Abit to my surprise, I wound up attending a lot of sessions this year on social media and mobile technologies at the Technology Tools for Today Conference, the FPA retreat and the national gathering of NAPFA. For those of us of a certain age, these are challenging topics, not unlike the transition from handcrafted financial plans to Excel spreadsheets on those newfangled (and, at the time, very expensive) personal computers, or the more recent musts of creating your company's web page and uploading client reports on password-protected platforms.
This latest transition will be just as significant, even though the full picture is still emerging. Think of the Internet in 1995, when it was slow and there weren't a lot of web pages yet - and you had to connect through clunky interfaces like CompuServe, AOL or AltaVista.
That year, I moderated a panel on how advisors could use this new world wide web thing. In a moment of some frustration, I asked one of the panelists before we went onstage if he could think of any legitimate business use for the damned thing. He frowned thoughtfully before answering: "Where else would I find nude pictures of Drew Barrymore?"
HIGH-TECH PERILS, PLEASURES
But lately, I purchased an iPad and have learned some important lessons. For instance, I now know it is impossible to look cool walking down a busy conference hallway when you accidentally jostle your conference tote bag and hit the wrong button on the Bluetooth keyboard, causing your iPad to broadcast (at startling volume) "The Christmas Song" by Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Don't believe me? Well, it's happened twice. I have since put the "William Tell Overture" into the first music slot in case it happens again. As it turns out, that lesson is actually a serious one: Be prepared to occasionally look foolish as we all figure out what these technologies are supposed to do.
The basic outlines of the social media/mobile devices revolution can be defined with some precision. All media before the Internet have one factor in common - a one-way vector of communication.
The printing press disseminates perspectives, insights and opinions to an essentially passive audience. The same is true of radio and TV.
But the Internet is different. When you blog or your publication is online and your email address is included, your audience has an easier opportunity to give you helpful, and sometimes critical, feedback. Initially, the Web looked a lot like online print with links, and the traditional web page increasingly looks like a brochure or postcard to the world.
THE FACEBOOK FUTURE
Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter - and a variety of other social media outlets - finally give us a first look at true connectivity built into the fabric of the web. It's true interaction between senders and receivers of information who might have their own views about what the content means.
Much of that interactivity now serves a larger social purpose, but we are starting to see large corporations build Facebook pages. It is not hard to imagine the day when a corporate website will be replaced by a corporate Facebook presence, and a company will engage its customers in a way that's never been done before.
Meanwhile, I thinkthe mobile devices have completed (for now) the microchip revolution. We are no longer confined to a single desktop location if we want to stay connected with each other around the clock. We can carry in our pockets all the benefits that microchips have to offer: access to a wealth of information and breaking news, guidance on how to get to your destination, plus constantly updating client account information and financial planning tools.
I think financial planners will be at the forefront of this next stage of the microchip revolution. Because your core service is essentially interactive, you will be quicker to see the business advantages of connecting and interacting with your clients via social media.
FIRST TO KNOW
Marie Swift of Impact Communications has even started to map out some of the divisions of labor. She envisions Facebook as a way to stay on top of changes in clients' lives, so you're not the last to know about a new baby and the need to update estate planning and other documents.
LinkedIn can be a more efficient platform for responding preemptively to client concerns about events like the tsunami in Japan and the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Twitter helps you put your thoughts out into the world and gather up like-minded potential clients.
You have the right to ask whether I am practicing what I preach, and I'll save you the trouble of shooting a question to the email address at the bottom of this column. I've begun tweeting, although it will be a bit of an exploration before I feel certain that I know what people want to hear from me through that format. (Express a thought in just 140 characters? I have trouble clearing my throat in less than two paragraphs.)
I have found an excellent online reference source at lynda.com that is teaching me how to master LinkedIn. By the time you read my column, I should be actually paying attention to my account, and will have responded to the alarming number of people who have been saying for the past year or so (several a day) that they want to link to me.
As for Facebook, I have a page that is visited frequently by my grandchildren, whose posts I suspect would be of little interest to the professional community. The solution I think is to separate personal from business by having a Facebook page that is mostly visited by family and friends, and another oriented toward business issues. But business associates are attracted to Facebook precisely because it gives them a privileged glimpse at a personal side.
That means I will probably still include photos of my trips abroad and news about my patch of seedling Momotaro tomatoes, the most delicious in the world. (Trust me.) Our business relationships are about to become a touch more personal, and I see no alternative but to go with the flow.
SOCIAL MEDIA 2.0
As a futurist, you should always discuss the destination, the endgame, the place where all this is headed so that your audience can stay ahead of a trend. I suspect that what we call social media today will be more precisely described in the future as an electronic neural network.
It is already providing ways for us to bounce ideas off of each other and, more important, to ask others to help us think through the issues that perplex us. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan talked about radio as a "hot" medium that transmitted emotions as well as content, and got the mind thinking and imagining in ways a visual medium like television couldn't. He blamed two world wars on the way radio amplified the tribal drums of nationalism.
It seems to me that what we now call social media is leading toward more intimacy and reflection. We will know more personal details about each other that may make it a bit harder to judge and to hate.
The ability to link our minds to resolve problems or issues could make us a bit more cerebral and effective at responding to the increased tempo of change. That, at least, is the deep, sophisticated insight triggered when a stirring chorus of Alvin and the Chipmunks burst unexpectedly from my conference tote bag.
Bob Vereswrites and publishes the Inside Information service at bobveres.com. For a free sample, send an email to email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter (@BobVeres) if you don't have anything better to do today.