WASHINGTON -- For all the hype surrounding social media sites as the next great marketing channel for advisors, a panel of industry leaders warned that the jury is still out on what role tools like Facebook and Twitter will ultimately play in financial-services firms.
Jim Weddle, a managing partner at Edward Jones, says his firm maintains a corporate Twitter handle but bars advisors from posting to it (they're welcome to follow). Similarly, the firm permits its advisors to maintain business profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn, but has strict controls over what they can post there.
Weddle, a long-time industry veteran, makes no effort to mask his skepticism about the business utility of social media, an uncertainty that he says is shared throughout the ranks of Edward Jones' advisors, particularly those of a certain age.
"It's new, it's different. I think advisors are afraid not to have a presence out there in the social media. They're not exactly sure whether it's going to do them any good or not, but they're not willing to take the risk of not being there," Weddle said during a presentation here at the Investment Company Institute's general membership meeting.
"At the same time, it is generational. I have a concern that newer financial advisors think that they can have a creative social media presence and that will build their business. It will not. I think it might be able to supplement to a certain extent, but we need to be careful. We're kind of inching our way out. We're allowing it. We're monitoring it. And we're trying to measure it -- which is very difficult -- to see what the impacts and the value might be," he added.
John Thiel, head of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, reported the same type of restrictions on advisors using social media to represent the firm, like the embargo on posting to the corporate Twitter feed.
Merrill, at least for the time being, is directing its advisors toward what is sometimes referred to as the social network for grown-ups.
"We're really going to base our social strategy at the moment from a client-acquisition standpoint for advisors on LinkedIn, and then, organizationally, we're very active in using all forms of social media to promote the message," Thiel said, acknowledging that "technology's an enabler."
The view is similar at Ameriprise, where Patrick O'Connell, executive vice president of the firm's advisor group, said that his advisors have begun "use LinkedIn aggressively."
Inevitably, the discussion of social media in the advisor sector invites talk of generational gaps, both among financial professionals and the clients they serve. Weddle pointed out that clients are increasingly coming to expect presentation notes and other materials to be delivered in a digital form, a condition to which advisors, even those of the old guard used to working with paper and loose-leaf binders, must adapt. "That's the past, not the future," he said, though he took care not to portray himself as a member of the technology vanguard.
"I'm still wowed by my iPhone," Weddle said. "That's the bottom line -- that's the basic entry point for anyone who's 20, 30, 40 years old."
Younger clients, particularly those who only began thinking seriously about their investments in the past decade or so, may pose more substantial challenges for advisors than their technology preferences.
Many of those investors, who have only known the boom-bust roller-coaster that has seen the rise and collapse of dot-coms and real estate, the credit crisis and the attendant volatility of securities markets, come to advisors with a diminished view of their investment prospects, according to Thiel.
"I think we have to be careful not to suggest that their risk tolerance is different, but their experience for sure is different, because over the last 10 or 11 or 12 years ... it hasn't worked out so well. So I think they come in with a general mistrust about what's possible," he said.
Then at the other end of the demographic spectrum, advisors are dealing with a crush of Baby Boomers who are preparing for retirement under different terms than previous generations faced. At Ameriprise, advisors are receiving specialized training about how to help Boomers plan for the transition to retirement.
"The issues that Baby Boomers are facing, they're different than other generations," O'Connell said.
But irrespective of the client's generation, Thiel argued that advisors need to do a better job of addressing investors on their own terms -- forgoing industry jargon about basis points and instead speaking to how clients' assets can be marshaled to meet their goals like buying a house, taking a trip or financing a child's tuition.
"We've got to start talking to our clients the way they think about their money," Thiel said.
"I really think that's going to be important going forward," he added. "Honestly, I think clients are tired of our pie charts."