Morgan Stanley Smith Barney today made the inevitable official by allowing a test group of 600 wealth management advisors to use Twitter in a limited capacity to connect and interact with clients and prospective new clients.
A little more than a week after co-leading social networking site LinkedIn's spectacular initial public offering, the nation's largest retail brokerage got a jump on wealth management competitors UBS, Wells Fargo and Bank of America Merrill Lynch by publicly embracing the ubiquitous microblogging site.
The decision to add Twitter to its company-approved social media platform -- the firm is already letting some advisors participate on LinkedIn -- was announced in an internal memo from the Andy Saperstein, head of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney's U.S. wealth management group.
"The emergence of social media has changed the way in which people communicate with each other and companies interact with clients," Saperstein wrote in the memo.
The slow rollout calls for about 600 advisors, including 500 brokers in its vaunted "Chairman's Club" and another 100 advisors test-driving LinkedIn, to start tweeting next month. The plan eventually calls for all of the firm's nearly 18,000 advisors to be live on Twitter by year's end.
"I think it's big news in the industry and shows a lot of courage where courage is needed," said Stacey Haefele, CEO of HNW, a marketing firm that works with most of the nation's top financial services firms and brokerages. "Morgan Stanley Smith Barney certainly isn't the only firm making moves in this areas but the Twitter component is new and, frankly, was inevitable."
In order to meet social media compliance guidelines established by the SEC and FINRA, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney will install software and hardware to record and store all missives sent out on Twitter by its advisors and brokers.
Initially, advisors will be free to make status updates and distribute pre-approved research and content. All social media interactions must first be cleared by Morgan Stanley Smith Barney's internal gatekeepers before dissemination.
Now that Morgan Stanley Smith Barney has opened up the Twitter platform to its advisors and brokers, the challenge becomes deciding from an institutional perspective exactly what information should be shared and used on Twitter to attract new clients, communicate with existing clients and the myriad other potential uses that a major firm and brand could find for the instantaneous online medium.
"What constitutes effective use is different for different firms and different advisors and different brands," Haefele said. "You can't just give everyone a bullhorn."
While all of the so-called "Big Four" brokerage firms are now using LinkedIn to varying degrees, they and other firms throughout the financial services spectrum are still struggling to construct social media strategies and guidelines and, in some cases, implement the technology required to facilitate and record these communications to meet regulatory standards.
Socialware, one of the leading social media application developers for advisory firms, in a recent study found that 60% of advisors are already using one of the major social networking sites -- LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter -- to establish an online presence and, most of all, generate referrals.
The survey also found that social media use by financial advisors is expected to grow 70% by the end of this year.
"What makes these channels so interesting is that they are fundamentally personal and the financial advisory business nothing but personal," Haefele said. "It's an amplifier for referrals and it's constantly evolving."
"Saying that, we all know, that just because someone has 100,000 Twitter followers doesn't mean they have anything important to say," she added. "How do you not add to the mayhem and help filter the content that's relevant to your clients? That's the real challenge."