“The more presence you have on the Internet, the greater is your credibility or ‘social proof,’” says Russ Thornton, founder and president of Thornton Wealth Management, LLC, Atlanta, Ga. “I could not do what I do from a marketing standpoint–helping to identify and build relationships with new prospects and contacts–without the online tools I’m using.”

Thornton is not alone in this view. Several insurance and financial service professionals contacted by National Underwriter say a comprehensive Internet marketing strategy is increasingly key to developing new client relationships–and keeping those on the books loyal.

While varying in focus, such a strategy encompasses several components: a website where the advisor can promote his or her expertise; electronic media, such as e-newsletters and blogs, for conveying new information of interest to clients; social media networks where the advisor can connect with prospective clients or other professionals; and technology tools to leverage and monitor the effectiveness of marketing techniques.

How prominently do these Web-based marketing strategies figure in advisors’ practices? Several of those interviewed for this article say the Web is now their primary, if not exclusive, vehicle for marketing to prospects. And a key reason is low cost. Compared with, say, the expense of printing and mailing a printed newsletter, distributing a PDF or html-version of the same content via e-mail is far cheaper. And the distribution can be accomplished in a more timely fashion.

The Web also enables advisors to connect with people more easily, and on a larger scale, than is possible using conventional networking strategies. Consider, for example, Twitter: a service for communicating with friends, colleagues and acquaintances through the exchange of short text messages. Many people use it as a kind public diary, jotting down their thoughts and daily activities, but a growing number of advisors also are leveraging the tool to pique the interest of prospective clients by posting content bearing on their expertise.

Carl Richards, a director of research at BehaviorGap.com and a principal of Clearwater Wealth Management, Las Vegas, Nev., regularly uploads short teasers about, and hotlinks to, articles concerning personal financial planning, as well as short surveys and requests for feedback. After one such “tweet,” he received an invitation to speak about financial planning at a national conference for some 600 physicians.

Thornton, who also uses Twitter to flag noteworthy articles and solicit user feedback, says that more than 1,200 people now follow his posts. Recently, he received an invitation from one reader to join an informal gathering of Atlanta-based Twitter users–all prospective clients.

“Twitter is another element of social proof,” says Thornton. “It helps to build my Web presence, professional identity and credibility. And it serves as an intelligence-gathering vehicle.”

Adds Richards: “For me, Twitter has been the biggest surprise. As a marketing tool, it has been amazingly effective–shockingly so.”

It also is one among a growing arsenal of online marketing tools that Richards keeps at his fingertips. The core of his online efforts is a website where Richards maintains a blog and e-newsletter to help people close their “behavior gap,” investor practices that yield a real life return for the average investor that is dramatically lower than that of the average mutual fund.

Typically, Richards generates material for the blog and newsletter from articles in the financial press. His blog posts are then automatically routed to 2 popular Web portals: LinkedIn and Facebook. These are social networking sites–places where people go to keep up with acquaintances, upload photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the individuals they meet online. But whereas Facebook is used largely to connect with family and friends, LinkedIn is oriented to professionals.

Because of this difference, sources say, advisors need to be attuned to content that is appropriate for each of the two sites. Chuck Rylant, a principal at C.J. Rylant Wealth Management, Santa Maria, Calif., says that on LinkedIn, he’s strictly business, using the site to meet prospects or other professionals who may be good referral sources. On Facebook, Rylant’s communications are mostly (though not exclusively) of a personal nature. Because the site is less formal, it’s often a more effective vehicle with which to build a rapport with prospective clients and secure referrals–intentionally or otherwise.

“One of my friends on Facebook has a friend who is also my friend, and so we’re all able to see each other’s dialogues on the site,” says Rylant. “One said to the other, ‘I didn’t know you know Chuck.’ The other said, ‘He does my finances and is really great.’ I didn’t intend for this to happen. The fact is a lot of informal referrals are going on behind the scenes.”

The personal and professional networks that advisors develop on Facebook and LinkedIn are being leveraged on other social media platforms. Richards, for example, directs many of his contacts to view financial planning-related PowerPoint presentations–and audio included webinars–at SlideShare. The first of two presentations he posted at the site, dubbed “Average is not Normal,” generated 550 visits in 6 weeks; a follow-up presentation, he says, drew 350 visitors in just 4 days.

Content quality alone will not guarantee such impressive numbers. To generate significant Web traffic, experts stress, all components of an online marketing strategy need to be tightly integrated. And, especially as regards websites and blogs, advisors need to build links to them from other sites, such as those of other professionals who may wish to exchange leads and referrals. Such cross-linking can help raise the ranking of an advisor’s site on search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN, thereby boosting the prominence of the site in Internet searches.

“If my website has, say, two dozen links from other websites, it would generally be thought of as having more authority from Google’s perspective than a site with fewer links to it,” says Thornton. “So when searching for ‘fee-only wealth manager,’ my site will show up higher on the list. Right now, I have links to about a dozen other sites.”

In addition to exchanging URLs with individual advisors, he adds, advisors should explore setting up hotlinks to (or else joining) networking sites that serve groups of professionals with whom they share expertise or market orientation. Thornton himself belongs to The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA), Passive Investment Professionals (a LinkedIn group), The Financial Advisors Network, Fiduciary 360, and Fee-only Financial Advisors.

Thornton’s own website, which prominently features a home page blog that he updates at least weekly, is chiefly geared to prospects who fit his target profile: individuals with $500,000-plus in investable assets. That orientation serves Thornton well, he says, as his Web marketing strategy is focused on new client acquisition.

But, observers caution, website content that helps to convert prospects to clients–online financial calculators, press releases, lengthy bios about the principals and testimonials praising all the great work they do–won’t necessarily be enough for those already converted. To interest existing clients, site content has to be service-oriented, says Joe Bruckenstein, a Miramar, Fla.-based certified financial planner.

“If you’re gearing the site to existing clients, because you want them to refer business to you, then you need to provide 24-7 service, whatever that means,” he says. “If you’re managing assets, for example, then the Web portal should offer secure access to the client’s portfolio. Or you might give your interpretation of the financial news through an online newsletter, podcast or conference call with select clients.”

“There’s no such thing as too much contact with a client,” he adds. “A minimum of 10 to 15 contacts per year–invitations to webinars or conference calls, newsletter broadcasts, e-mails and maybe 2 or 3 phone calls–is probably ideal.”

As regards the Web portal, a service focus also entails keeping tabs on what clients are viewing and, when necessary, making improvements to increase readership and page-views. A number of online applications–many of them free–can aid in the effort.

Beth Rusnock, a 2nd vice president of marketing, at National Life Group, Montpelier, Vt., cites Google Analytics as an “exceptionally helpful tool” for tracking website visitors. For newsletter monitoring, there is IMN, software that bundles content management, publishing/layout and digital marketing delivery capabilities. Advisors can also poll clients using such tools as Zoomerang, an online survey application.

And what might a survey point up?

“Interestingly, less is more,” says Rusnock. “A few years ago, websites had a lot of bells and whistles, like streaming video. The result was that site traffic declined because portals were difficult or time-consuming to navigate. The easier the site is to use, and the more robust is its content, the more valuable the site will be to clients. So simpler is better.”