There's no denying that social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter have dramatically reshaped the way people communicate in the digital age, but in some business circles, their utility remains a subject of debate.
That's certainly the case in the investment world, where many advisors have been reluctant engage with clients and prospects on the Web's social hubs, owing to a mixture of compliance concerns and skepticism about the viability of the marketing channel.
But social media evangelists argue that the popularity of the new medium reflects a profound shift in the way investors scout for financial advice, making online social channels too important for advisors to ignore.
"It's important to financial advisors specifically because consumers have truly redefined what they're looking for in financial advice and the way that they go about selecting and developing their expectations for the relationship with a financial advisor. Social media has truly emerged as a very powerful, very easy way to research, frame and validate a range of choices for some of the most important decisions that we make in our life," Marissa Fox-Foley, senior vice president of advisor marketing with LPL Financial, explained in an online seminar on Wednesday.
"The decision to choose the right financial advisor is one of the most important that you can make as an investor," Fox-Foley said.
Fox-Foley oversees social media marketing at LPL, where she counsels advisors to focus their attention primarily on three major hubs: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, the leading professionally oriented social network.
Engaging on those sites, which at a basic membership level are free to all, will do little to dent the bottom line. But they do demand time. If anything along the lines of best practices for social networking in the business world has emerged, it might be said that the medium demands engagement and authenticity.
"The worst thing you can do as a social media marketer or somebody that's participating in an online conversation is to just put up a profile and then disappear," Fox-Foley said. "There's absolutely an expectation from both clients and prospects that you are going to keep an active dialogue and give them a reason to keep coming back."
That could include the publication and promotion of content such as white papers, videos or blog posts. Following a client's postings on a site like Facebook might also enrich both advisors' personal and professional relationships. If a client alerts his LinkedIn network about a major promotion, for instance, or a Facebook posting announces a death in the family, the advisor would be well served by the knowledge of those life events ahead of their next meeting.
At the same time, social media is an inherently fluid channel of communication, one that relies heavily on squishy marketing principles like word of mouth and content going viral. That can make it difficult to quantify, as concrete examples that trace the winning of an account directly to a Facebook profile or Twitter account are relatively rare.
"In terms of hard dollar ROI, from where we stand it's going to be different from advisor to advisor," Fox-Foley said. "It's very difficult ... to quantify."
But the fact remains that social networking sites account for an increasing proportion of people's media consumption, making a business's absence all the more conspicuous. Then, too, experts counsel that advisors layer in social media engagement as only one part of an integrated marketing mix, rather than phasing out traditional channels.
For many advisors, the fear of running afoul of compliance obligations has kept them away from social sites, as there has been considerable uncertainty about the regulatory boundaries. Those concerns impelled FINRA in August to publish regulatory notice 11-39, providing further clarification on the policies regarding the use of social media that it had issued the previous January.
The compliance concerns are real, but hardly insurmountable, according to Craig Brauff, CEO of Erado Message Control Solutions, a firm specializing in technology for archiving electronic communications.
"No matter what you're doing, you need to define social media policies," he said.
Brauff described a friction that many advisor practices have encountered that can put the compliance department at odds with marketing when developing a social media strategy.
"Both have their own set of priorities," he said. But under the letter of 11-39, FINRA demands diligent record keeping and supervision and lays out specific guidelines for practices such as linking to third-party sites and importing data feeds into a firm's own website. "Once you decide to move into social media, you need to get compliance involved."