LinkedIn can be a great source of referrals.

Advisors are taking a diverse approach to social media, which experts say is the way to go when it comes to online branding.

“Social media is done best when it’s an extension of an advisor’s existing sales and communications efforts,” said Michael White, chief marketing officer of Raymond James Financial (RJF), who led a panel of advisors Thursday during a social media seminar put on by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association in San Francisco. “Apply social media tools to extend your success and then go offline with the communications.”

Employing a flexible and thorough social media strategy can “be a challenge for many firms” in the heavily regulated financial services industry, White explained, echoing the views of others at the conference.

But the efforts pay off.

“At Raymond James, we have supported social media for quite a while and have seen fast adoption,” he explained. “It’s gone up 50% in the past 18 months or so with 3,000 advisors on our Hearsay Social platform.”

Rather than having advisors follow cookie-cutter approaches, firm should let the reps “be authentic,” White says.

“There’s no silver bullet,” he added, repeating the view of LinkedIn senior account executive Devon Slattery, who also spoke at the SIFMA event.

Kimberly Hunter, an advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors (WFC) in Santa Rosa, California, isn’t looking for referrals. But she uses social media to interact with clients, as well as partners like CPAs and attorneys.

“Social media to me is now social capital,” said Hunter. “Look at millennials. People do not want to be sold anything. They want to buy. And when they need information [about what they may buy], they go online to get it.”  

Varied Branding

For Vivek Thoppay, a Merrill Lynch advisor in San Jose, California, restricting those he connects with online works best to his targeted business-growth approach.

“I got to be an early adopter of LinkedIn for Merrill Lynch, and it’s a fabulous source of information on client and prospects,” said Thoppay, who used to work as a Silicon Valley engineer. “I connect to them … and it’s a great way to get referrals.”

But, he adds, “I only connect with clients and prospects on LinkedIn, and nobody else.”

For advisors looking to grow their practice in other ways, though, it may make sense to embrace more social media.

“We focus on millennials and women,” said Misty Farukh, an advisor with the employee channel of Raymond James in San Francisco, “so social media is very important to us.”

Farukh juggles different social media sites and stays active online via Hearsay Social, a platform that helps advisors post information and interact with contacts.

“I like social media, because it flips traditional marketing on its head. It’s a unique way to do two-way conversations with clients,” the former-wirehouse rep explained.

“I can see what clients want to hear from me and what they are engaged with. It points to the valuable content I can share,” said Farukh, who has a practice with her father. “Clients will engage in social media with or without their advisor, so advisors can help shape the conversations by jumping in.”

Karen Goodwin of Ameriprise Financial (AMP) in Walnut Creek, California, says using a host of social-media tools is critical to how she runs and grows her business.

“My friends in the business are shocked at my [online] capabilities, shocked!” she said. “They are not able to do any of it, and this makes me feel great about what Ameriprise let us do online.”

Goodwin uses LinkIn (LNKD)and Facebook (FB) “to reach as many people as I can and drive them to our website by creating interest and conversations,” she explained.

Social media, for her, is a simple and systematic way to convert networks into prospects. “I couldn’t do this the way I wanted to for most of my 23-year career,” she said. “Now I can, and the amount of referrals and prospects coming to us through social media is outstanding. I’m the team coordinator.”

David Amann of Edward Jones in Redwood City, California, says he connects “with everyone” through LinkedIn. “Things rebound, so I go for it!”

By setting up Google alerts on topics that specific clients are interested in, Amann says, he has an easy reason and a simple way to regularly reach out to his “top relationships.”

“It’s proactive and shows I care about them and their investments, while reinforcing my brand,” said the advisor, who worked previously in the tech industry.

The significance of connections was highlighted by members of the advisor panel: Goodwin and Farukh had worked together at a wirehouse, while Goodwin’s mother worked with Thoppay.

“That’s two, not six, degrees of separation,” said Thoppay.