An interesting array of advanced features have been showing up lately on advisor websites.

One clever development has video clips of advisors and clients interacting. In one case, the video runs in the background, with pictures of the firm’s advisors in the foreground. Click on a face and up pops that advisor’s bio.

Another state-of-the-art feature, the long scroll, is a huge improvement in site visitor convenience.

Basically, it means your website continues to run on, in sections, down below the first page on screen. Instead of forcing visitors to click through the menu bar to see more about your firm, prospects can scroll down and very quickly get a short description of your planning process, see photos of your advisors, scan the first paragraph of your blogs, see a map with your office location and so on. Each of these panels has links that lead to more information.

My tour guide for these innovations was Advisor Websites founder and CEO Bart Wisniowski, whose firm builds sophisticated sites for advisory firms.

WHAT'S EFFECTIVE

Wisniowski pointed to an interesting contrast between those websites that are and those that aren’t generating leads. The least effective environments offered just one opportunity to respond — usually a button that says “schedule an appointment.” To a prospect who’s interested in your firm but not yet ready to make a commitment, this is akin to proposing marriage on the first date.

What’s more effective? Websites that invite clients to enter into a “pre-engagement engagement.”

This basically means embedding tools on your site that give prospects a reason to linger. If you can get visitors to make a mind share investment in your site, it raises the odds that they’ll eventually get comfortable enough to schedule an appointment.

Examples? Advisor Websites is starting to integrate Jemstep Advisor Pro on the sites it creates for advisory firms. Prospects click a button that says “let’s check out your finances” and are invited to enter banking and financial account information through Jemstep’s account aggregation system. Up pops a graphic of their portfolio returns over the past 12 months, side by side with the returns of various model portfolios that the advisor has inserted into the Jemstep system. If clients are intrigued by the differences, they can schedule an appointment or go straight to Go and sign a client agreement through a DocuSign portal.

Embedding another app gives your website a way to engage prospects in a quick financial planning process. With Advizr Express, prospects click on a button that might say, “Are you saving enough for retirement?”

They enter their age, annual income, monthly expenses and savings, and a graph shows when they’ll run out of money under their current plan. This is overlaid with a graph that stretches their retirement savings out further, labeled the “recommended plan.” Want to learn more about this plan? Call the advisor and set up an appointment.

ADDITIONAL TOOLS

There have been some private initiatives, as well. Perhaps the biggest commitment to the pre-engagement engagement concept can be seen on the websites of 80 planning offices affiliated with RIA acquirer United Capital. Prospects are invited to participate in Money Minds, a self-discovery tool which asks a series of questions. (Example: What do other people say about your spending habits?) At the end, you discover that you fit into one of three categories: the Protector (dominated by a “fear focus”), the Pleasure Seeker (“happiness focus”) or the Giver (“commitment focus”).

A related tool, called “Honest Conversations,” helps prospects and clients prioritize what’s most important to them.

United Capital CEO Joe Duran has tracked the marketing benefits of these pre-engagement engagement tools. “When someone goes through the Money Minds exercise, they’re much more likely to schedule an appointment,” he says, adding that the follow-on meeting is also likely to be a lot more productive, “because we know, right upfront, what [the prospects] are thinking when they come into the room. 

Perhaps most important, these engagement tools provide a high level of differentiation for an advisor. They let prospects know that an advisor’s services are not just about money. “Money Minds tells people that while investments are important, we’re in the much more important business of really understanding them,” Duran explains.

Does that implicit differentiation provide a competitive advantage? “Without a doubt,” Duran insists.

By Duran’s estimate, United Capital has spent $2 million out of pocket and $3 million to $4 million in staff expenses developing these online tools, and he says they’re worth every penny.

In his view, the pre-engagement engagement arms race is just ramping up. “It is very hard for most advisors to communicate how they’re different,” Duran says. “In a world of social media, you are constantly trying to establish credibility, and the way you do that is by providing clients with free tools that give them insights that validate that you know what you’re doing.”

Wisniowski agrees, and he too is investing in the trend. A new version of Advisor Websites’ website platform is due out by year-end and will facilitate more engagement tools. The new platform will also make it easy for advisors to tell how many prospects clicked on a specific engagement tool in a particular time period, and the software will capture the prospect’s email address and any other information he or she provides.

“This is where the future is going,” he says. “We all know that Web users love instant gratification.” Taking a quiz, receiving a score, comparing their portfolio to one that might be better “gives them something and gets the relationship started.”

All these advances offer an opportunity for self-reflection: Are you comfortable with your level of differentiation in the marketplace? Are you, without realizing it, posing ultimatums to your prospects? Would you like to be able to hit the ground running with new prospects at your very first meeting?

The pre-engagement trend is about to take off, and it’s hard to see why you wouldn’t want to be an early participant.   

Bob Veres, a Financial Planning columnist in San Diego, is publisher of Inside Information, an information service for financial advisors. Follow him on Twitter at @BobVeres.

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