to drive new leads to your business and believe that direct mail is at least part of the answer. But the thought that keeps you up at night is this: Are you doing enough, and are you doing direct mail correctly? Sounds like you better grab this tiger by the tail …

Tough love

While there are advisors and firms doing a fine job when it comes to direct mail and the larger pursuit of lead generation, they aren’t in the majority. That’s the opinion of Jorge Villar, president and partner of Response Mail Express in Tampa, Fla. Villar’s business, which specializes in lead generation programs, spreads its efforts across 15 different industries. Having worked for the past dozen years in the financial world, what Villar has witnessed leaves him shaking his head.

“Lead generation in the financial services industry is terrible,” Villar says. “It’s the most emotional sale that one person can make – you’re asking seniors to part with their money. But even professional copywriters I know haven’t attempted to write for [this market] because most people simply aren’t going to choose an advisor based on a piece of mail.”

No matter how snappy an idea you might bring to a direct mail piece, it’s very difficult for people to make a decision on an advisor based on words on the page. Villar notes a recent Ameriprise mailing that garnered a response rate of one-quarter of a percent on a million-piece mailing. “It’s just plain difficult to use ink on paper and the vehicle of the mailbox to get people to respond to any type of financial investment.”

Villar says that advisors can be off the mark with their message, their medium and – quite importantly – their frequency of communication. “I’ve never ever seen a company or an advisor do a multiple mailing campaign in my 12 years in this space. That mentality doesn’t exist in the industry.” Advisors do single mailings while pharmaceutical companies, by contrast, frequently put in an order with Villar’s firm for 22 mailings. They commit to a program over a long time span and, ultimately, earn a strong return as a result. “I really don’t think [many people in the financial industry] understand direct mail,” Villar notes. “And even when an advisor does, they don’t stick with it long enough to bear out results.”

Marty Baird, founder of Advisor Marketing in Annapolis, Md., says advisors tend to be short-sighted in their marketing plans. “Unfortunately, most want to use a stopwatch to measure evolution,” Baird says. In that sense, he reasons, a financial advisor is as guilty as his clients, who expect returns on an investment right away. “We tell investors to have a five- and 10-year horizon with investing,” Baird says, “yet most advisors have a 90-day or six-month view of their marketing efforts and whether they’re paying off.”

Think personal

The good news about all of the bad news, of course, is that if you can execute direct mail and other forms of marketing properly, you will stand out from the crowd. When it comes to crafting direct mail – be it to drive folks to a seminar or place your services at the front of their minds – Maribeth Kuzmeski, president of Red Zone Marketing in Libertyville, Ill., says your efforts have to meet three criteria.

First, it has to be compelling. And by compelling, Kuzmeski explains that you’ve got to have an idea and presentation that really stands out from the clutter. “To achieve that,” she says, “you’ve got to test it in small numbers and, when you find something that works, send it out more broadly.”

Second, your communication has to be personal. “It has to touch them personally and say something that gets them where the pain is. That can be included in the message but it can also be a hand-written note, or sometimes it’s a picture. It’s a personal communication.” Something that engages that reader into wanting to continue a conversation with you as an advisor.

Last but not least, the mailing has got to be response-driven. “There’s got to be a very specific purpose to it,” she notes. “Something that makes that prospect pick up the phone right now.”

Those ideas, however, should not be taken to mean that direct mail is the only route to success as an advisor or that no one is doing it right. On the contrary, a blending of messages is often the best way to drive business to your office.

“I think a good mix is not just direct mail and not just referral generation and not just seminars … it’s all those things in proper proportion,” Kuzmeski says. Granted, many of the best leads in terms of the really good clients still come from referrals – but not always. “And that’s why you’ve got to constantly be reaching out [to new audiences].”

In his years in the business, Villar says a combination of seminars, direct mail letters, a couple of newsletter articles and involvement in community-oriented events will help keep an advisor in people’s minds in a way that leads to business.

Marty Baird has found the same in his 14 years of work – a good marketing system needs to offer a mix of tactics. “I shudder when advisors ask me, ‘What’s the one thing I need to do?’” he says. “I answer them by saying, ‘Well, what’s the one financial tool I need?’ “Marketing’s job is getting people interested or positively predisposed to what you have to offer. A mix is important because it takes more than one thing to do that.”

In coming up with a combination that will speak to your prospective clients, Baird encourages advisors to imagine a mental image of that person, find out where that person gets his information, then put yourself there. “You want to develop a highly targeted picture of your client,” he emphasizes, “then move yourself into contact with them by supporting the right charities, joining the right clubs – in short, doing things in and being a part of their community.”

Pearls (and PURLs) of innovation

In addition to the message and the mix, your efforts might get a shot in the arm by resorting to some of the latest technologies available in the direct marketing arena. Villar has been experimenting with PURLs, or personalized URLs (Web addresses). An advisor e-mails out an invitation that also lists a personalized URL (i.e., www.yourwebsite.com/clients.name). Then, when the prospect visits his page, an advisor can design any amount of interactive features to educate, interest or simply hook his potential client.

It’s a technology that’s utilized in other industries right now, Villar notes, and he’s gotten 7 percent to 8 percent results from his own trials with the technology. “It’s great for lead generation,” Villar says. “I can tell exactly how someone is going to navigate their site – I’ll mail an invitation to them with a PURL – and that business can capture 600 to 700 people in their database overnight.”

If you’d rather pursue a new technology with an old-fashioned, personal appeal, the work of HOARD Clients System, Inc. might be up your alley. According to Kuzmeski, the company (www.hoardclients.com) allows you to digitize your handwriting, allowing you to send out a card that’s created in an electronic facsimile of your actual handwriting. When one of Kuzmeski’s clients used HOARD, his efforts led to a couple of calls which turned into appointments, and those appointments turned into sales.

Still another resource is a Web site called GetFoundLocal.com. According to Baird, the site allows people to find resources locally. “Google is great but it gives us the world,” Baird notes. “Having your business featured on sites like GetFoundLocal can be a great resource for advisors who want to expand locally.”

What’s the frequency?

No matter which technology you choose to employ, picking your target and staying with it month over month is more likely to produce results. Villar notes that if he became a senior advisor tomorrow, he would apply a technique from national marketing guru Tom Feltenstein: Besides seminars, he’d find out how many people within a 12-mile range of his office met his customer profile, rather than sending them something every single month.

“If you did that,” Villar reasons, “you’d not only see that 90 percent of your business would come from inside that radius, but also that you’d develop critical mass within six months.” Plus, he reasons, you can keep your costs low. If you pick a price point of 55 or 60 cents per piece, it costs $3,500 per mailing and you do it for ten months – that’s $35,000 per year in that neighborhood. “Within six months, you’ll start getting a phenomenal response,” Villar says. “Then, with only three or four sales per year, you’ll get that cost back.”

Whether or not you can manage all that in-house, of course, is another matter. When it comes to internal mailings versus outsourcing, Baird likens it to seeking professionals for other services in your life. “You don’t want to do your own brain surgery,” he notes.

Another reality Baird points out is that for many advisors – though they are experts in the realm of financial products – it can be hard to move the message from the product to what the product will do for a client. If you can’t boil down product features to the point where it makes a connection in the life of a client, you might be best to bring in someone who can.